Saturday 21 November dawned bright and………..SNOWY! Our Christmas extravaganza in the Curious Kitchen was already panning out better than we could have hoped: Simon had collected Alessandro Martini, proprietor of Italian Days Experiences based in Bologna from the airport, along with Pina and Anna, two wonderful ladies from the ‘Bolognese Society of Pasta Nonnas’. Most small towns and villages in Italy have a society of Nonnas (Italian for Grandmother) who are the matriarchs of the village, responsible for passing down their culinary knowledge to all the young people, so that they will eventually be able to make all pasta as well as the Nonnas…….
I had already had the pleasure of meeting the Italians the day before, so I was lucky enough to have a glimpse of what was in store for our 16 lucky participants……..Alessandro – one of the most passionate men I have ever had the pleasure to meet, who along with Simon, was going to create a day which was off the scale of exuberance- he genuinely exuded fun, high spirits, knowledge of his beloved country and its food and wine, to name a few things. Next, Anna, – a master cook who spent many years working in a 2 Michelin starred restaurant and was having no nonsense from either Alessandro or Simon; and Pina, head Nonna and pasta queen, who, in her mid-seventies, had for the first time in her life, boarded a plane and come to the Curious Kitchen for her first visit outside Italy! Wonderful!
The guests all gathered together in the kitchen drinking espressos prepared by Marc, our new Barista (Kim wishes….) and getting reacquainted with old and new friends, until a Pavarotti fanfare began, and the new team marched in, both Nonnas wielding mattarellos (1 meter long wooden rolling pins) letting everyone know they were ready for business.
With loud Italian music blasting out Alessandro, sporting his now famous ‘Cooking with Nonna’ sweatshirt, entered with the Nonnas, with clapping and smiles from everyone. Simon welcomed all, encouraging everyone to wear their ‘Christmas Cook’ hat and Sue invited the group to introduce themselves and share something that is real right now. There was much excitement and nervousness in the room, and we all reflected on Andy’s comment, that even with so much awfulness going on in the world, there was a pocket of some 30 people who were about to spend a day of great joy, creation, fun and connection brought together by food.
That was the calmest moment of the day – there and gone in a flash. From that moment on, Nicki described the Curious Kitchen as ‘Organised Chaos, but in a good way……!’
Alessandro and I shared the menu,
Pranzo – Lunch
Focaccia con rosmarino and dal marino,
Parmigiano Reggiano D.O.P. (Denominazione di Origines Protetta) literally protected designation of origin – or in other words, locally produced produce.
25 years aged Aceto di Balsamico- D.O.P of course
Rainbow Trout caught in the Misbourne and smoked with Oak, Cherry, rosemary and thyme in our own smoker
And to prepare for CENA- Dinner
Antipasti – Insalata Tricolore, displayed in the colours of the Italian flag, Bruschetta, grissini, pate of the smoked trout
Brodo di Capona e tortellini -(Capon and Tortellini Broth)
Zuppa di zucar e marrones (puree of winter squash, parsnip and sweet roasted chestnuts)
Ragu di Bolognese e Tagliatelli
Tortelloni of pumpkin, squash & Parmesan
Torta della Risa, Torta ciocolatta di Simon e Alessandro, Italian New York baked lemon meringue Cheesecake
With no apologies for the Inglesitaliano spelling, we all got stuck in to preparing a feast fit for il Pape himself! Simon sharing to the team, " German time we have 4 hours and 40 minutes, Italian time, when the aromas from the food have filled the kitchen and our hearts and bellies can take no more, lets cook…………
Bread doughs for focaccia, panettone and grissini mixed and stirred, kneaded and pummelled; 5 kilo Rainbow Trout, lovingly gutted and filleted by Barbara and Marc – never tried before but much encouragement given, and she made a great job of it; Capons jointed by Chris embodying the master butcher, vegetables chopped – although not finely enough for Nonna Pina’s Ragu……. Another telling off for Andy and Greg! Squash & parsnips seasoned, chopped and roasted for soup and stuffing; Chestnuts, scored and gently roasting, trout in the smoker with cherry and oak wood chips, bunches of woody herbs from the garden and a good dousing of Italian Grappa; and now for the Pasta…… Simon was intent on giving everyone 100g (his measure, i.e. a rough handful) of 00 flour, an egg and a pinch of salt then knead it together with your fingers, whereas Nonna Pina – although she cannot speak a word of English, managed to convey that there was NO WAY we were making it Simon’s way, HER way was 200g of flour, 2 eggs and NO salt, and everything was weighed to the last gram on very accurate scales. Simon did manage to sneak 100g to Pippa, who mixed it quickly before the Nonna spotted it! The egg is cracked onto the flour and is then whisked to gradually incorporate the flour – much less messy but not nearly as much fun! The dough is then kneaded until it is as silky as chamois leather, kissed and left to rest for 30 minutes. Nonna Anna was the judge – Gareth was chuffed with his dieci points, although everyone got above eight!
