Buon appetito: A trip to Modena inspires Mark Hix to create simple yet sensational dinner party dishes

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A few weeks ago I went on a trip to the Emilia-Romagna region with George Bennell from the Fresh Olive Company (fresholive.com), in order to check out his balsamic-vinegar producer Marina Spaggiari. Marina makes the most delicious traditional Modena balsamic vinegar for the company Nero Modena (neromodena.it). Their Tondo balsamic has a dark and even colour, thanks to extended ageing in the cask, and is ideal with grilled meats and fish dishes, as well as strawberries, pears and figs.

Being a fan of British cooking and produce has meant that cider vinegar has tended to play a starring role in my restaurants. So getting up close to the production process of the best-known vinegar in the world was a real revelation for me. I was able to observe the grape must cooking (that's the freshly pressed juice, plus its skin, seeds, and stems); that, plus the aroma of the balsamic that's been maturing in barrels for 15 years, is enough to get anyone hooked on the stuff.

On arrival in Modena, we found that Marina had laid on a feast of a lunch for us. It included delicious gnocchi fritti, some fantastic local cured meats, and organic Parmesan made by local cheese-maker Matteo Panini.

We were served course after course, including tagliatelli al ragu, beef featherblade cooked in Barolo, ribs and sausages with polenta and ricotta and tiramisu. The experience inspired me to create an all-Italian menu to celebrate this special issue of the magazine – cin-cin!

Tagliatelle al ragu

Serves 4

There are many, many variations of the classic ragu bolognese, and in Italy each household has its own favourite version. I like the addition of pork, as it gives the sauce a great flavour, and you can use veal or beef – it's up to you.

4 servings of good-quality tagliatelle
Freshly grated Parmesan, to serve

For the meat sauce

2tbsp vegetable or corn oil
200g minced pork belly
400g lean, coarsely minced veal or beef
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 medium onion, peeled, halved, chopped
1 stick of celery, finely diced
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tsp chopped thyme or oregano leaves
2tsp flour
2tsp tomato purée
100ml red wine
1 x 250g can of chopped tomatoes
750ml hot beef stock

First, make the meat sauce: heat half the oil in a large frying pan then season and fry the pork and veal on a high heat, stirring every so often until it's lightly coloured. Drain the meat in a colander, then heat the rest of the oil in a saucepan and gently cook the onion, garlic, celery and thyme for 2-3 minutes. Add the meat, flour and tomato purée and stir well, then gradually add the wine, beef stock and bring to the boil, season and simmer very gently for about an hour or so until the sauce has thickened and is just coating the meat. Cook the pasta in boiling salted water according to the manufacturer's cooking instructions, then drain. Serve with the ragu spooned on top and the Parmesan separately.

Tiramisu

Serves 4-6

Over the years we have made this classic Italian pudding in many different ways in our restaurants but the one we had for lunch on arrival at Marina Spaggiari's place in Modena was simple, light and sublime and finished off the long light lunch perfectly, especially with a few glasses of the local walnut liqueur. The nice thing about this Tiramisu was that it wasn't too sweet; it had very little sugar in it, if any.

200ml whipping cream
40g caster sugar
4 egg yolks
500g mascarpone at room temperature
12-15 sponge fingers
3 shots of espresso
4tbsp Amaretto
Good-quality cocoa powder, to serve

Whisk the cream until stiff. Beat the egg yolks and sugar by hand, or with an electric whisk, for a few minutes until light and creamy. Then spoon in the mascarpone until well mixed, and finally carefully fold in the cream mixture. Lay the sponge fingers in a serving dish about 4-5cm deep.

Mix the hot espresso with the Amaretto and spoon over the sponge fingers until the liquid is all absorbed.

Spoon over the cream mixture (you can pipe it in if you wish for a decorative effect), cover and leave to set in the fridge for an hour or so. Before serving, dredge with the cocoa powder.

Gnocchi fritti

Makes about 30 pieces

These fried gnocchi are delicious little pre-dinner snacks that go really well with both cheeses and cured meats. You can also try dusting them with icing sugar and serving as a post-lunch or dinner snack.

300g plain flour
25g lard, frozen and grated
1tsp salt
15g fresh yeast
150-180ml warm water
Vegetable or corn oil, for deep frying the gnocchi

Mix the flour, lard and salt in a bowl then transfer on to a work top and make a well in the centre.

Dissolve the yeast in a little of the warm water and then mix into the flour with the rest of the water to form a smooth dough. Knead the dough by hand for about 10 minutes – or, if you have a mixing machine with a dough hook attachment, approximately half that time. Transfer the dough to a bowl, cover with a damp cloth and leave it to prove for a couple of hours, or until the dough has doubled in volume.

Transfer the dough to a floured work top and with a floured rolling pin, roll it to about 1cm thick.

With a knife or pastry roller, cut the dough into rough 8cm x 10cm rectangles or into triangles; it's up to you.

Preheat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large, thick-bottomed saucepan or an electric deep-fat fryer.

Fry the pieces a few at a time for about 20-30 seconds, moving them around in the oil with a slotted spoon, until they puff up and lightly colour, then remove from the oil and drain on some kitchen paper. Serve while still warm, dusting them with icing sugar or, alternatively, a selection of cured meats and cheeses .

Ricotta with honey and balsamico

Years ago in Sicily I experienced freshly made ricotta and I have remembered its unique flavour ever since. So during our recent trip to Modena, we made time to visit Matteo Panini who produces 12 wheels of cheese a day from his organic herd of cattle, and were lucky enough to try his ricotta, which is made from the whey after the Parmesan has been made – and it evoked the buttery, creamy memory of that fresh ricotta all those years ago.

There isn't a recipe as such for this dish, but the crucial thing is make sure that you use aged balsamico which has a thick consistency, as opposed to the ordinary stuff which is thinner and more suitable for dressings. Simply spoon the ricotta on to serving plates and spoon a little balsamico over; drizzle with honey.

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