A Ragu for Every Neapolitan

IMG_7603 (800x386)Travelling through Italy it soon becomes obvious that the country’s food culture is inspired more by comune than region. When that comes to the famed Ragù Napolitano, emotions run high. This earthy, rich red sauce for pasta was always only ever eaten at home on Sundays after Mass. When it reaches the table, three days cooking comes to its climax.

The cooking is slow – some call it a ragù that starts over a candle flame. Neapolitans have a word to describe the sound we should expect from Ragù as it cooks – pippiare, as in ‘pip, pip, pippiare’, or in English ‘pop, pop’.

The sauce and stew begin as a mixed pot of meats. With the Sunday Ragù Napoletano, pasta and meat are served separately. It is substantial and each at table will have their favourite pieces – from pork rib to sausage to pork rinds.IMG_0348 (450x600)

There is no prescriptive recipe – just a technique refined over the years. Even the pasta shape has stories to tell.

Guiseppe di Martino, head of his family’s Pastificio Di Martino, tells of how there is a different recipe for this Ragù for every building in Naples.

Alessandra Farinelli Shooting per Pastificio dei Campi - festa della raccolta del granoWhen I say every floor, Guiseppe nods agreement. His family’s pastificio has been in Gragnano since 1911 – this is the town sitting 33 kms to a south of Naples which was granted IGP status as the Città dell Pasta in 2013 after 500 years of pasta making (exactly that – the town of pasta)

The pasta shape is zitelle – a cross between bucatini and candele – a long pasta extruded like a pipe. Zitelle is a bit direct – it describes ladies of certain age, spinsters if you will, who stayed back from the main Sunday morning mass so as to have food ready when the family returned for lunch. They would have gone to an early mass whereas the younger, eligible girls went mid-morning with an eye on meeting their future husbands. Italians around Naples and Gragnano have no cynicism nor malice in telling this story which itself brought about the name of the pasta shape – Zitelle.

IMG_7561 (600x450)The pasta would be broken into manageable lengths and these would be the width of the ladies’ knuckles as they snapped the dry pasta. This pre-dates pasta shapes – indeed the ever popular penne shape takes the same idea, but the knuckle width is that of a child’s hand. That penne resembles a quill nib is by the way.

Back to the Ragù which was inspiration for Eduardo di Filippo’s 1978 film comedy ‘Saturday, Sunday and Monday’ starring Sophia Loren. I was sent this poem of his to share:

 The sauce that I like

it was only me mama.

Since I married you,

I talk a lot to talk about. ‘

I’m not difficult;

But let’s get this habit


Yeah, okay: as you want.

Now we would also like to argue?

What do you say? This sauce is?

And I eat it so much for me to eat …

But I do say the word? …

This is meat with tomato.

So to work re-creating this classic of the real Naples. We start with the meat – cheap cuts like pork ribs, pork neck or shoulder (hand & spring), forequarter beef (clod & sticking), pancetta, cotica (pork skin) and Italian sausage (salsiccia fresca) flavoured with fennel seed. Ends of salami, prosciutto crudo skin and lardo are welcome in the pot too. The balance of fat to lean is important as we don’t want an overly fat sauce, but at same time want the depth and unctuousness of the ribs, pork skin, sausage and olive oil.IMG_0352 (450x600)

All is cut into mouth size pieces and then let to brown in olive oil. I find always best to do a few pieces at a time so as not to overcrowd the pan and so reduce the heat. In all I had some 6-7 lbs of meat – maybe more with the rib bones.

A trick learned from Guiseppe di Martino was that the rib bones not only add flavour – and their meat is PDG too – but they are also the marker of when the meat is perfectly cooked in the final moments of the Ragù because the meat will slide off a clean rib bone.

Next fry off 4-5 diced red onions, lid on/lid off, until softened and near transparent – I allow minimum 20’, others say less. Add 3-4 coarsely chopped garlic cloves half way through.  When cooked, grate in some nutmeg.

Return the meats to the pan – I use a large, old and chipped orange Le Creuset which has its dangerous hot spots to keep the cook cautious. Add a bottle of white wine. I chose a Fiano wine to stay in spirit of place – Greco and Falaghina from Campana are not too hard to find in London. Any affordable Italian dry white with some backbone will lift the Ragù, but remember all the while, if it’s not good enough to drink, it’s not good enough to cook with.IMG_0350 (450x600)

When the alcohol has cooked off, add 5 cans of Italian plum tomatoes and their juice. Check the taste and add a level teaspoon of sugar if the tomatoes need an extra lift. Cook on slowly for 2 hours – then carefully squash each tomato with the back of a fork.