Lunch was laid up – all the beautiful D.O.P. products plus warm from the oven bread and smoky trout, Alessandro told us about the wonderful Aceto Balsamico di Modena, and how you can tell if a supermarket bottle of balsamic is actually worth buying, or if it is just boiled wine vinegar….. The proper stuff must be aged for a minimum of 12 years; so needless to say, it is going to cost more that £1.50! Some of the team created an Italian inspired Bloody Mary using freshly squeezed cherry tomatoes, crushed basil, oregano leaves, grated horseradish, celery and celery salt and, of course, a few slugs of vodka to accompany our lunch. The lunch was heaven on a plate, but we were all soon back to work, peeling roasted chestnuts, pureeing soup, stirring ragu, kneading more panettone, shredding capon skilfully executed by Donna and Aaron, until it was time to get pasta making. We needed bucket loads of tortellini for the broth, and this is made by rolling out the pasta dough so thinly that you can see the table through it – an exquisite art form in itself, attempted by all, and Linda was most definitely a trainee Nonna, everyone else couldn’t get the slap and twist movement needed to stop the dough from sticking to the pin/table. The dough is then cut into 2cm squares with a pizza cutter and a tiny dab of stuffing put in the middle of the square (the stuffing was Parmigiano, minced mortadella sausage, pork cheek and salt, all mixed together to make a fine paste.) The square is then folded into a triangle and pinched around the edges to secure the stuffing, then the ends drawn together and joined to make a bishop’s mitre shape. We only had to make about 750 of them! This was a great activity that everyone could join in with, – a real sense of bonding and camaraderie around the pasta table! Rebecca even decided to make herself a tortellini ring.
Niamh organised a cool activity whereby Sue paired everyone up and we had to make fresh chocolate truffles to put in a cracker as a giving and receiving gift for our partner. Chocolate, liqueurs, nuts, spices, sugar and sprinkles kept everyone busy for the next half hour while we all tried to feel into what our partners would like in a chocolate by way of general chit chat, hugging or gazing into each other’s’ eyes for several minutes, causing much hilarity around the table.
Lucy & Paula organised everyone to make 2 classic panettone with various traditional and not so traditional ingredients to wrap and take home – we sneaked a few chunks of warm panettone straight from the oven though – It was the first time I had tried one that wasn’t at least 2 months old. (Incidentally much more delicious fresh!)
Alessandro and Simon grabbed a group of the boys and Kathryn to make their chocolate & chestnut torte cake – they were in hiding from the Nonnas because they didn’t want them to see that NOTHING was measured, the recipe was concocted as Simon had ripped the recipe up in front of their very eyes, by feel and smell and sight alone, interestingly, it turned out very well!
Pam’s group made creamy pate with what was left of the smoked trout giving it an Italian feel and flavour, Mark and Gareth made a beautiful Tricolore D.O.P. salad, the Nonnas finished their Rice cake then made a tomato pasta sauce for Waleed who doesn’t eat Pork; Steph, Aaron and Donna shredded the capon ( a big cock which has been castrated so his flesh is tender and he doesn’t want to fight his compatriots) for the broth, Sue’s group made a fantastic cheesecake topped with a billowing pillow of Italian meringue… (note to other users…. Do Not Open Oven 54 times when Cheesecake is setting) – and last minute touches were being put together all around the kitchen, the table was set, the tree decorated, candles lit, Prosecco open, Barolo breathing, crackers on the table, everything ready to go by a very reputable 6.30 (only 30 minutes late, like true Italians!)
Alessandro and the Nonnas served course after course of soup, broth, tortellini, tortelloni, tagliatelli, cake, cake, chocolate, until the room probably weighed about 6o kilos more than it had earlier in the day, in fact many of the men lifted their shirts to reveal their less than flat 12 packs! All washed down with craft beers and lagers from the UK, Prossecco and Italian vino and a ‘blast from the past’ Lambrusco, which will surely make a come back in the very near future. The only way to get rid of that excess Pasta was to dance on the table, which Alessandro, Simon, Becky and Niamh managed to do without breaking anything. The Black Cow vodka made its first appearance with nuggets of beautiful Black Cow Cheddar. Once the Cheddar had been devoured we tried it with Parmesan and Balsamic, which didn’t quite work! The day wound up with everyone sharing something they were grateful for – mostly for a wonderful day, having fun, creating great food with great company and getting to share it all together, – what more could one ask for?