I can remember the last Christmas list I wrote. I was probably about 10 and ambitiously penned the demands on Christmas Eve before popping it into the fire place with all that magical innocence, and faithful expectancy children invest into heating vessels this time of the year.
Of course, I was quietly disappointed the next morning when the Captain America outfit, figurine and VHS failed to manifest themselves under the tree. To some degree, it was my own little acid test of the season, a challenge to Babbo Natale, Sintaklasse or Dun Che Lao Ren to see if he really did last minute wishes.
Clearly he didn’t. It would of been 1996, he probably was too busy delivering Bill Clinton a Nintendo 64 or fetching matching Buzz Lightyear playsuits for Liam and Noel.
To save myself the abject pain of being left out in the cold, or probably “mild” these days, Im vesting the ever reliable Delitalia with the task of making my Christmas complete, all I can suggest is that you do the same.
1. Sicilian red prawns. The moment some oil rich Sheikh or former Russian peasant who bought a discount aluminium mine from Yeltsin back in 1989, realises the taste, texture and appearance of these coral translucent crustacea blast caviar out the water, you will be looking at them through thick glass display cabinets in Piccadilly. The king of the sea and the king of your Christmas Eve Vigilia. Best eaten raw with a little lemon, salt and Eleusi Oil. Otherwise, chopped very fine and added to the back end of a simple risotto with Acquerello Rice. 2. Marramiero Novello: After you ploughed your way through a mire of Barolo’s, Tiganello, Nero di Troia, Maglioco’s and all the other heavyweights slumped in the red corner of the wine ring, your body might thank you for the light, fruity Christmas overtones of a Novello. Chill it down, fetch yourself a straw and some left over panettone and wile Christmas afternoon away drifting in and out of consciousness while watching The Spy Who Loved Me for the trillionth time. 3. Berlucchi Franciacorta: Prosecco has become the Fergie of sparkling wine royalty; tart, tired and tawdry. Be THAT person this Christmas who when asked if they would like another glass of bubbling, acid death exclaims “I only drink Franciacorta these days!” Followed by a snorty little laugh. 4. Domenic the Donkey: I genuinely cannot think of a Christmas where this classic Louie Prima song has not trotted out the speakers of my record player. The harbinger of the yule and essential for ersatz Xmas morale. You don’t have to stop at there thought, mix up your antipasto plate with a few slices of salame d’asino and watch the mother-in-law balk 5. Tropea Onions: If you are struggling for gift ideas for anyone originating south of Napoli, watch their faces light up on Christmas morning when you present them with one of these regal little purple onions wrapped up in a bow 6. Torpedino tomatoes: Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas if you didn’t gorge on your favourite food. Do as I do at least one day over the holidays, defy convention, pass on the mince pies and quality streets to sneak off and make a plate of pasta pomodoro. There is only one tomato to use for this and thats Marianos Torpedinos, with a handful of basil, a little salt and good olive oil. 7. Maletti 1867 Truffle Mortadella: The thought of another slice of dry, saline rich danish pig cooked until its sharper than obsidian makes me want to spend Christmas with the Taliban while revising for a French oral exam. Swap your salty swine for a big pink bouncy Mortadella speckled with the best truffles of the autumn and enrich your life. 8. San Vincenzo Nduja. Not only is it red, which makes it incredibly festive, its also pure fat. This is essential for anyone living in the UK as temperatures in January and February can sometimes get below 5 degrees and a few inches of blubber will be vital to stave out the cold as you walk between your favourite bars in the new year. 9. Menabrea: Push those watery Peroni’s aside on the communal drinks table this New Years eve and get stuck into a bottle with bite. 10. Callipo Buzzonaglia: They call everyday, ordinary tuna “The Chicken of The Sea” so by my reckoning this fatty pastiche of belly meat, light and dark flakes held together under a film of oil is the “truffle pate stuffed Guinea Foul of the sea” Blow peoples minds by offering them this rich, umami tuna flesh on a piece of carasau, or added on a torpedino base pizza, hot out the oven with some slivers of tropea onion.
No light falls on the flagstone outside the little trattoria, or osteria, or restaurant or whatever the owner is currently referring to it as this week. The usually damp-flannel grey of the pavement, idly tanned by a rusty, brassy toffee-like attempt at lighting, tonight is powdered in the autumnal night’s lapis blue. The only light breaking this dark concrete sea up comes from the ubiquitous North London neon of The Gunners Fish Bar causing the slab, fringed with powder puff pink, to resemble the made up eye of a drag queen.
It’s cold, the coldest night at the end of the longest year. The first real night of Autumn; piles of rotting mulch in the street are being joyfully kicked in their rotting sides by buckled up Start Rites and Peppa Pig wellies. Piles of rotting pomegranates spritzed with the eau de London’s street smog in the plastic bowls of the Turkish corner-shop and piles of cold and flu germs awaking on every hand grip hand rails that London transport calls its own.
In the distance a firework erupts with the force of popping candy, the forlorn hope of bonfire night. Despite its damp popfffff, it’s still enough to send the contents of a rushed, russet cheeked mothers pram into a state of toddling apoplexy.
The great windows, designed to concertina open in the occasionally warmer months of summer, have been concertinaed closed tight in the darker, frequently colder Autumn months. Condensation has slaked its way across the vast paines of glass making the restaurant interior as oblique as a fat man painted battleship grey, holding a smoke machine in a sauna.
I’m hesitant to open the door. By now the restaurant is usually more active than legions of Mo Farrah clones engaging in endless marathons around Piccadilly Circus at rush hour. Yet the place is quieter than a mute librarian’s grave. Something is wrong.
I push the door open catching the thick, thistle rough doormat. Across the waist high plateau of blue and red gingham checked tables, illuminated by clusters of contrite little tea lights with enough energy to light a Borrower’s keyhole, I see the boss pushing oily vapour trails of blue smoke up into the rafters of a faux thatched roof at the back of the room. His usual partner in pre-match crime is sat there too, bereft of the usual insults which emanate in thick southern Italian dialect out of his thick southern Italian lips.
