The food ‘industry’, for that is what they call it as if to separate us further from our food, has a language of its own. One term they like is ‘mouth feel’. Good pasta is about mouth feel as much as flavour – that is the very heart of the pastificio’s toil. One shape from Puglia called orecchiette strikes high notes.
Making fresh orecchiette with family around the kitchen 1m² stainless steel workstation started the Easter Feasting off in grand style.
I used the 1:3 Sicilian integrale to Pugliese durum ‘Tipo OO’ flours – taught me by my pal these past three years, Antonio Albano, the happy chef at Ristorante Di Gustibus in Brindisi. With flours this strong we can work with water – eggs are only needed when flour is weak.
Across in Calabria we eat another in the same style – orecchie di prete (priest’s ears). Quite why a priest should have different shaped ears is beyond my reach – that priests should have good ears for our confessions and intentions is another thing, but that’s best kept away from the kitchen.
Our orecchiette came out more as what the Pugliese call ‘strascinate‘ – the shape that comes from dragging the dough with the knife, but not quite achieving a perfect orecchiette. Michela d’Adamo, originally from Taranto and now living in Venice, told me this. It just shows that pasta making is made perfect with regular trial. Pasta is art and anyone not believing that best stick with a 500g bag of good stuff and stay well away from flour and water.
Orecchiette shakes memories. Another Pugliese friend is the high class sommelier – the one who reckons to open more Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Cristal and Chateau d’Yquem (he can spell it properly too) in one week than any other wine waiter in London.
He returns to Brindisi often to see his Mamma. Within a couple of hours of touching down at Aeroporto del Salento he’s sitting down to Orecchiette del Cima di Rapa. When asked why always this dish, he just smiles his smile and says ‘because it’s the law’. Finding fresh Cima di Rapa in London is pure joy. With it we can follow Mamma and Pugliese law too.
This means only one thing – canned plum tomatoes from Italy’s Campania region – picked when their ripeness is optimum from growing on good soil under the relentless southern sun and being canned within 2-3 hours.
For the sugo we take two cans of peeled plum tomatoes – they go into the pan with 3-4 generous splashes of olive oil, 2-3 crushed garlic cloves, a teaspoon of white sugar and a good pinch of coarse sea salt. Sometimes fresh basil or dried wild oregano are added.
During the cooking move the pan from side to side to assist the splitting of oil from the tomato – another trick from a nonna learned in the 70s in Milan. Some chefs I know say that oil and water will naturally split – I reckon splitting the sugo needs some assistance. This is then allowed to gently simmer for 20-30′ before collapsing the tomatoes with the back of a fork and allow to cook on for another 10-15′ to reduce any excess liquid.
Another simple rule is that plum tomatoes are mostly used for cooking – their ratio of meaty flesh to seed ensures a rich sauce and this is nowhere better found than in the famous San Marzano DOP tomato grown in the rich volcanic soils beneath the mighty Mt Vesuvius in the fields around San Marzano sul Sarno. San Marzano has in recent times become a story of intrigue. The truth is said start in 17oos Peru, crosses to Naples and takes us today to many of the finest kitchens. The value is high and so fakes are commonplace, so only genuine DOP San Marzano should be tracked down. But that’s another story for another time when I return to Naples to sleuth. Unusually wet and stormy weather kept me out of the San Marzano fields last summer.
Another current favourite – actually an old preparation learned in Venice in another kitchen – is a tomato sauce flavoured with tuna and capers. Here we work as for the sugo above but add a can of white tuna (albacore) – difficult to find in England, but search it out where you can can find. Do not attempt this with regular skipjack or any commodity canned tuna. The white tuna should be canned – sometimes in glass too – in olive oil and no other. Salted capers, rinsed off and added near the end of cooking are a treat too. As the tuna heats gently through, use a fork to break larger pieces into smaller morsels. The fish gives flavour and body to the sauce.
Here the preferred pasta shape is another southern speciality – paccheri. These are a large tubular shape which seems over-sized in the bag. Buy the best you can find – those from Gragnano – the celebrated Città della Pasta – will not let you down. Gragnano’s pasta has had IGP status since 2003 and brands to look for are Garofalo, Di Martino and Faella – all benefit from gentle extrusion through bronze dies and slow, slow drying. Naples and Vesuvius are across the bay that we all must see before we die. This is the region of Sophia Loren, pizza, pasta and noisy, fun people who know their food.
Such a shape needs careful cooking so as not to break the tube – your largest pan is essential. Anyone cooking pasta regularly needs a pan of 8-10 litres capacity.
When invited some years back to enthuse English employees of a household name Italian food brand about the real Italian cooking and style, we were shocked to find only small saucepans in their show kitchens. That’s what happens when a brand is uprooted by acquisition and is set up by marketeers and their advertising agencies to become more image than substance.
Back to the No 19 kitchen, our orecchiette was laid to dry overnight on greaseproof paper on a large tray near an open window. Slow drying makes for good pasta. Industrial pasta, such as most sold in supermarkets, suffers from express drying. 60 hours is not unusual in Gragnano. In times gone by, the main street was all pasta makers with their spaghetti hanging out to dry in the mix of sun and the cooling breezes that made the town famous for pasta.
Let me close with the Three O’s taught me by Beatrice Ughi, a Roman who lives in New York and runs Gustiamo, said to be one of the very best Italian food import companies on the East Coast. The O’s are ‘Never Over cook, Over drain or Over sauce’ the pasta. Follow the Beatrice Ughi mantra, source good durum wheat pasta and flours, then you’ll never go far wrong.