From a pasta dish the Italians love, to canapés that will get the neighbours' curtains twitching. Say cheese.

Once upon a time (oh, how I find myself muttering that childhood introduction to myself more and more these days, as a grieving gourmet adult with remembrance of things past) I guess that one of the most important tasks relevant to the simple recipe instructions of "sprinkling over" or "stirring in" grated cheese to something baked, or the enrichment of a nice white sauce, was to first locate the grater. The cheese itself - its very name, its taste or its provenance - seemed of little importance.

Once upon a time (oh, how I find myself muttering that childhood introduction to myself more and more these days, as a grieving gourmet adult with remembrance of things past) I guess that one of the most important tasks relevant to the simple recipe instructions of "sprinkling over" or "stirring in" grated cheese to something baked, or the enrichment of a nice white sauce, was to first locate the grater. The cheese itself - its very name, its taste or its provenance - seemed of little importance.

My earliest experience with the cheese grater was with the one I found hanging at the back of the Aga. Of course, as some of you might know, this is where all manner of metal kitchenalia is put to dry efficiently. Mind you, as an inexperienced but hugely keen culinary wizard at the time, my impatience to get grating would often result in warm, semi-melted dribbles of cheese. "Cool it!" my mother would say, while blissfully unaware that such an instruction would, in time, become an everyday admonishment of intemperate behaviour, usually followed by "man".

In the fridge, in the kitchen of our house in Lancashire, it was always a Lancashire cheese that we had. We liked this cheese and, therefore, were perfectly happy to grate it for cooking when the need arose. This was simply because it happened to be the particular cheese most widely available to us because of where we lived.

Well, yes, Dad did, occasionally, veer well off course, indulging us from time to time in the odd tubular smoked cheese from the counter of the hugely suspect, recently arrived Polish delicatessen located at the very edges of the market perimeter. And Mum, wishing to display a similarly independent spirit, would sometimes return from an outing to the food halls of Manchester's swish Kendal Milne department store with an under-ripe (but of course) wedge of "French" brie and - treat of all treats - a foil-wrapped cake of the gorgeous new fromage Boursin! The latter - particularly as far as Dad's cheque-book was concerned - would further serve to deflect undue attention from the main reason for Mum's thoroughly indulgent trip to the other, more decorative floors of Kendal Milne and Co.

So it was forever to be lumps of Lancashire, in varying stages of higgledy-piggledy vintage, and stored within a yellow Tupperware box (which Dad still uses to this day to store Welsh cheese in his Welsh fridge, but causes me to worry, from time to time, that there may still be just the odd crumb or two of Lancashire lurking in its corners) that remained the everyday cheese of the Hopkinson family Frigidaire. And, depending upon what Bury market had to offer at the time, that could have been anything from the wet and weeping curds of a crumbly/tasty or crumbly/mild Lancashire, to the slightly firmer wedges of the alternative choice of creamy/tasty or creamy/mild. Oh, the joy of such limited choice! And I make that observation with the utmost sincerity.

Tagliolina gratinati al prosciutto 'Harry's Bar'

Serves 4

Assuming that some of you may have read my Harry's Bar (Venice) thesis on these pages towards the end of last year, you will already know that I favour almost every single thing about the place.

I may have mentioned how it excited me simply to observe the waiters as they deftly served up such things as risotto and pasta dishes, or flambé the house dish of custard-filled sweet pancakes table-side without once eliciting even the merest "whoop" from the happy recipients. But nothing more then a regrettable lack of space on the page finally prevented me from including this, one of the most enduring and curiously endearing pasta dishes of all, in the history of Harry's Bar.

Here is what Arrigo Cipriani has to say about it, in The Harry's Bar Cook Book: ''This dish is one of the few combinations of French and Italian cuisines on our menu. The pasta and the ham are Italian; the sauce and the cooking method are French. It has become a classic of Harry's Bar because everybody likes it so much.''

I particularly like that perfectly obvious last sentence. I guess one might, therefore, call it a "speciality". I remain surprised that Cipriani cites the sauce as being "French"; I mean, when was the last time you encountered sauce bechamel as one of the essential lotions of la cuisine Française? I kind of get his drift, but while most present-day French cooks have casually dumped their useful bechamel in favour of the interminable jus, the recently resurrected velouté or the now hugely chic "emulsion", it is very nice to know that the Italians have continued to use their salsa besciemella as if nothing has changed. Just like Harry's.

50g butter

75g prosciutto, sliced slightly thicker than normal and then cut into thin strips

350g dried egg tagliolini --Cipriani brand, for preference; for this recipe I chose to use half green (spinach) and half white tagliolini

75g freshly grated Parmesan (plus extra to hand at table)

150ml (or you may weigh it as 150g) hot bechamel sauce (see recipe overleaf)

Preheat an overhead grill. Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. Melt about a third of the butter in a large frying pan over a moderately high heat. Add the prosciutto and cook it for a minute or two, stirring constantly. Cook the pasta in the boiling water for 2 minutes or until al dente. Drain well in a colander and tip it into the frying pan. Briskly toss together with the prosciutto, add a further third of the butter, sprinkle with half of the given amount of Parmesan and thoroughly mix everything together.