A biblically beaming, alien abduction limelight chinks out the kitchen through the smoke, followed by the occasional muffled clunk of metal on metal. A slow “Calunk” signalling one hand is being used to fidget one of the old aluminium pans on top of the stove while the other stabs away at an old battered iPhone placing last minute bets on a Ladbrookes app.
It’s lugubrious tonight. The usual blop, blop blopping of bubbling lamb ragu, the rustling tenements of carasau bread stacked in handmade wicker baskets and the howls of the owner for more crates of Ichnusa have been temporarily lobotomized.
Unusual for a place that lives, breathes and dies to the ever present hortator of screams, cursing, cheers, cries and shouts that inhabits all restaurants save vegan cafeterias and church hall canteens. No one moves, no one stirs.
The boss invites me to sit with him and partake of the ever present supper of free wine. There is a bottle in the middle of the table, white label with the orange, reds and ocre of the season slashed into the paper bearing the meaningless word, NOVELLO.
The table is gloomy and the cartoon moorish features of my nightly drinking companions are all but hidden from me. The candle does enough only to light their chins into stubbled promontories where the glass containing the ruby clear wine can occasionally be seen to pass above. Everything is being done slowly, almost conspiratorial. Speech is unusually laconic and, aside from the cocktail of candle and illicit cigarette smoke, a comfortable sense of nothingness lingers in the air.
The chef hasn’t solely been idling his time away at the controls of the betting app of his future poverty. He tips a pan of squealing hot chestnuts hotter than Hephaestus forge and, groaning out their crackling shells, onto a wooden board in the centre of table.
Hard calloused hands, numbed by anticipation, easily crush through the scalding brittle outer layer of the charred shell before the outside edge of the thumb scarifies the husk away onto the red and white debris field, now peppered with erratics of burnt shell. In most cases, even under such force, the chestnut remains whole; a light, toxic yellow cerebrum which we push into sea salt. This outer saline coating crunches and opens up the tastebuds to the pastoral sweetness of the flowery interior of the fruit, as fragile and crumbling as fresh yeast.
They are toasted, burnt, some hard, some soft. In the worst cases precision in the peel is exchanged for clumsy haste and the result is a chestnut sea mine of nutty pulp and sharp fragmented shell. This can engage with the throat in a similar way as barbed wire plays across fiddle strings.
The Novello strikes me. For a red, it’s cool and curranty, familiar of late summer homemade wine. The kind of thing Ratty from Wind in The Willows would have made and bottled for the Tombola at one of Toad’s ghastly Spring Fairs. It’s pleasant and clean. I feel it should be drunk out a pewter tankard and come with a hangover free guarantee for the next day. It’s refreshing, which is what I always want in a wine as wine really must be “neckable”. I appreciate that the chattering classes may like to linger over one or two thimbles of wine, savouring and tasting the ethereal merits of an amber pinot Beaujolais Margeaux 1066 or whatever. I’m not sure this wine suits that scene? Foods basic role is to fill and liquid is to refresh. I could drink this all night until it pours out my ears.
For a moment, I realise that the usual chaotic state of our little Italian restaurant has been becalmed by the wine. This is a moment they have all waited for throughout the year, the first young wine taken cold at three weeks old, alongside a new crop of chestnuts all hot, spiky, caramel and woodland fires. It’s the closest an Italian might get to that horribly cosy word “Hygge”, that insufferable Danish law of fluffy socks, open fires, candle light and enforced ennui. Barely a word has passed and this 20 minute moment has been savoured for a lifetime in every nip of the wine and broken shell.
This is “La Bella Vita” transformed, reinvented and soothed for the darker cold months and it’s what every Italian restaurant from Galashiels to Gloucester should be demanding their customers momentarily engage with from October to the end of November. The parasols and passageta are over, ask for Novello, fire, chestnut and Marlborough Lights.
The door swings open and my accomplices brace themselves for the teeth of a London draft. It’s a family, a family walk in at 17:55; buggies, babies, leaves stuck to the sole of a child’s shoe via the sticky medium of dog toffee. It’s everything the boss would turf out into the street on a normal night. If the Holy Trinity turned up in a simillar state, donkey of course subbed for a Silver Cross, I imagine they would receive the blunt end of a Sardinian curse. But strangely not tonight. The Novello and chestnut has calmed the savage beast and very shortly he is there, attending to their table with bowls of chestnuts and slightly chilled, complimentary Novello. I imagine they will be back, and come next Autumn, so will the wine.
Italian Americans are responsible for all manner of minor, cross-cultural disgraces; Spaghetti and meatballs, chicken parmigaaan and most of the cast of Jersey Shore. However their early experiences in the new world and its seemingly never ending supply of meats, cheese, sweets and booze, left a few hybrid diaspora dishes that could never have happened in the relative poverty of the old country
A couple of years ago I was asked to come up with a dish for BBC Children in Need’s Carfest Festival. It was, I assumed, a simple enough brief; two recipes to fit a 45 minute slot, that was until my PA told me they were looking for some kind of car/automobile twist. Now I like cars; I like how you can wedge yourself firmly into the passengers seat off a Golf and catch a good hours kip, the little illuminated horse that appears on the pavement when you open the door of a mustang, or how a Fiat Punto retains its street cred even when its spent a lifetime taking more of a battering than a sub average boxer. I am not the kind of person however who knows what “Torque” is and always lament the fact that there are no horses actually involved in horsepower. If you show me a top of the range Ferrari, Im most likely to compliment the choice of magic tree. I had to turn to history to find the perfect dish.
I began with Enzo Ferrari as the man was from Emilia-Romagna and to date, I haven’t met a single sole from the region, who didn’t have anything short of a Paolo and Francesca style love affair for food. Alas, it seemed he lived of Prosciutto and torta fritta whilst he wiled away the hours in his workshop tinkering with carburettors and exhaust pipes . As much as I find the idea of frying square after square of enriched bread dough in hot pig fat about as joyful as waking up to find that my metabolism has advanced to the pace of a teenage race horse, I didn’t think it would make for much of a show.
