No. That isn't how you should stir the ragu," says a well-dressed Italian mother to her son as she lovingly moves him aside to reach for the saucepan. But Sabia Tortella's matriarchal scolding isn't part of her Sunday morning ritual at her home in Abruzzo, she is, in fact, instructing her son at La Cucina Caldesi cookery school in central London, as part of an Italian mamas' cooking class.
Last week, the inviting aromas of freshly made pasta and homemade lamb ragu weren't only rising up in Tuscany, Lombardy and Calabria but also in Marylebone, where six mothers of Italian staff at Caldesi restaurants donned aprons and brandished their rolling pins for Mamas Week. The women, from across the Italian peninsula, were brought to London by restaurateurs Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi to teach them a thing or two about authentic home cooked Italian food and to share their recipes, most of which have been in their families for generations.
The idea to bring in the mothers stemmed from a simple plate of spaghetti with clams. A debate over which member of staff's mum would make the best vongole soon got out of hand when Matteo Berghella, the Caldesi's bar manager said, "My mother's vongole is much better than our chef's vongole." "So I said we should get her over here to show us how it's done and the idea just ran on from there. I didn't realise at the time that when an Italian son calls his mother she will be out on the next plane," says Katie.
Not that Katie and Giancarlo necessarily need much by the way of instruction. As well as running their cookery school in Marylebone, they also run Caffé Caldesi and Caldesi Tuscan Restaurant, both just down the road, as well as Caldesi in Campagna in fashionable Bray, Berkshire.
In all their establishments, the Caldesi duo demonstrate how much they value real Italian food. And their staff don't need much excuse to switch into Italian, as if to prove the point. They also acknowledge that real food has always come from the home, through the matriarchs of the family as recipes handed down from the nonna (grandmother) to mama and mama to child. Giancarlo was taught by his mother and operates his restaurants according to the principle, "Mama always knows best".
So last Thursday, along with half a dozen cookery students, I put on my apron and warmed up my kneading arm to receive instruction from three real Italian mothers. All their sons work at Caldesi restaurants, but despite their obvious closeness, it didn't take long for mothers and sons to get into a good-natured argument. The first of several debates seemed to centre on whether a good soffritto, or pasta sauce base, should contain onion, carrot and celery or onion, carrot and red pepper. The answer was dependent on whose mama was wielding the vegetable knife at the time. My mama does know best, after all.
After dicing the red pepper and leaving the celery languishing, the women moved on to the next dish – the fresh pasta for the lamb ragu.
After being drafted in by a stern Anna Pino, the mother-in-law of Monserrato Marini, head chef at Caffé Caldesi, for the use, as she said, of my young arms, I was sidelined to cherry tomato chopping duties. It seemed my dough kneading, despite showing initial promise, wasn't up to much. Not that I was complaining, the tomatoes were beautifully fresh and at least a third of them ended up in my mouth.
The other students, who were far more talented than me, set to work preparing the rest of the day's dishes, which included a fregola (similar to couscous) with seafood that Giancarlo loudly announced, upon tasting, was the best he'd ever had, gnocchetti with tomato and buffalo mozzarella, maccheroni "alla chitarra" with lamb ragu, pisarei e faso (gnocchetti from Piacenza with a beans and tomato sauce) and pesto with green beans and potatoes. All finished off with a delicious orgliette and sebadas (sweet filled pastries).
The cookery instruction itself was a disorderly affair and rarely did it seem that the din of clashing saucepans and clanking pasta makers subsided sufficiently for any formal teaching to take place. The chaotic nature of the lesson, though, was central to its charm, and while we might not have been lectured on the specifics of pasta making, we were able to get our hands covered in flour. I peeled and chopped, while picking up a few tips. For example, the best pasta should seem alive on the plate if you make sure the dough is Play-Doh-like in consistency and rest it for the correct amount of time before it's cooked. And the best way to add sweetness to your sauce is to use plenty of olive oil and cook the soffritto and meat for much longer than you'd first think.
As the day progressed and I became weary of chopping and longed for a glass of wine to go with my cherry tomatoes, head honcho Giancarlo strode into the kitchen full of enthusiasm, embracing all and sundry in true Italian fashion.
"This course gives our restaurants a different signature and shows that cooking doesn't have to be about celebrities and television chefs. For these mamas, cooking is all about touch, feel, smell, passion and love. Food for them is about being a good mother who feeds her children well. They just want to teach others to cook and eat good food, just like their mothers before them."
My chopping complete, I collared Stefano Borella, the Caldesi chef leading the course, to act as a translator while I spoke to mama Tortella. She agreed with Giancarlo, saying, "I prefer to use the most fresh produce and authentic ingredients. I almost never use pre-prepared ingredients. For me, food has to be real and something the family can work on together."
Giancarlo and Katie take their food extremely seriously and broaden their take on Italian cooking to explore its social impact. "The mamas do this for love and for their family because they want you to eat well and to enjoy preparing food as a family," says Giancarlo.