Now the slow cooking really begins. Cook on the lowest flame for 4-5 hours – even cover with a cartouche (folded wax paper seal) and lid, then bake in the oven at 100°C for same time. Some tell me this Ragù takes three days; others tell me many hours, with stories of grandmothers getting up at 4am to start the dish for lunch that same day. Personally, I like all long cooked meat dishes to rest for a day before finishing. My Welsh grandmother taught me that and she would have loved this dish.

Judge for yourself. The meat on the ribs should peel, but not fall from the bone. The pork rind (cotica) should melt in the mouth. But stop. You are eating all the jewels of the Neapolitan Ragù.IMG_7571 (521x600)

Now break your Zitelle ( or the larger bore ‘Candele’) into knuckle length pieces. Cook these in a large pan where the water has been brought to the boil from cold – never, ever use hot water from the tap. Add a good 3-4 generous pinches of sea salt. Cook until just short of ‘al dente’ – there should be the final ring of raw dough as you taste.

Here’s another thing from Mr di Martino. Pasta made with durum wheat has a memory – it will not fall apart unless the cook is a fool. Instead, it will return to its extruded shape minutes after cooking ‘al dente’ – this they call torna indietro when we add the al dente pasta to finish cooking off in the sauce – any sauce.

IMG_7578 (600x450)With the pasta cooked and meat lifted from the sauce onto a serving plate, add the pasta to the sauce. Try doing this with a sieve so as not to over-drain the pasta.

IMG_7598 (600x800)Stir and cook gently for another 4-5’ until the pasta has taken on the hue and flavour of the rich sauce – and rich it should be.

This is a family dish best served on Sundays when there is time to enjoy the pasta and then the meat. Some may take choice pieces of the meat and eat them in between forkfulls of pasta.

IMG_7602 (450x600)Some is important with the Ragù Napletano because some say no two apartment blocks, streets or families work from the same recipe. The worst scenario is having a Ragù judged as ‘just meat and tomatoes’ as in Eduardo di Filippo’s poem.


NOTE: Best never to be tempted to cook with cheap pasta that’s made from other than durum wheat (grano duro). Seek out varieties like Di Martino, Faella, Garofalo and others made in Gragnano and you will not be disappointed. Remember hard wheat grows south of Rome, so the best pasta tends to be made in South Italy, with of course inevitable exceptions. More on pasta another time.






Posted in Best Pasta, Blue Collar Gastronomy, Faella, Food of the Ancients, Food travel, IGP, Ingredients, Nonna's Cooking, Pastificio G De Martlino, Pork, Real Italy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Gurnard, Soused or Fried but Never Ugly

As advocate for all edible sea creatures, can we agree that the blanket use of ‘ugly’ be curtailed as of now? Even a monkfish, the Staff’ from the deep, is not ugly per-se, just prehistoric and scary.

Look again at fish, then see their wonder and history. There are anthropologists who tell us that we are descended from fish, so looking at one is looking at a distant cousin. Now who’s the ugly one?

IMG_9095 (688x800)The gurnard comes in for such criticism. A trend starts between commentators and, ergo, the fish is termed ugly for ever. A surefire case of monkey see, monkey do.

How can this delightful fish be considered so? I can imagine a huge tank filled with gurnards on my wall should I ever assume a Dr Strangelove alter-ego.

In the busy early evening fish market on the quay in old Denia, at a time before the British invaded, we would queue to mostly buy mixed fish by the kilo – then given the catch-all name ‘rock fish’ meaning their destiny was to make the fumet for the following day’s rice. Gurnards would be there, standing out with their red skins and boxy heads. Sometimes these fish stocks would be reduced to so rich a flavour for the Arròs a Banda, there were some I knew in Spain who’d call it ‘gravy’.

Anyone lucky enough to have eaten in the long since gone ‘Bar Bahia’ on the road south out of Altea will know what I mean. The ‘abandoned rice’ of Bahia was legendary along that coast and they served 50, 60 or more paella’s per service, following the tradition of bringing the spent fish with whole boiled potatoes for anyone hungry enough to eat with the rich house-made garlic and oil aioli – there called ‘all-i-oli’.

IMG_8977 (738x800)In ports along the Normandy coast the gurnard has a good following. There they are ticketed as grondin or rouget tombé, not to be confused with the rouget barbé, IMG_8968 (622x800)the cold water red mullet, not its Mediterranean cousin, the French rouget, Spanish salmonette or triglie in Italian.

The Italian name is closest to the genus – the gurnard’s Latin name is Aspitriglia Cuculus – the family name is Triglidae.