In vain I scoured the internet, googling F1 drivers and their favourite foods despite my knowledge of the sport probably being classed as “Junior Scaletrix Level” It turned out that a lot of the icons of the 1970s lived off a heady mixture of booze, late nights and the occasional hit of narcotics, whereas today’s drivers followed a diet similar to that of a Scandinavian racing sardine. Eventually I hit upon the idea of the people who actually build the cars..
Italian car workers were every employers dream in Detroit during the 1920’s. They worked hard, caused little fuss and instead of high wages, safe working environments and discounts on Ford Model T’s, all they demanded was a little macaroni and meat for lunch. Mortadella, that wonderful cylindrical Roman invention of Peppa-pig pink meat, lipid white islands of belly fat and acrid bursts of black pepper corns was cheap to produce and cheap to supply, so became the natural choice to accompany the lunchtime macaroni.
This dish is a simple plate of hand made Pici pasta, a little butter, thyme, finely chopped mortadella, pecorino and a little honey to cut through this thick, fatty mantle that coats the fresh pasta. Pici may seem like a weird choice for the sauce as the mortadella has very little chance of getting a firm hold onto the dough, but the rather nice thing is that each strand is coated in a delicate emulsion of butter infused with the earthy mortadella and accompanying flavours. What you are left with at the end is a satisfying little pile of buttery meat that slaps you round the face for a slice of bread to make an ad hoc mortadella roley.
For the dead simple pasta part:
150g 00 flour, we love to use Molino Quaglia
150g fine semola (optional, but will give your pasta more bite) again Molino Quaglia
180g egg yolk (save the whites for meringues or Rocky style gym fuel)
For the sauce/emulsion
20 Pistachio, shelled and crushed as fine as you can be bothered (30 to make up for the 10 you will invariably eat)
2 Sprigs of fresh thyme
1 Tablespoon of honey
30g good breadcrumbs (avoid the day glow fish finger kind)
10g of butter, use burro di bufala
Half and onion
Evoo, Eleusi is great and its from Calabria
1/3rd of a block of pecorino cheese (or any hard Italian cheese)
Today we are making PICCI. Think relatively long, slightly fat/thin mis-shapen spaghetti you do by hand. It rocks. Start by combining the flour and semolina in a bowl, make a well in the centre and add the egg yolks. Use a fork and bring the flour into the egg and mix well. If the mix is too dry add a tiny bit of water just until it comes together.
YOU WANT TO MAKE A DOUGH SIMILAR IN LOOK AND FEEL TO PLAYDOUGH
Once this is done, form into a nice square or round and dust with flour. Cling film and leave in the fridge for minimum half an hour.
When the dough is rested, tear grape sized balls off (keep the dough covered) and roll onto a clean surface (if you dust them or your hands in more flour, it wont work) You want to create long, knobbly worms (think like a long spaghetti Nick-Nack)
Once all the dough is done, let these dry a little while you do the sauce
Very finely mince the onion and sweat it in the butter and olive oil until translucent. add half the leaves of the thyme and half the thinly sliced/fine chopped mortadella and cook on a low heat.
Bring water to the boil in a sauce pan, remember to salt the water well, and add your pasta for 5-6 minutes.
Remove the pasta and pop straight into the pan, retaining one cup of that pasta water elixir.
Keep the pasta moving, add half the pistachio and grate as much cheese as you fancy, add some of the pasta water to form a sauce and a little black pepper.
Using a fork, twist the picci into a tight ball and place in a bowl, finish with more fresh mortadella, thyme, pistachio and the breadcrumbs, drizzle of olive oil,
It started with a satisfying itch in the centre of my chest during a meal of pork more bereft of moisture than a saharan salt cod factory. Overnight, I assumed that this little red blob the exact shape of Sardinia was nothing more than a heat rash probably triggered by my body’s complete shock and awe that the UK, in 2018, had managed to climb into the near sub equatorial figures of 11 degrees in the hours of darkness. I started to worry more on the train; I was tired, itching was coursing across my upper torso and my shoulder felt like it had been used for tackling practice by Millwall FC. My landlady, a reputable woman with the medical knowledge of a village witch-doctor and the hypochondria of an Italian mamma knew immediately I was a mass of shingles and low morale.
On the rare occasions I get ill I fall back on my undergraduate degree, medieval medicine and food. I become my own experiment, a playground for quack cures, remedies and gastronomic philtres. My body and brain go into lockdown, all form of external advice be it from professionals, concerned family and love ones shunned, pills rejected and cool compresses cast asunder for there is only one way to combat most non-fatal illnesses; Pasta with butter
Infirmity is my excuse to bring out a dish that modern memory stresses was created just for this specific medicinal purpose. Wind the clock back a few decades to Rome in the early 20th century and let me tell you a brief story about a dish that is, usually, held to be more blasphemous than if Martin Luther had nailed his proclamation to the door of Wittenberg cathedral written on loo roll featuring playboy centrefolds dressed up like the Madonna. Alfredo De Lello was a larger than life Roman restaurateur famous amongst the great and good of Roman tourists during the economic miracle of the late 50’s and 60’s. He was famed for combining silky emulsions of Caccio Peppe, Greacia and Amatriciana at the tables of holIdaying Hollywood stars, before suspending the perfectly coated tentacles of spaghetti, bucatini and fettuccine above their heads. Cute. He was also famed for inventing the abboration that became known as Fettuccine Alfredo…
So your heart has sunk into your stomach at the mere mention of a dish that most think is about as Italian as Gino’s accent and has been subject to more tampering with by Americans than the Middle East, but the story is relatively touching. Following the birth of his first son in 1914 De Lello, in an attempt to stimulate his wife’s post birth waning appetite ventured away from the customary placenta on toast, instead mixing triple rich butter with the core of his best Parmigiano before tossing into fresh tagliatelle. It was effectively the early 20th century’s answer to a post-natal bottle of Lucozade, Muller corner and tin of soup, a cure all. Legend claims that the dish remained on the menu, eventually becoming the darling dish of the 1920’s vacationing Hollywood heartthrobs. Much like European civilisation during the 17th and 18th century, it was taken back to America and fiddled with until its appearance became something akin to a Frankenstein-like melange of various ingredients, the worst of which range from chicken to lobster.
