10 August 2015

Bowling for Pasta

The Art of Eating Well....

Once upon a time there was macaroni cheese..... My mum used to make a gooey meal from "macaroni" baked in the oven with the same kind of bechamel cheese sauce that actually went quite well with cauliflower.....

At that time Italy was a very foreign country, and olive oil was only available in Boots (and that is not just an urban myth.....)

I didn't like macaroni cheese.....

Spaghetti alle vongole veraci

When I eventually got to Italy, in the mid 1970s, I found, to my surprise, that there was no such thing as macaroni cheese. I also found that not all Italians were fat. And I discovered that there were absolutely innumerable ways of serving (almost) innumerable types of pasta (none of which were called maccheroni.....)

Living in Rome, enjoying a very dolce vita for a time, eating out was what you did..... In fact, you could hardly afford not to; not only was it cheaper than trying to rustle something up at home, but also it was a part of the essential conviviality that seemed to be a Mediterranean way of life.....

Artusi - The Art of Eating Well - the book that started it all

I also worked with a remarkable woman, a bonne viveur whose first book, originally published in 1987, has gone on to sell over a million copies....

The book that first inspired me to cook pasta.....

Spoilt by the habit of frequenting cheap trattorie, it was not until I had moved to a villa in the countryside, and acquired Diane's book, that I began to cook pasta at home.

Eliche al pomodoro e basilico

And to my surprise it was not difficult.  To my delight, following relatively simple guidelines, the results were good. And suddenly, blessed with superb local produce, we found we could enjoy conviviality without necessarily going out.....

Tomato salad

Of course we still did go out, frequently, and spent weekends exploring the extraordinary variety that Italy holds. 

Bieta all'Agro

And amongst those trips, there were two towns that we visited that would become favourites, and which, curiously, give their names to pasta dishes. 

Use good quality Italian pasta

Amatrice is hardly more than a village, with less than 3,000 inhabitants, but it is a well known resort for Romans who like the mountains.  At just under 1,000 metres above sea level, and little more than 130 kilometres from Rome up the Via Salaria, it is in the National Park of the Gran Sasso, surrounded by spectacular scenery.

If you stay at the Hotel Roma, as we did on several occasions, you have to have Spaghetti all'Amatriciana.

To make this authentically, you should use guanciale, or cured pig's cheek, but Italian pancetta will do (not, however, cheap sliced bacon - that won't work....)

Cut the pancetta into cubes, or ribbons, (traditionally you should use a quarter the weight of the pasta you are going to cook - so 100 grams of pancetta to 400 g pasta) and fry lightly in olive oil with a red chilli. (You can add a clove of garlic, but do not use onion).  When the fat clears, tip in a small glass of dry white wine and let it boil (and here you can use a small amount of white wine vinegar if you like it particularly piquant).  Then add either a few skinned and deseeded ripe Italian tomatoes, or some chopped tinned ones, or some passata di pomodoro. Originally, before the Bourbons introduced tomatoes to this part of the world (in the 18th century), this sauce was made in bianco, but now it is a red sauce: just don't swamp the pancetta with too much tomato....

Now let the sauce simmer while you cook the pasta.  In Amatrice it is usually spaghetti, though bucatini is quite acceptable.  In Rome, short pasta such as rigatoni is sometimes used, though, veramente, long pasta is better for this sauce..... Whichever you use cook it in a big pan of boiling salted water, and don't overcook it.  The guide time on the packet will usually be fine, unless the packet is old, in which case it might take a minute or two longer, but test it, and serve it al dente, which means it has a little bite to it.....

To serve, toss the pasta in half of the sauce, and then dish it into bowls, topping each bowl with a spoonful or so of the remaining sauce.  Grated Pecorino (Romano) cheese is traditionally scattered on top, but Grana Padano, or, if you have nothing else, Parmigiano (Parmesan), can be substituted. Whatever you do don't be tempted to use Cheddar!  It will ruin everything!

The first time I sat in a real Italian restaurant, on my own, with hardly a word of Italian, I was served a wonderful dish of spaghetti with a Tuscan rag├╣ (meat sauce).  With a glass of wine and a piece of bread, that was the perfect meal.  Not knowing the custom I refused anything else, which didn't really endear me to the waiter, as pasta is known as a primo, or first course, and it used to be expected that it would be followed by a secondo, or main course, with some contorno, or side dish.

The stalks of bieta are excellent with a little butter

Things change.  When D H and Frieda Lawrence travelled in Sardinia in 1922 typically they were served soup or broth for a first course and then boiled meat (from which had derived the broth) for a main course.  During the second world war deprivation was such that one dish depicted in Liliana Cavani's La Pelle leaves the bones of a human hand in the bowl.... In the latter twentieth century 'traditional' restaurants everywhere served four course meals with anti-pasti, pasta dishes, meat with side plates and then dolci, and it was pretty much the norm that that was what you might expect for lunch and for dinner.  Nowadays, there is a more flexible attitude but at the same time it is increasingly difficult to dine out in the traditional way, in a 'traditional' trattoria.  Good food is still plentiful, though it is not cheap anymore.....

Anyway, the second town that gave us its pasta was Norcia, the birthplace of St Benedict, six hundred metres up in the province of Perugia, an ancient walled, earthquake tested town of nearly five thousand.  One hundred and seventy kilometres from Rome, it is another world, with rich culinary traditions, partly based on the ingenious use of flowing water through the fields to allow for multiple harvests each year despite the altitude.  Ham and sausages are exquisite here, and on the ground floor of the Hotel Grotta Azzurra, is the Granaro del Monte restaurant, the oldest in Umbria, which specialises in truffles, grilled meats, and Rigatoni alla Norcina, a delicious pasta dish with sausage and cream sauce.

First lightly fry some finely sliced onion in a little olive oil (it mustn't colour). 

Then skin and break up some genuine coarse Italian sausages (it can be done with English sausages, but use the best quality pork ones you can find) and add them to the pan with a glass of white wine.  If you are making this for four people, then you will need a small onion (or shallot), a couple of sausages, a glass of wine and about 200 ml of double cream.  Cook the sausages for a good ten minutes before you add the cream, allowing the wine to evaporate and ensuring the meat is thoroughly cooked (though not browned).  Then add the cream and simmer gently for another ten minutes while you cook the pasta. This must be short, ridged tube pasta - penne or tortiglione will do, but it will not work properly with smooth or long pasta, and rigatoni is recommended.  When the pasta is cooked, drain it and toss it with grated Parmesan (or Grana) and then stir in the sauce, seasoning with black pepper and a little more cheese....



As with the Spaghetti all'Amatriciana, for me a one hundred gram (weight of dried pasta) portion of this makes a good meal, especially when served with a glass of wine, a little bread, a portion of fresh green vegetables or a salad of some kind, and perhaps some fresh fruit to finish.....

The perfect contorno: steamed zucchini e fagiolini all burro

I am quite sure that the granddaddy of Italian food writers, Pellegrino Artusi, who self-published his book Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well in 1891 (since when it has seen 111 editions), would not disagree.  Though his book covers everything, with anecdotes and humour, his preface concludes with the words, Amo il bello ed il buono ovunque si trovino e mi ripugna di vedere straziata, come suol dirsi, la grazia di Dio.  Amen. [I love the beautiful and the good wherever they are found and I hate to see God's bounty, as it is known, destroyed.  Amen.]

Hear! Hear!

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