Now spread the pasta evenly into a shallow, preferably oval, white baking dish. Spoon the bechamel sauce over the surface and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Cut the remaining butter into slivers and scatter over the top. Place under the grill until the entire dish is molten, bubbling and evenly blistered by golden pustules. Serve without delay on to hot plates and pass around the extra Parmesan at table.

Délices au Gruyÿre

Serves 4

A delectable little Bob Carrier number here from 36 years ago (The Robert Carrier Cookbook, 1965). Admittedly, it is a bit fiddly, but once they're popped in the mouth, even Margot Leadbetter might have paid compliment to one's culinary expertise. A nibble it is not. It is a celebrated canapé.

Note: It is necessary to begin making the basis of this dish the day before you wish to finish and serve it.

75g butter

75g flour

400ml milk

150g grated Gruyÿre

salt, white pepper, grated nutmeg and a little cayenne

2 egg yolks

flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs, for coating

oil, for deep frying

Melt the butter in a solid-bottomed saucepan and, using a whisk, incorporate the flour until thoroughly blended with the fat. Continue to whisk gently while also allowing the fat and flour to amalgamate over the merest flame without colouring.

Now, gradually whisk in the cold milk in a steady stream, still over a gentle heat, until the mixture begins to thicken. Once this begins to happen, replace the whisk with a wooden spoon or spatula and keep stirring for at least 5-10 minutes, until smooth and very thick indeed. Add the cheese and continue stirring until it has fully melted into the sauce and all is glossy and very smooth indeed. Stir in seasoning and remove from the heat.

Leave to cool in the pan for at least 10 minutes and then ferociously beat in the egg yolks one at a time, once more using the whisk. Immediately pour into a clingfilm-lined shallow square or rectangular non-stick baking tin, smooth off the surface with a wet palette knife and then place another sheet of cling film directly across its surface. Leave to cool and then place in the fridge overnight.

For the final preparation, first have the oil in the deep-fryer heated to a temperature of 180°C. Also, have some flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs ready in three separate bowls. Then invert the (now) solid cheese sauce on to a work surface, remove one layer of clingfilm and cut little squares -- "délices'', in other words -- from it with a small, previously wetted knife (see above left). Fondle these with flour, then dip them into the beaten egg and, finally, through the breadcrumbs.

To cook, drop them into the deep fryer (say, 6 to 8 délices or so at a time) and for about 1-1 1/2 minutes, or until golden and crusted and with just the merest indication of a minuscule pustule or two of their molten interior showing through their fragile, breadcrumbed coating. Lift from the fat and briefly allow to drain, then gingerly tip out on to kitchen paper. Eat at once.

Endives au gratin

Serves 4

The secret of braising endives (or chicories) is never to be tempted to add water during any stage of their cooking, as the water content of the vegetable remains high enough as it is (the same is also true when cooking rhubarb).

Some recipes I have read actually suggest blanching the endive in boiling water beforehand to expel excess bitterness. This is quite wrong -- and, apart from anything else, it is surely the bitterness of endive that is part of its particular appeal. However, you may find it curious that by adding lemon juice to something so inherently bitter should also help to mellow and sweeten it, but it does.

For the endives

75g butter

4 large endives, trimmed of any damaged leaves and the hard little core at the base removed with a sharp knife as a tiny cone

salt and pepper

juice of 1/2 a lemon

For the bechamel sauce

500ml milk

2 cloves

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

1 bay leaf


50g butter

35g flour

freshly grated nutmeg

white pepper

4 thin slices of good quality ham

4 rounded tbsp grated cheese -- Gruyÿre, Parmesan or even Lancashire

a generous sprinkling of dried breadcrumbs

Preheat the oven to 325°F/ 170°C/gas mark 3. It is good to use a shallow and solid bottomed dish that will transfer from stove to oven, and if it has a lid too then all the better. Make sure that the dish will take the endives in a single layer. Melt the butter in the dish and cook until foaming. Put in the endives, turning them thoroughly in the butter, and season.

Turn the heat down to low and gently colour the endives on all sides until glossy and pale golden. Pour in the lemon juice and turn up the heat a little. Cover and place in the oven for 30-40 minutes or so, turning the endives over once, until they are very tender. Take out, remove cover and leave to cool. (It is difficult to overcook endives, but there is nothing worse than an endive that is a bit hard in the middle.)

Turn the oven up to 400°F/ 200°C/gas mark 6. To make the sauce, heat together the milk, cloves, onion, bay and a little salt. Simmer a few minutes, cover and allow the flavours to mingle for about 20 minutes. In another pan, melt the butter and stir in the flour. Make a roux and gently cook the butter and flour together for a minute or two, but on no account allow it to colour; it must stay pale.

Strain the milk into the roux and vigorously whisk together until smooth (this always gets rid of any lumps). On the lowest possible heat -- using a diffuser pad if you have one -- set the sauce to cook. Do not cover the sauce, and stir it, from time to time, with a wooden spoon. Leave to cook for about 15 minutes. Add the nutmeg and pepper, mix in thoroughly, check for salt, and cook for a further 5 minutes. Strain again into a clean pan and put a lid on. This helps to prevent a skin forming.

To assemble and finish the dish, wrap each endive in a slice of ham, tip out excess fat from the endive baking dish and place the wrapped endives in it. Spoon over the sauce, strew with the cheese and, with your fingers, run a little line of breadcrumbs along the length of each one. Bake on the top shelf of the oven for 20-25 minutes or until golden and bubbling.