De Lello wasn’t the first Italian however to employ butter in their pasta; Early classical cooks and writers applauded its use with Pliny describing it as “the most delicate of food amongst barbarous nations”. Throughout vast tracts (some 900 plus recipes) of Artusi, olive oil is constantly sidelined for butter in the North, lardo and lardo’s slightly less salubrious relative, strutto in the pig owning South. Boccaccio in his Decameron makes numerous references to pasta rolled down mountains of butter and cheese and, likewise, try and get through a recipe by Corrado, Scappi and Spatuzzi, even the vegetarian ones, without finding mention of some form of animal fat leap frogging over olive oil.
I need to say straight off the bat that for me, olive oil, stands on a stratosphere scratching pedestal in the world of ingredients. If a simple old cow’s loin is befitting a knighthood in the UK, then the golden blood of the olive warrants beatification. The slight problem I have with olive oil however, is British television chefs peddling you some kind of Keynsian myth that this is the sole cooking fat in use across the Italian peninsular. By steering you clear of the artery clogging joys of butter, lardo and strutto they may be doing the NHS and your loved ones a service, but your pallet..Nah-ah.
Elizabeth David prophetically observed in 1963 “How we cling to our myths, We English” and she’s totally right. The myth of ancient societies like those of the Italian peninsular solely using olive oil is ludicrous but you can’t seem to suggest otherwise to a vast majority of British chefs and the public. I remember fondly being asked for a simple ragu recipe by a bunch of online culinary dilettantes masquerading as chefs, to be included on their website. After viewing their recipe for bolognese, a recipe that, short of Garibaldi’s death mask, included every single thing that seemed remotely Italian, I sent them a recipe for “Sugo Finto”. This is one of my favourites and confirmed as a staple of the 1950s national service boys by Antonio Carluccio: Take a heap of strutto (soft pigs lard) melt it in a pan and sauté some onions, add tomatoes and finish with a little unsalted butter, mix with pasta. The result is some kind of magical oleaginous kingdom on your plate that tastes like a post war dream. Their response was one of abject shock, how could it be Italian without olive oil? Dried oregano that had lingered in the cupboard since freshers week? The ubiquitous clove after clove of green rooted garlic? And the greatest crime of all, butter and lard. I was hounded out their email chain and never consulted on again, my reputation in tatters and culinary flag lowered into the cesspit of my own ignorance. How could it dare to masquerade as an Italian with butter in, it goes against all they have learnt about Italian food from Saturday morning television and the menu at Frankie and Benny’s.
I’ve recently started using a lot of buffalo milk butter from Italy; it’s a bright marble white pat with the depth and richness of lard and that mouth insulating warmth that usually proceeds the magic of streaky bacon, belly pork or an overly buttered crumpet. It’s perfect for tossing with some fresh pasta, a little pinch of salt, a really fatty slab of mortadella chopped fine and a sprinkle of pecorino. I have also started throwing in a knob with some finely chopped onions and letting them sweat before drowning it all in torpedino tomatoes and letting it cook on a low heat slowly, before tossing it through with some rigatoni and pecorino. It might not be the classic Pasta Pomodoro, but I’m sure it can be added to the legion of recipes that over the years, have built up around that particular dish and its variants.
Seven weeks after shingles entered my life, they are still here, all be it transformed from a collection of angry, little red islands snaking a ring around my body to something more like the faded outposts of a once mighty empire. I can’t honestly say whether or not the butter and pasta helped in anyway. I suspect, like Mrs De Lello it kept my spirits up between dabbing myself with calamine lotion and futilely blowing on my chest, but I think that’s all any food can do, in health or in infirmity? It should be there buck your mood, stimulate the appetite and at least slip you a mental placebo that what you are ingesting may be going some way to kill a virus. Here’s to animal fats and Italian food, may the two be united for another millennia.
I have to hand it to myself, I am really rather cool. I realised this the night I spent counting all the times Pellegrino Artusi included butter in a recipe. I realised that I was at a Fonzie (US Cult TV character, not Nik Nak imposter) level of coolness when I got to 924 and decided I couldn’t risk being any cooler and should probably turn in for the night. Its not just Artusi who favours the use of butter, or indeed its slightly more delicious outlawed cousin, lard; The cruiserweight names of Italian food doyens such as Vincenzo Corrado, Bartolomeo Scappi, Marcella Hazan, Achille Spatuzzi, are just a lipid sized sample of old fashioned animal fat champions. Ask nonno and nonna what they used for fat before the “Economic Miracle” of the 50’s and 60’s when shelves were flooded with olive oil? Unless they were in a mass olive producing region of the old country, they were most likely using lard or butter for their food and oil for the lamps and occasional bribe.
This recipe, I think, came to me in the throws of a drunken dream. After a brutal night in a restaurant that once upon a time lurked round the back of Liverpool Street station, I clutched at the memory of eating tagliarini with tiny cubes of carrot, broad beans, mint, and zucchini and finished with a hint of pecorino. it was delicious, fresh, clean and sweet and my cousin (who was with me at the time) swore we didn’t eat it or anything that resembled this jumble of spring veg and carbs. The next morning I checked the menu to absolutely no avail, and knowing the chef and his lack of creativity, I assumed I had concocted the whole dish out of the stupor of 13 or 14 grappas.
70g Buffalo Milk Butter
Splash of dry white wine
15g Fave beans (shelled)
15g purple potato
20g Pecorino cheese
Splash of good balsamic (I mean really good, if you don’t have good balsamic just acidulate with a little more white wine)
200g Petra Pasta Flour
10 egg yolks
Dash of water
1. Make the pasta by mixing the pasta flour with the egg yolks. I try and use the Burford Brown egg yolks to give the pasta a wonderful golden colour. You can also buy Italian eggs which have a rich yolk… If you need too, add a little water to bring the dough together into a smooth paste, similar to play-dough. Rest for 30 minutes minimum in the fridge
2. Form the cavatelli. Cut the dough in half, or quarters (Whatever you are comfortable working with) and roll out to the thickness of about half an inch. Cut into strips and then centimetre squares. Push down on the pasta dough with your thumb then forward to make something like a mini cannoli.
3. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil.
4. Finely chop all your veggies. I cut them into matchstick sized pieces and then into tiny little cubes that some Gallophiles would call “Brunoise”, I think the Italians would say “Cubettini”
5. Blanch the veggies in the boiling water for 30/40 seconds and remove into ice cold water to stop the cooking process. Keep the water.
6. Place some fo the buffalo butter in a frying pan and gently heat. Place the Cavatelli into the boiling water and cook for 3/4 minutes and then add to the butter in the frying pan.
7. Add the blanched vegetables, a handful of freshly chopped mint, a tiny splash of white wine and a good amount of pecorino. Cook out until a rich emulsion forms and finish with a little more butter
8. Serve with a little more mint and pecorino, your heart may not thank you but your mood will be through the roof.
I am 4, sitting at a long pine table the colour of petrified tree sap. There are ’s kids everywhere in a dazzling array of technicolour nylon armour, dungarees, vest tops, water paint stained jeans and socks that slip down the ankle to give the impression that the foot is a foot long.
It’s the 90’s so, naturally, there is a finely woven wicker placemat in front of me, the remnants of food from past meals clinging to the fibres like some decaying wattle and daub. I am not hungry, I ate 3, maybe 4, chocolate cookies from a worn blue tin emblazoned with “All Butter Danish Cookies” but I am on the Elvis side of greedy. I like my food and I especially like what my aunt has got in her sun burst orange Le Creuset.
It’s Pasta Tuna Sweetcorn night in North Hull, just like it is up and down the country for anyone between the ages of 2-102. Tables will be decked with centuries old grissini sticks destined to be lovingly sucked into a saliva pap before being dropped and trodden into the carpet. Yellow tins of grated parmesan husks, swept off the factory floors of Italy and carefully repackaged for the UK consumer will dispense a fine dandruff of insipid beige onto heaped mounds of stodgy conchigle pasta. If that didn’t sound delicious, it’s finished with a flour heavy bescimella, day-glo tinned sweetcorn and anaemic tuna with all the texture (and probably flavour) of anaglypta.
This was the insulting pinnacle of Britalian cooking. A dish that, unlike Spaghetti Bolognese, cream saturated carbonara and the Pollo Sopressa (A more Nato friendly version of Chicken Kiev), that seemingly has absolutely no roots in Italy. What’s more, the very concept of putting a viscous mantle of white sauce over something as delicate at tuna flesh is anathema to the legacy of Italian food as far back as the 4th century BC when Archestratus of Syracuse noted; “the very best way for you to deal with this fish; You need fig leaves and oregano (not very much), no cheese, no nonsense” .
If ever a more motley collection of ingredients could be described as “nonsense”, I am yet to encounter them.
In Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a play noted for being able to disgust an audience within minutes, Tamora experiences the abject horror of unwittingly consuming her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius in a pie; flesh, blood, bones, hair the lot, a bit like eating at a Little Chef back in the day. I am going to guess that if you are Italian and reading this, thus far, your horror will have been on a level comparable to Tamoras. But I have to make a case for this, on behalf of the time pressed mothers, out of pocket students and child minders with more stroppy mouths to feed than a Parisienne cafe on the day after a national strike. It was simple, cheap and pleased pretty much everyone and anyone who wasn’t genuinely Italian or a food columnist for The Guardian. It could be made in under 20 minutes at a time long before the advent of Jamie’s “Meals in Under a Nano Second” and its inoffensive palate of cream/beige meant that, in a country that mass produces fussy eaters, it will always be a crowd pleaser
I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it at the time; , that would be as hypocritical as a former heroin addict turned rehab councillor saying that the nights they spent with the New York Dolls seeing into the future at the end of pipe wasn’t fun. It was a comforting dish, it filled you up, it stuck to your ribs and hugged your throat. The negative side was that it set me on an uncomfortable path with any type of fish based pasta (excluding shellfish) pretty much until today.
As I got older the impact of seminal Italian chefs like Carluccio, Locatelli, Alastair Little, Nino Sassau and the team at the River Café began to ripple up north. The blankets of sloppy bescimella, long thick ragus and clumsy cream dishes began to give way to lighter, sweet fresh tomato based sauces, olive oils and buttery emulsions that found popularity in the late 90’s early 2000’s.
Tuna would be tipped into one of these with maybe a handful of capers, some chopped olives and a little chilli in an ersatz version of a puttanesca minus the anchovies. It would be tossed into linguine with that stylish weed, rocket, and finished with lemon, a crushed clove of garlic, a sprinkle of oregano or finely sliced red onion. All very refined to the eye, but again containing that ever present, seemingly eternal ball of trachea clogging tuna.
Here is where the problem lies, Tuna flesh starts life red, like you see in the fancy unaffordable packs in M&S. When they can it, they bleed it first and then cook it. When you cook it a second time, Bang! You’ve got the edible equivalent of wood chip – , basically an inedible pointless protein. Its curious, delicate flavour gets lost, imparting nothing more than a faeint tang of ozone to any pasta dish. It’s only real legacy, following a long mastication is the feeling of it scraping down your gullet and something equivalent to a test match in the time it takes to swallow.
I gave up with tuna in pasta, or any type of sea fish for that matter, for a long time. I enjoyed both too much to spoil the other with their unholy union, a union I felt was more toxic than a TOWIE wedding.
Maybe some of the boy scouts reading this will be scoffing at even tolerating the idea of using canned tuna, like it’s a no brainer and I should have been using fresh fish all along. The truth is I have and I think it is equally a crime against man and our scaly submerged brethren. I totally believe tuna fish is best served raw, tarted up with nothing more than a little good olive oil and a couple of well dispersed drops of lemon. If it’s going to be cooked then it’s got to have had seconds on a raging hot grill…and then just a drizzle of olive oil and lemon. Take your sauce and sling it in the bin with the Home Pride bescimella and that copy of Nick Knowles vegetarian cookery book. (random mention of NK!!!??!!)