In Britain, 20 per cent of us only sit down to eat together as families once a week or less. And of those of us that do eat together, a 75 per cent of us do so in front of the television. As Katie points out, this would be totally alien in Italy. "I don't think the mamas realise how close they are with their sons and families, I think it is just taken for granted in Italy. I'll admit this is a bit of a stereotype, but they don't suffer the same problems with families moving away from each other," she says.
Matteo Berghella, whose idea sparked Mamas Week, seems to have a close bond with his mother, Sabia, a bond interwoven with his relationship to food. "I've always tried to pay attention to my mama's cooking. I've never found food with any of the same quality or taste as hers. When I go home, the first thing I do isn't to go see my friends or party, I go home to eat diner with mama."
For Katie, bringing the mamas over has been a no-brainer. "I knew I couldn't lose. It has raised staff morale because it is a nice employer who brings your mother over – and it has increased our repertoire of dishes. But most importantly, it has focused our attention of what our cooking should be, namely simple Italian home cooking.
"We are not about Michelin-star cooking, where everything has to look perfect. We are more about cooking simple Italian food. That is what we want to bring to our restaurants and now, because all three head chefs have worked with the mamas, we are surer of what we are aiming at."
As the day ends and we finally are able to sample the delicious fruits of our labour – well, mainly everyone else's labour, a homely, almost family feel descends on the room. Giancarlo asks me what my favourite Italian dish to cook is. After a brief moment of confusion where I mispronounce gnocchetti and end up saying something very rude in Italian (best not translated here), I casually mention that I do a mean spaghetti bolognese. "Who taught you how to do that?" he says. Well, I reply, it must have been my mother.
Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi's book 'The Italian Mama's Kitchen' is published by Octopus, £9.99
Anna's fregola con frutti di mare
50ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, crushed whole
3 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
Half a red chilli, finely chopped
150g cherry tomatoes, halved
Good pinch each of salt and pepper
500g fresh clams
300g squid rings
12 raw king prawns
100ml white wine
500g small fregola
15g parsley, roughly chopped
1 litre fish stock
In a non-stick pan, heat the oil. When hot, add the garlic, chilli and anchovies. Give it a stir and season. Add the clams, mussels, prawns and squid. Remove the garlic and cover for five minutes or until the shellfish have opened. Add the white wine and reduce for a couple of minutes.
Remove the clams and mussels, leaving the prawns. Add the fregola and pour over some of the fish stock until it is just covered. Stir for a few minutes, then add the tomatoes. Keep on adding fish stock until the fregola is cooked al dente.
When it is nearly ready, put back the clams and mussels and add the chopped parsley. Season with more salt and pepper if necessary.
Stir in the butter, and serve.
Sabia's pasta con vongole
This is often served with fresh pasta made on a chitarra, a wooden block with fine strings stretched across it through which fresh pasta is pushed with a rolling pin. Substitutes are dried spaghetti or linguine.
50ml extra-virgin olive oil
350g spaghetti or linguine
600g fresh clams, cleaned
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
Handful of chopped parsley
50ml white wine
3 tablespoons cherry tomatoes, halved
Good pinch of salt
Bring a saucepan of salted water to the boil and add the pasta. Cook until it is al dente.
Meanwhile, pour the oil into a saucepan and when it is hot add the clams. Add the chopped garlic and parsley and stir. The shells will start to open in just few minutes.
When they are all open, add the wine and let it reduce. Then add the cherry tomatoes and add the salt. Drain the pasta and toss it into the sauce.
Serve on hot plates.
How to make fresh pasta
300g "00" flour, plus a little extra if necessary
3 medium free-range eggs, preferably corn-fed for colour
Pour the flour on to a flat surface or into a bowl and make a well in the centre of the mound. The walls around the edge of the mound should be high enough that the egg doesn't escape. Crack the eggs into the centre of the well. Using a table knife, gradually mix in the egg and flour. When the dough has become like a thick paste, use the fingertips of one hand to incorporate the rest of the flour.
When you can see that most of the dough is in a ball but there are a lot of smaller, drier crumbs, put the ball of dough to one side and sieve the crumbs and flour. Add the large wetter crumbs and the sifted flour to the dough and knead again to blend them in. Discard the dry little crumbs. The dough should be like playdough, pliable but not too sticky. If it is still sticking to the palm of your hand, add a little more flour until it stops sticking – but be cautious, and stop adding flour as soon as it stops sticking. If it's really dry and has many cracks, add a drop of two of water; do this in a bowl. Knead for 10 minutes or until the pasta bounces back when poked with a finger.
Leave the pasta "to rest" on the table top for 20 minutes with a bowl inverted over it, or wrap it in clingfilm. This prevents it from drying out while it is resting.
Roll out the pasta, preferably using a pasta machine. Scatter flour over the work surface and over the pasta frequently. Put the pasta through the machine on setting No 1, fold the ends of each length inwards, give it a quarter-turn and put it through again. Do this four times. Then put it through setting No 5 twice. The lengths can be set aside on top of one another as long as there is plenty of flour between each layer.
Now, either use the tagliolini setting on your pasta machine to make the cut lengths, or push them through a chitarra pasta cutter using a rolling pin. Always spread out the pasta on a floured surface so it doesn't stick to itself.Reuse content