Most gurnard are landed as a small fish – 6-8″. A fish larger than 18” would be large indeed. Like red mullet, 3-4 smaller fish are most elegant on your plate than one large one which is best shared from centre table.

IMG_7156 (800x498)Fashions for fish changed with the times. In Shakespeare’s day, when people would be less fussy and more grateful for fresh foods, one favoured way with gurnard was to filet and souse in wine vinegar – much as a herring.This prolonged the edible life of the fish. To stay in character, I would serve this with wild samphire and bread charred over a flame.IMG_9046

In ‘Henry IV Part 1’, Falstaff, the fictional gourmand known for his girth and mirth, said: ‘If I be not ashamed of my soldiers, I am a soused gurnet’.

Elizabeth David in ‘French Provincial Cooking’ (1960) does write ‘a rather ugly fish with a large head, which is likely to be a bargain when it appears on the fishmonger’s slab’. Gurnard remain a bargain compared to other fish one sale even today, 50 years on. ED obviously liked them, saying ‘The flesh of the gurnard has some resemblance to that of a turbot’. That maybe a step too far, but the flesh is firm and that we like.

IMG_8869 (800x431)ED was one of the first to champion many of the poorer species of fish from her travels through France. At risk of appearing in Pseud’s Corner, I cannot order a plate of tiny éperlans frits without nodding to ED.

So, how best with gurnard? Buy only the freshest fish goes without saying, so the supermarket is not likely your supplier. Most fish is food that shows its age quickly from landing to slab – only plaice and skate improve and firm up with 24 hours from landing. More than 24 hours out of the net for the rest, it’s better think of something else for dinner.

IMG_8898 (800x444)The gurnard is a fish of the day boat and not the long distance trawler. This is sustainable fishing, like farmers rearing speciality poultry and pure breed cattle or pigs. Trawlers are too often the industrial arm of the food business – and thus their catches are best avoided for, when landed, they’ll have been gutted and fileted at sea, kept on ice and already be several days old.

IMG_9094 (442x800)Good fish deserves only one preparation. Clean, de-scale where needed, then rub with olive oil and grill, or shallow or deep fry. I like mine when the flesh still adhere’s to the bone. Serve at table with more olive oil and fresh lemon. No slashing, stuffing or otherwise messing with the fish. QED.

‘Ugly’ is a term best avoided in food and reserved to describe political mis-adventuring. Turn on the wireless for the news or look at the newspaper headlines if you must and we are not short of places to use it.







Posted in Blue Collar Gastronomy, Cider Vinegar, Gurnard, Normandy, Simple Food, Sousing, Techniques, Vinegars | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Holiday Food: Smells, Sounds and Sourires

Food evokes place. Marcel Proust was one who pointed to this when staying in Cabourg, an hour or so westward along the coast from Étretat.

IMG_7064 (476x600)Proust, wonderous yet over-quoted, famously tripped out on his madeleines and yet their home was way out east in the coal mining towns of Lorraine. Search down the original recipe, Madeleines de Commercy and be happy – people still send round-end wooden boxes of these to friends when they passed through Lorraine, en-route to Alsace.  ‘In Search of Lost Time’ stays with us – and soon we publish the new quarterly ‘In Search of Taste’, but sadly no new Proust.

IMG_6500 (450x600)I write this with heavy heart. Our rented address in Étretat these past few years may soon change hands. An era, which began with a small ad in The Spectator, ends abruptly yet on a joyous note. This means finding a new place of equal measure. A chance meeting on the Perrey with a man from Rouen suggests possibilities, but back to food.

Let’s agree that it’s not just because foods like madeleines are local specialities,  it is because the spirit of place brings forward emotions. Sounds evoke too – crying gulls looping overhead, crashing waves shifting the stones below, the scrape of the sea-warped front door at the entrance to Les Roches Blanches, cables rhythmically knocking on masts of moored up catamarans at night and, early morning,IMG_9379 (450x600) Jacquot’s small fishing boat being launched down the pebbled beach with the outboard held high to protect the already battered and twisted propeller.

IMG_6284 (600x450)A man I’ll call Jacquot goes early morning to set and check his lobster pots. His life has always been in Étretat – like his two friends since school who are always there on their bikes to help him pull his boat back up the beach and discuss his catch. Like oysters, lobster only becomes expensive when one pays the restaurant price for having them prepared.

Guy de Maupassant, who spent much of his early years here and later returned to live in the town, said the Porte d’Aval arch reminded him of an elephant drinking from the sea. Once that image is in one’s head, the Porte d’Aval is forever an elephant, still more when frozen in time by Corot, Boudin, Courbet and of course Monet.