I mentioned at the beginning of this diatribe against such a seemingly inoffensive dish as pasta with tuna, that I couldn’t bear the thought of it….up until now,. Recently I had some kind of Damascene conversion. I didn’t see a stern faced Jesus appearing on an arid dessert track, instead I saw San. Francesco Di Paola dressed in his habit, emerging out of a rip tide staring a bulbous looking blue fin square on. Emblazoned across the Fender Jaguar orange tin in white copperplate the glorious words “Buzzonaglia Di Tonno, Callipo”. For Italians this may not be a new revelation, but for a man brought up on skip jack in spring water it’s like finding the Garden of Eden was behind your compost bin all along.
Funnily enough, on first glances, it bears striking resemblance to the interior of the compost bin. Far from the insipid beige hall-carpet pallor of your everyday tuna, the “Buzz” looks like Operation Dessert Storm camo: a pastiche of meaty white flesh, fatty blacks and browns and the occasional lattice of veins. It’s this inclusion of the dark meat that is the game changer. Italian and especially Sicilian chefs have known for generations that this is the stuff you do match up with pasta. Even Elizabeth David knew it, stating that during her time in Sicily the fishmonger would wrap up the white and dark meat, some fatty ventresca (belly meat) and even the heart of the beast. Like all that is good in this world to eat, the secret ingredient is, lamentably, fat.
I’ve used it a few times now. I’ve cooked my pasta, finished it with olive oil, chopped taggiasche olives and some finely sliced tropea onions, before heaping half a can of this terrifying, oleaginous fish flesh on top with just the slightest squeeze of lemon. I even tried it with a San Marzano sauce, cooking the tomato first before adding the tuna after and it was like eating fois gras. The principle is the same for pizzas, do the cooking separately. In this case, a Torpedino base with a short kick of oregano on some good dough, and then use the tuna like some indulgent spread over the top when out of the oven.
The possibilities for this can of fishy joy are probably endless, like the Tuna fish itself, nothing goes to waste, not even the can which I have lovingly fashioned into a pen holder. If it were a ship it would pretty much have passed all its sea trials with flying colours and be ready for commission, yet something tells me there is just one more dish it has to conquer before it’s passed fit for service; an old classic, a rule Britalia of a plate beloved by old and young alike…I wonder if Zia Tina still has that Le Creuset dish.
I’ve always thought Italian food had that same capacity for lawlessness and personal interpretation as Rock and Roll does with music. Like Rock and Roll, as long as you stick within a very loose, slightly un-codified frame work, it’s hard to make any massive faux pas. There are no great philosophies or sets of rules that govern the relatively wild art that is Italian cooking but maybe Artusi comes close to a general mantra that should go someway in governing a loose mentality amongst those pilgrims who are beginning their journey..
“ I love what is beautiful and good wherever it is found and I am repulsed when I see, as it is often said, the ruination of gods gifts”
A simple adage that should be inscribed on the monument to Italian food. Sure, there are examples of giant error that veritably pole vault over remarkably reasonable boundaries of the Italian kitchen, running in the face of Artusi and arguably, God; cream in carbonara, chicken parmigiana and barbecue base pizzas are a few obvious ones. Personally I’d go as far to say that adding lemon and parsley to Aglio, Olio Pepperoncino, making saltimbocca with pork and not veal or simply calling Tagliatelle Al Ragu, Spag *shudder* Bol are up there too but that’s me being a wailing great pedant.
This is, however, kind of the same as One Direction covering Wonderwall, Girls Aloud and Sugarbabes doing Walk This Way or Hillary Duff doing My Generation. We know they blow, it feels utterly wrong and is more insulting than asking an Italian waiter for a cappuccino after dinner and for his sister’s number written in the foam. Relax though, they are simply a moment of passing madness not connected to the genre, shunned by the Gods at the top and the fans at the bottom, punished in the afterlife with the gnashing of teeth and burning pits of sulphur.
Despite what your ancient Zia or rolling pin waving Mamma may say, when it comes to many dishes, the room for interpretation, exploration and regional deviation is actually pretty vast and it’s what makes Italian food infinitely more exciting than, I don’t know, let’s say the cuisine of a country beginning with F and rhymes with trance…
Many dishes in the Italian repertoire have only recently taken a definitive form, making deviations and interpretations of recipes relatively normal before the economic miracle of the 1950’s and more acceptable today.
Take, for example, the hundreds of differences of basil pesto in Liguria alone with variations in cheese, soft herbs, olive oils, spices etc. The earliest recipes from the 1840’s included garlic, parsley, spices (vague, but possibly just black pepper as this is referred to as a spice in other Italian cook books) marjoram and no mention of pine nuts. Today the Genoese Pesto Consortium, a body ruled over by a Grand Master and PALADINS, state the “legit” ingredients but, in terms of quantities, they are pretty free and easy with the recipe which is refreshing when you think how militant the Cornish can be about a simple pasty.
More relevant to the British, look at the not so humble Spaghetti Bolognese, a dish with more guises than David Bowie. Try making it in a room full of chefs, or anyone from Italy and the same questions will arise; “Should it contain milk?” “Should you use pork, beef and veal? Or follow Noah’s example and only use two of every beast?” “Tomato or no tomato?” “red or white wine? “ The list of variations is endless, but if its done well, its still identifiably Italian (or Emiliano if your being a pedant) just hold on the Bovril cube and Worcestershire sauce..
The best part about this approach to Italian cooking is the reaction you get. Returning to the opening quote from Artusi, if cooked with a care for the ingredients, it can never truly offend your average Italian. So you added red instead of white wine to the ragu? Or decided to dabble in a sprig of Marjoram for the pesto? People will shrug, pull faces, click their tongue, say “Mah!” and make more gestures with their hands than an air craft martial on “hard of hearing pilots day” because it’s not their way but they won’t say “That’s Not Italian Food!” In most cases, they will eat it, pull faces, throw out hand gestures and secretly appreciate it because, when done with a considered approach, you can’t get it wrong.
