Eating in: Doughs and don'ts

The fresh pasta we buy in supermarkets may cost more, but as often as not it tastes slimy and horrible. Michael Bateman visits Bologna to find out exactly what it takes to make good pasta, and says that we are missing out on a delicious treat

IT WAS THE late great American writer James Beard in his classic book, Beard on Pasta, who corrected the assumption that any fresh pasta is better than any dried pasta. "There's nothing wrong with good commercial pasta," he wrote. "In many cases it is better than the fresh pasta you can buy."

This may be so, but we can hardly be blamed for our confusion when confronted with such a profusion of the stuff. The truth is in fact fairly straightforward. For though there are over 650 shapes, there are only four types of pasta. Plain pasta, sold either dry or fresh - the basic pastas eaten everywhere, all the time. And egg pasta, sold both dry and fresh, for special occasions - delicate and rich at best, disgusting at worst.

You can buy both plain and the more expensive egg pasta in Britain, but there are different interpretations of fresh. There's fresh pasta made daily (you can get this from Soho Italian shops such as Camisa I & Son and Lina Stores), and there's the "fresh" pasta sold by supermarkets. This is usually anything but.

Writer and TV cook Valentina Harris thinks that much of the commercial egg pasta sold in this country is horrible. It has an unpleasant taste and texture, can be slimy, and isn't truly freshly-made. Those of us who agree with her often make do with plain pasta instead, but we are, Valentina says, missing out. And so it was that she became my guide to Bologna, the spiritual home of egg pasta, where it was invented some 500 years ago.

Bologna, also known as Bologna la Grassa (Fat) in respect of its place in Italian gastronomy, is a medieval city which, in the 14th century, gave the world mortadella, a huge sausage, often over a foot wide, named after the mortar (or mortaio) used to pound the pork. It is equally renowned for its ragu alla Bolognese, most authentically made with minced veal and prosciutto, which we now know as Bolognese sauce.

But the most famous Bolognese invention of all is their silky, rich egg pasta. Made without water, whole eggs provide the moisture that binds the flour, usually in the proportion of four eggs to one kilo of flour. Thin sheets of dough are cut into squares for lasagne, or into ribbons for tagliatelle, or made into richly-filled ravioli squares or those tightly- knotted little twists of stuffed pasta, tortellini.

Medieval spin doctors had it that tortellini were modelled on Venus. Allegedly, a Bolognese innkeeper spied on the goddess undressing in her room and sought to recapture the memory in his kitchen, working a triangle of stuffed ravioli around the tip of his finger to make the shape of her belly button.

I spent half a day trying to make them, under the tutelage of the famous Simili sisters, who have run a cookery school in the town for 30 years. First the egg dough, explained Margarita, which is so quick and easy to make, taking only an hour of the housewife's time (Oh, Margarita, that's an hour longer than most Britons want to spend in the kitchen).

This is kneaded with no great pressure for 20 minutes until the dough turns plasticine-soft, rested for 20 minutes, and then patiently rolled for another 10 to 15 minutes with a Bolognese rolling pin a metre long.

The pastry spreads until it overlaps the table and is so thin that you can slide a page of text underneath and still read it. At this stage you can play with it, cutting and rolling unlikely shapes. Belly buttons, etc.

The other part of my tuition is a visit to the Anda-lini pasta factory in Cento, which produces a high quality dried egg pasta. Here they use modern technology to slow down rather than accelerate the process; extending drying time to 10 hours or more. They use bronze dies instead of steel rollers for moulding, in order to produce a texture that sauces adhere to.

The factory was anxious to make the point that good commercial dried egg pasta was better than poor fresh egg pasta, and over a gargantuan lunch they easily proved it. This egg pasta is new to the British market and currently selling in Sainsbury's stores under the Sacla label. It will soon be available elsewhere.

The next day, however, I had lunch at Diana, where they have been making fresh pasta daily for nearly 70 years. Here they made the point that the best home-made egg pasta is even better. We slavered over tortellini en brodo folowed by tagliatelle with ragu alla Bolognese. Sublime. Why wasn't I told? Why weren't any of us told?

If you want the challenge of making your own egg pasta, here is a recipe from Antonio and Priscilla Carluccio's new book, Pasta (Quadrille pounds 6.99), together with a recipe for tagliatelle al ragu Bolognese.

it is with a recipe for the classic ragu bolognese.

PUMPKIN RAVIOLI

For 4

1.75 kg (4??) pumpkin, cut into large slices

6 ammaretti biscuits, finely crumbled

100g (3 1/2 oz) parmesan cheese, grated

55g (1 1/2 oz??) mostarda di Cren ??????? (mustard fruits), finely sliced

60g (2oz) butter

12 sage leaves

FOR THE PASTA DOUGH:

600g (1 1/2lb??) 00 (doppio xero) flour??

4 eggs

Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/gas 6. Bake the pumpkin for about 40 minutes until soft. Scrape the flesh off the rind, put it in a colander and squeeze out most of the moisture. Mix with the amaretti, half the mostarda to make a compact paste.

Make the pasta adding enough water to make a soft dough. Roll out into very thin sheets and cut out discs about 6 cm (2 1/2 metres) in diameter. Place a little filling to one side of each, then fold in half, pinching the edges together to seal.

Cook the tortelli ill plenty of boiling salted water for 6-7 minutes.

until al dente, then drain. Put the butter glad sage in a large pan and heat until the butter is foaming. Add the tortelli and mix to coat. Transfer to serving plates and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.

ENDS-clj

aml-PA

FRESH EGG PASTA

Makes approx 500g/1lb

300g/1012 oz (doppio zero) flour, plus more for dusting

3 eggs

Sift the flour on to a work surface (marble is ideal), forming it into a volcano-shaped mound with a well in the centre. Break the eggs into this well and add a pinch of salt. With your hands, gradually draw the flour into the egg until it forms a coarse paste. Add a little more flour if the mixture seems too soft or sticky. Scrape together all the dough with a spatula. Clean your hands and the work surface. Lightly dust the work surface with flour and knead the dough with the heels of your hands for 10-15 minutes, giving it lots of shoulder power, until it is smooth and elastic. Wrap in cling film or foil and leave to rest for 30 minutes. Lightly flour the work surface and a rolling pin. Gently roll out the rested dough, rotating it by quarter turns, to obtain a round sheet of pasta with a thickness of 2-3mm. Cut the sheets into noodles or other shapes.

TAGLIATELLE AL RAGU BOLOGNESE

Serves 4

500g/1lb fresh tagliatelle or 400g/14oz dried egg tagliatelle

60g/2oz Parmesan cheese, grated

For the sauce

55g/134oz butter

55g/134 oz minced prosciutto fat or pancetta

1 large carrot, finely chopped

1 celery stalk, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

100g/312oz minced lean veal or beef

100g/312oz minced lean pork

1 glass of dry red wine

a little beef or chicken stock

3 tablespoons tomato paste

Heat the butter in a large pan, add the prosciutto fat or pancetta, fry gently for 10 minutes. Add the minced meats and stir with a wooden spoon. Brown the meat for about 15 minutes, add the wine and bubble for a few minutes. Stir in a little stock to prevent sticking. Stir in tomato paste, diluted with a few tablespoons of stock. Leave to simmer for 112 hours, adding more stock if dry and a little more at the end for a smooth consistency. Season. Cook the tagliatelle in boiling salted water, drain and mix with sauce. Serve with Parmesan.

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