IMG_6390 (600x450)He and all the others discovered the then sleepy Étretat and came to the coast from Paris with paint box and easel, most by steam train, for the light, cliffs, and seascapes and, for some, the life. Oscar Wilde said he could be himself when in Étretat. There’s even a loose, little known connection here to Sherlock Holmes.

The town’s train station has long since closed, but the day trippers keep rolling in – most arrive late morning and have departed by early evening. I’m often thinking of Llareggub when I walk through the sleepy town early in the morning.

For us, holidays raise high emotions of the best sort – if they did not then surely something would be missing. Like the sounds described, taste and smell also stir memories.

IMG_6201 (600x450)Rough seas churn up seaweeds and the air hangs rich with the smell of a crop that in past times added much to the town’s economy. Back then kelp was burned all along the pebble beach for use on farm land and in medicine. Courbet painted the scene – or was it Boudin?

IMG_9356 (600x450)Boudin Noir is as Normandy a delicacy as farm cider. I like mine cold and spread generously on bread with a small Pommeau as an appetiser. I see it eaten less and less like this since I first was encouraged to taste fresh boudin on bread in a market bar early one morning in Evreux. The tradition continues when the boudin is artisan made and fresh.

IMG_6214 (450x600) (450x600)Whelks (bulots) taste best if eaten freshly cooked and still a little warm, with a shop-bought heavy mayonnaise and when seated close enough to the shore so as to pick up the roll of waves on stones – after all, the whelk’s shell is too small to be put up to the ear.  That the whelk shells are greener than those on the English south coast means one is in Étretat, not Folkestone, Rye or Hastings.

Steack Haché, made to order with the lean beef fore-quarter in Serge Helin’s shop, cannot be rivalled by a haché bought ready-made. Ours this week were hefty Charolais, but that changes with what’s going through the abattoir.

IMG_6915 (453x600)Setting taste aside, it’s also the sound of the steel handle opening and closing on the small, shoulder height fridge door, followed no time later with the dull metal clack of the pitted, hand operated haché former and finally the clink of coins in the glass tray when Monsieur Serge counts out the change. Another butcher in town has a modern haché maker – all polycarbonate and digital. Je m’excuse, mais ……. with modernity we lose evocation.

Bread is fresh baked morning, noon and evening from any one of the three boulangèries. Étretat’s population is today just short of 1,500 and yet there are three bread shops, three butchIMG_9196 (450x600)ers and one slightly aloof l’épicerie fine (delicatessen cum grocer). One of the baker’s is also a confisèrie selling the most exquisite hand-made individual cakes and gateaux. Each cake is lifted from the cabinet on its own little black tray. The silent sliding glass door is a mark of their arrival.

The butchers each have cabinets of selections of wine and vegetables in glass, mustards, potato chips (crisps) and the mayonnaise. It is rare not to queue at least 10 deep for the bread and half that for meat. IMG_9243 (450x600)One queues for longer to be served the town’s best ice-cream – one of the first shops to make and sell flavours such as Caramel Beure Salé, Tarte Tatin, Pommeau, Marrons (made from Faugier marrons glacé), Camembert, Palet Breton, Speculoos and now Poppy, Violet and Rose. Business is so brisk each summer that their recipes are now made for Le Glacier far away in Annecy.

Thanks be that one can pass over the town’s new supermarket which now occupies where there was a traditional garage until two year’s ago.

Weekly each Thursday the customised camionettes, vans and their trailers roll into the main square and car park to set up shop. It’s market day and the original WW2 air raid siren sounds out with chilling shrill promptly at 09h00 telling that the market is open. IMG_6758 (450x600)Some locals have come, bought and gone by then like cheeky early birds and the worms. Economics come into play for many shoppers as we pick only what can’t be bought from the town’s shop-keepers. Not to value them is to play a part in their demise and that is the supermarket’s gain.

IMG_6702 (450x600)Fruit, vegetables, salad – much labelled as grown locally in nearby Octoville-sur-Mer – then Normandy’s famous butters, cheeses and cream from farm not factory, poultry (chicken, duck and Guinea fowl), mallard (colvert shot the previous evening’s flighting into the Seine estuary) – and now a specially long trailer showing a selection of fish and crustacea that would make Harrod’s famous fish counter look like rationing has been re-introduced.

A customer at the fish trailer  is insistent he wants to serve only female crabs but doesn’t know how to select them – and why would he. The seller turns two over and points out the difference – that is as close as a crab will get to a human, however crabby some humans can behave when they romance about the tourteau.

