The thrill of finding something entirely new is high octane. Amongst the pulses, grains and bagged rice on the bottom shelf of Gennaro’s, sweet ristretto con medicino in hand, I fell onto ‘Fregola’.
Pasta not Strawberries
Not a strawberry (fragola), but an artisan pasta called fregola. They looked like off-white air gun pellets we had as kids. My nose twitched and I began immediately asking questions. Forgive me, all my readers that know all about Fregola – hands’ up, I don’t. Sardinia’s high on my must-visit-soon list, but not got there yet.
Fregola comes from Sardinia – brought there by the Moors and it’s more a couscous than a pasta. My love of Sardinian food and wine stretches to luxurious bottarga (sun dried grey mullet roes), carta di musica and tales of illicit roasts set amidst stones under the ground by bandits and rogues. Mirto di Sardenga I also love – a digestif made from wild myrtle berries. But Fregola, it’s new. Some write it as Fregula.
Research also tells me it’s one of the island’s best kept secrets, so maybe we are forgiven for not having instant recall of fregola.
Pea Season Ending
The day I found it I was set on a Risi e Bisi as this season’s excellent peas are coming to an end and we wanted to eek out the very last. I decided to replace the rice with the new found pasta, Fregola, as I said, is more a couscous hand rolled and formed from durum wheat and then dried in the oven, not like the long slow natural drying associated with well made pasta.
Fast drying of pasta is its biggest enemy after using low grade durum - if only pasta buyers figured that when they struck their cheap deals on budget pasta.
Slow dried fine pasta, extruded through bronze dies once tasted makes all else aborhorent. Don’t be taken in, mention of bronze dies alone is not enough – that’s marketing.
Nearly every bronze die is engineered in the small town of Pistoia. When Pistoia closes for the summer, pasta makers the world over have to wait for their new dies. Long may such attention the important last – wake up businessmen and get your order in on time,
Back to fregola – I’m told it’s very local, even by Sardinian standards – it’s home is the south around Cagliari. Many living in the north of the island know no more than its name.
The fregola with peas and salted capers was stupendous – starting with the sofrito of finely chopped, peeled celery and, yesterday, shallots. I work to the Chinese method where ingredients are all sized the same – not only to they cook identically, but they are more pleasing to the eye.
In goes the clear chicken broth – up to the boil and then in with the Fregola – a 12 minute cook – I took mine to 14 as there’s al-dente and there’s too-damn-hard. I like to cook the peas separately in more of the stock – it gives me more control to be sure they are perfectly cooked. Ignore all writers who wax on merits of frozen peas – they are coloured sugar balls and have no place in Blue Collar Gastronomy,
A couple of minutes before the Fregola is al-dente, in go the peas and rinsed capers – then with a slotted spoon transfer to a serving dish – I say slotted spoon because it should be quite soupy like a Risi e Bisi. I added a well aged ewes’ milk Pecorino for a flavour switch from Parmesan - grated very last minute to soak into the finished dish. It was a success – one for the family repertoire. Salted capers are superior for this dish – save the ones in brine for fish and long cooked lamb.
Clams and Tomatoes
In Sardinia, clams and tomato are the classic pairing – a dish called Fregola Sarda con Arselle. I made this today and it was another wonder. I spiced up the sugo with extra garlic and dried Italian chilli flakes. I also added a ladle of the fregola cooking water for absolute correctness to Nonna’s kitchen where nothing is wasted.
Luckily I found fresh Palourdes in our only local, but over-priced fishmongers, although the smaller and sweeter Talines clams would have been best of all. These all but unavailable in England – plentiful across the water. Again we must compromise when we shop – others might say think on our feet.
Mid-week and on a budget I would have no qualms using a good quality Italian clams in brine, added to the tomato sugo. Clams in the shell make for a more ritualistic dinner as each of us sucked the meat from the shells, discarded them between forkfulls of the sea-rich tomato fregola. Even the clatter of the shells being strewn into the dish made us think we were on holiday someplace other than a grey Greenwich – the fregola brought in the sunshine and we thought the cars in the car park had become boats on the quayside.
What a find – Fregola, ‘pasta tipica della Sardegna’. We ate it twice this week. Now I’m thinking of stealing a lamb to slow roast under the communal lawns outside our apartment – sittting around the turf topped underground oven drinking rough Sardinian country wine, singing songs and pretending nothing untoward is happening below our feet, until we open the stone lined oven after dark and have our more brigand-like friends around to feast and laugh.
Warning: in fairness Fregola won’t be easy to find, so persevere or write to me and I’ll find you a mail order supplier.