The reasons for fluidity in a culinary tradition that, on the surface, appear relatively rigid can only be speculated on but it’s probably a subtle mix of Campanilisimo (the Italian art of believing everything your town/village/hamlet does is better than your neighbour one mile down the road) and the Italians’ incredible capacity for pride, self belief and self sufficiency. Indeed, the father of modern Socialism, Alexander Herzen speculated; “they have a sense of respect for themselves, for the individual which is particularly developed in the Italians; they do not simulate democracy as the French do, it is inherent in them” which to me says, don’t tell me how to make pomodoro sauce, back up out my kitchen.
In addition to these factors, I’d add a third. Italy doesn’t really have that totemic toque toting imperator of the kitchen whose words and rules are carved into granite and used as a bench mark for future generations of chefs. Whereas the French will still refer constantly to Careme and Escoffier, men who have had a tremendous, if not domineering, impact on the culinary arts, Italians have the more amiable Artusi, the studious, enigmatic Scappi and the gluttonous philosopher Archestratus (“The Daedalus of tasty dishes”). The works of these men are not solely for reverence, but reference, and yet they still aren’t infallible or highfalutin’.
Artusi is like that eccentric old uncle with the enthusiasm for food of Toad of Toad Hall. The latter most humbly claims of his own recipes that; “With this practical manual you only need to know how to grab hold of a ladle and you’ll muddle through” For a man held in high esteem by both professional and domestic cooks, his work is brutally honest (on success and failures) recipes vary wildly and his allowances for interpretation and adaptation are refreshing.
Caponata is another recipe which rolls out the gilt lined red carpet for Mr and Mrs interpretation. Locatelli is probably the only writer who sets this out clearly in English but he makes reference to at least four variations accepted in Sicily, stressing that every other person has their own take on the dish. Personally, I’ve had multiple variations, witnessed so many pointless, impassioned debates on how it should be made, tasted ratatouille-like slop and others where every ingredient was as noticeable if it walked out onto your tongue under a little spotlight and took a bow.
And personally that’s the key for me. I’m going with the well trodden adage that less veg is more and stick to a rule of three. You want soft, crunch and crisp which, in this version, comes from the sweet, softened onion, the al dente celery and the fried aubergine but really the choice is probably going to be made on what disintegrating veggies you have in your salad crisper.
Caponata wouldn’t be caponata if it didn’t punch you in the mouth and say “I am sweet and sour, call me your Daddy” It’s not just a few fried veggies and a deluge of sweet chopped tomato. To be honest, I think the tomato is the keyboard player in the band, useful but no one’s going to throw their bra at it. Yes, you will get a sweetness from it but the main body of that will come from the onion and aubergine. I have literally spliced a few torpedino in this recipe and pan roasted them to give you a nod to their sulphurous, deep rich joys.
The hook for the caponata really comes from the delicate mix of the vinegar, honey, capers, almonds and fresh mint, the stage crew to the front men. What sets caponata aside from a ratatouille or clumpy veg stew is this injection of tongue pontificating condiments. This is alchemy and not an exact science. I like my caponata acidulated to high hell only because I use it more as a compliment to something else on the plate rather than a dish in its own right. Either way, if you want something a little more traditional use the recipe which follows this article.
Ozzy Osbourne said that rock music is not meant to be perfect and I don’t think good Italian food is or should be either. Perfect is boring, ’’ts predictable, repetitive and lacks soul and none of those, outside the high street chains, are applicable to the Italian kitchen. I’ve always thought the capacity for a wonderful mistake, a bit of a wobble, a considered yet un-expected experimentation is what makes things kind of beautiful and can fuel innovation.
Look at Bottura and his “Ooops I dropped the lemon cake”; a mistake, an imperfection that becomes legendary, like a bum note in an iconic guitar solo or the kind of out of tune wailing you would get from a crowd thumping New York Dolls track. No one got their hand slammed in an oven for that, had the strings on their apron cut or fined the cost of the outrageously priced plate…no like Johnny Cash kicking out the lights at the Grand Ol Opry, Jerry Lee Lewis setting fire to a grand piano or the ringing clock you can hear in “A Day In The Life” it became legendary and part of a cooking tradition that enjoys global popularity in every nook and cranny of the globe.
Caponata , aptly nicknamed “A Hungry Mans Dream”, is quite possibly one of the best meals you can make if you are a body toning nut job who doesn’t want to compromise on the flavour and morale that is usually associated with “Health” food. Its very simply a vegetable stew, but one which allows each vegetable its own little spotlight. People may scoff at the thought of It being healthy as its best made when fried, but it can also be done under the grill or even blanched (maybe for those suffering from Orthorexia)
Caponata is the pinnacle of Sicilian baroque fantasy cooking, with its roots pretty much dipping in and out of nearly all the major culinary influencers (a term I cannot stand) that set up shop on the island.
The earliest recipe for the dish comes from Agrigento, which is apt, as the city like the recipe, was fought and debated over for hundreds of years and by a variety of invaders. A tapestry of Byzantine/Roman sweet and sour (or Agro Dolce), the veg comes courtesy from Arabic and Carthaginian influence and the simplicity is possibly Hellenic. The Norman influence is lacking, I can only assume they were developing that most inferior cousin to Caponata, the Ratatouille.
I have added a touch of honey to this recipe to increase the length of the flavour, plus bees and honey have a wonderful historical significance in Sicily for bringing good luck and fortune.
1 aubergine (I like the round purple aubergines from Sicily for this)
1 stick of fresh celery
1 bunch of fresh mint
Handful of sliced almonds
1 Onion (Tropea are fantastic)
Half a teaspoon of honey
7-8 Torpedino tomatoes
2 litres of sunflower oil
Good extra virgin olive oil
Handful of capers
1.5 Tablespoon red wine vinegar
1. Start by finely dicing your onion and sautéing in a little olive oil on a low heat, and half a tablespoon of the vinegar. You want to cook this until its translucent and without any signs of colouring
2. Peel the celery of its strings, finely chop. Bring a pan of slated water to the boil and blanche the celery in the water for 20 seconds before plunging into cold water. Do not throw this water away
3. Heat up some sunflower oil in a pan. Chop an aubergine to your liking, by this I mean a small, medium or large chunk. I personally like a medium/small chop. Salt a little and pat dry. Shallow fry until golden brown and set aside on kitchen paper.