IMG_6691 (510x600)Summer is the time for étrilles – tiny, muddy, pesky little crabs we use for soup, sauce or just sucking – not to be confused with soft shell crabs of Spring and Autumn.

Toto sold up his fish shop two summers ago, so one can choose fish from the trailer without fear of nailing a local trader’s coffin. Similarly, there is no butcher on the market – not even one selling horse-meat (is that because we are in the land of the horse – surely not because the Chevaline trailer does good trade in other weekly markets close-by?). Toto is the butcher’s nephew.

IMG_6718 (495x600)Toto has moved on to where he started. He’s taken charge of the stoves at one of the town’s best fish restaurants – Les Roches Blanches. In effect, moving from boat to quay to shop to stove was the natural way up for Toto, swoping the cold of a day boat and quayside market for the heat of the kitchen. The town is poorer without his fish shop – Le Dos Plat – but time moves on even in Étretat.

IMG_9339 (382x600)His kitchen is through the wall from ours in the 1950’s building which replaced the elegant half-timbered seafront Belle-Epoque apartments destroyed by in WW2.  We can hear Toto and his brigade joke, jape and curse their way through prepping the morning’s mise-en-place.

IMG_6735 (549x600)Toto is a gentle man we’ve known for 10+ years. He seems acutely aware of his hands having been handling fish for so much of his life – his trade mark hand-shake is to swiftly offer up a strong right forearm.

IMG_6787 (600x450)A Plateau aux Fruits de Mer, if only affordable just the once is still a holiday essential. Placing the order and then the collection at an agreed time are part of the ritual.

IMG_6784 (600x800)Toto is the town’s man for preparing a celebratory fruits de mer – his come in a delightfully kitsch white polystyrene fishing boat. More holiday memories are evoked with the ever popular holiday wine, Picpoul de Pinet – for but a fleeting moment, I am back in Sète, Leucate or Valras in the 60’s and I am a teenager again enjoying oysters from Bouziques.

No Bouziques oysters needed in Étretat, for here we can select those grown all along the Normandy and Brittany coast from St Vaast to Quibèron. If in any doubt, Toto will open one of each to taste and so decide. Oysters stay inexpensive and thus popular when compared to those on sale in England.

IMG_6728 (478x600)Toto is the lucky guy who has found his metier. He and his friends in town assure me he’s never been happier that manning the Les Roches Blanches kitchen working with a patron called Daniel, his father. Étretat is a family town.

Pizza comes with holidays – and in Normandy they are the only ‘foreign’ food – unless we include the ‘Hoa Binh’ Vietnamese restaurant run by a man who came to visit, met a local girl and stayed. That was many years ago and the tiny restaurant continues.IMG_9302 (600x450)

Wood oven pizza is best kept simple – Margherita’s, Marinara’s and nothing too fancy – baked in what seems like seconds not minutes and then taken away to be eaten on the sea wall. The gulls eye you up, but none this time come too close to steal.  This way our pizza, not cut, but torn, is eaten while almost too hot to handle.  Like proper fish & chips bought at the English seaside, as their temperature drops, so does appetite. Anticipation beats satiation.

IMG_9197 (450x600)Knives excite grown men and boys alike. One of the busiest stalls on the Thursday market is always the man selling knives for table, kitchen, chasse and status.

IMG_9201 (600x501)He does little trade, but for sure excites as the males look, handle and discuss what’s on show – some swopping sharp stories like switching blades and menacing butterflies.

Please God forbid I should be blinded, or like my ’68-er friend Yvette’s mother who was deprived by a car crash of her sense of smell. If it were to be, bring me back to Étretat and I’ll find my way around, then rest, cook, eat and stay.

IMG_9199 (498x600)PS We bought four fine bladed steak knives near identical to ones bought down south in Castelnaudary’s market 30 years ago – amazingly their price per unit had changed little, even with Euro’s replacing Francs.IMG_6506 (450x600)

IMG_6193 (450x600)

IMG_6332 (385x600)IMG_6590 (600x450)IMG_6509 (600x467)IMG_6586 (450x600)IMG_9195 (450x600)IMG_6191 (600x450)IMG_6804 (450x600)NOTE: Some names, not all, have been altered. You will find them all in Étretat. But that is only part of the story. Far more to come on the real Normandy, its food, markets and kitchen, in future www.insearchoftaste.com

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IMG_9317 (450x600)ENDSPIECE: Étretat locals make for Le Maupassant to discuss life and the price of fish, punt on horses and joke spare time away. The Patron is Thierry (real name). He has befriended a sea gull called ‘Chandon’ – as in Mouette et ……..All including the dog relax in Le Maupa’.IMG_9233 (495x600)IMG_9314 (452x600)




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