4. In the boiling water, drop the tomatoes in for 20 seconds and carefully remove and skin.
5. Once the Torpedino tomatoes are skinned, roast them in a dry frying pan until a little coloured and removed.
6. Mix the vegetables with finely chopped mint, toasted almonds, capers, some celery leaves, honey, vinegar, olive oil and allow to marinate for 30 minutes minimum, before serving. Tastes better at room temperature.
So how does an Irish Catholic, a lover of Italy, Italian wine and Italian food, who is a solicitor representing most of the Italian community of Chesterfield become known as “Consigliere ” !!
Trust me I am honest and have never personally had anyone killed…but I do know a few Godfathers.
Chesterfield has a quite considerable Italian community essentially because of the mass immigration that occurred from Italy following the Second World War and because there was plenty for work in the Derbyshire area in the coal mines and the local huge chemical works. I came to work in the town some 30 years ago and as a result of my heritage went to the same Roman Catholic Church as many of my firm’s Italian clients and became known to them as a result.
One second-generation Italian youngster turned up on my doorstep with his girlfriend to buy his first house and I immediately developed a friendship with this bright street savvy fella who was clearly going places. Welcome to Martino Mainiero now married to the beautiful girlfriend Nicola. Over the time of our friendship we have moved on from a young salesman and a junior property solicitor to a successful business owner of Delitalia and a senior Commercial lawyer in Banner Jones probably the biggest regional law firm. We even swung a business trip to Vinitaly recently!
Martino has an infectious chuckle and a desire to be amusing and so, appreciating my work position and my passion for all things Italian, delighted in introducing me to his customers as “Consigliere”. The name stuck mainly because all of the customers did think it was funny to give your lawyer such a nickname.
My wife and I over the last 20 years have travelled extensively around Italy, Sardinia and Sicily and I usually come back with tips on food or wine that Martino will follow up on. The beauty of the Delitalia business is that they can work with any size of business from Italy if the product is good .Whilst I do enjoy my Italian food and the provenance that is generally associated with it my real passion is for wine and because I am also quite adventurous in my tastes I am regularly used as Martino’s wine guinea pig. When Martino suggested that I should taste and review officially three or four bottles of wine from Delitalia each month then I didn’t hesitate to accept.
It was an offer I could not refuse…
So my plan is to keep it simple ( unlike my young friend Joe Hurd who clearly wants to be the next AA Gill ) like a normal restaurant customer who is reasonably knowledgeable about the wine and also about where it’s comes from..
Carlo Maria Recchia – born in 1993 – is a very young entrepreneur who built his fortune from an ancient passion, love for the land and for agriculture, which led him to be the first and only producer and distributor of the this black corn Mais Corvino throughout Europe.
In an era in Italy where you hear about youth unemployment and activities in continuous failure, Carlo Maria Recchia is the example of a young man who has not only chosen to remain in Italy but to invest in its territory and revert to a contemporary a very ancient trade: the farmer.
Since the age of 17, following a discovery made during a research project for the school – Istituto Tecnico di Agraria, Crema – he has dedicated himself more and more to the rediscovery and cultivation of the Mais Corvino, a type of black corn which dates back to the time of the Maya, with significant nutritional properties, which in Europe has not been cultivated since 1700.
In 2014 Carlo formed a company called CMR and Mais Corvino was born, an agricultural enterprise of Carlo Maria Recchia, which becomes a direct grower of Mais Corvino of Coldiretti. The Corvino corn plants are then cultivated in 3,000 square meters, in the countryside around Cremona. The corn grains are ground to stone in an historic mill, La Grande Ruota of 1857, by Dello.Il Mulino (the mill) was designed with the aim of further preserving the raw material and its organoleptic properties during the processing phase; thanks to the combination of a stone milling of the cereal – “like that of the past” In addition to flour, CMR Mais Corvino starts the production of pasta and a gluten free beer.
2017 is the year of a new turning point: Carlo Maria Recchia joins the company with Massa di Leoni Srl, a Branded Content agency founded by Luciano Massa and Luca Leoni, and this is how the individual company CMR Mais Corvino becomes a real company, the Corn Corvino Srl. The union of these two and the key know-how of agriculture and digital communication represents in reality the perfect synthesis of innovation of the project by Mais Corvino Srl: a new and revolutionary way of doing business, where the recovery of the past becomes a trend thanks to the foresight and technology in the hands of this young entrepreneurial generation.
Eat better, not less…
Eat better not less is not a slogan but a message of food education. “We are what we eat”, our life and our physical and psychological health, vary according to our diet. Healthy eating is both a right and a duty to be guaranteed to the entire world population.
World estimates say that in 2050 the planet will be populated by more than 9 billion people but, to date, we can not guarantee the minimum amount of food for the survival of more than a billion people.
The awareness of these issues is the first tool that man has available to address the problem of hunger in the world.
The corporate spirit of Mais Corvino Srl supports this position and is committed to enhancing the issues related to nutrition, the protection of nature and mother earth.
Mais Corvino is an ancient cereal, with a black and elongated grain, cultivated by the Maya already in the 3500 A.C.
Compared to common corn, this unique variant contains twice as many proteins, 20% less carbohydrates, 20 times antioxidants, equal to those contained in blueberries. In particular, Corvino Corn is rich in flavonoids, beta-carotene, vitamin A and is gluten-free.
Thanks to Carlo Maria Recchia, who in 2010 manages to have the first 40 seeds of the ancient cereal and for the next two years he cultivates them to multiply them and start production, since the first 40 plants in 2011 he has now managed to plant 1.3m of these unique ancient and prestigious black corn bearing plants to transform into flour so that today we can enjoy this wonderful food across Europe.
A beautiful recipe by Francesco Mazzei can be found here by clicking the link. Francesco having the first dish on a UK menu with Mais Corvino back when he open Sartoria two years ago.