Hey pesto, cooking is just child's play

Pound the pasta, bash the basil, karate-chop the dough, young chefs learn to cook Italian
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The Independent Travel

Children don't love pasta, pizza and ice cream because they're Italian. They also don't love them because they're healthy. But properly made, the Italian way (without pineapple chunks, a sprinkling of ready grated cheddar cheese, or a 99 Flake stuck into it) these foods aren't junk. And, as children like the authentic versions of these much-abused foods just as much as the everyday fakes, you have to at least credit them with very good taste.

At La Cucina Caldesi, The Italian Cookery School in London and Tuscany (as it says on the T-shirts sported by the nice helpers) 11 children are learning how to make their almost dream lunch. The menu: homemade tagliatelle with tomato sauce and pesto sauce, fish in cartoccio (cooked in a paper bag), and strawberry ice cream.

Katie Caldesi, a former muralist who runs the Caldesi and Caffe Caldesi restaurants and cookery school with her Italian-chef husband Giancarlo, is about to carry off the brilliant feat of persuading children to cook and eat fish without breadcrumbs or batter.

Although thoroughly English, Katie has converted to the Italian way of eating and is quietly evangelical about introducing children in Britain to good food.

Her calm authority is a far cry from those hysterical children's entertainers who frantically try to curry favour with their audience. There's no trickery or funny faces on the menu today. They get their hands on the best ingredients; grassy-green olive oil, handfuls of fragrant basil, eggs with sunshine-yellow yolks from corn-fed chickens, red onions and fresh tuna fish, and then turn them into dishes they can't resist.

The lesson starts with strawberry ice cream, which has to freeze in time for lunch. The strawberries are cooked with sugar and the children lean over the pan, inhaling like Bisto kids. The nutritional make up of the ice cream is discussed. Is it good for you?

The strawberry ice cream is; it may have a lot of sugar and cream, which has fat in it, but it doesn't have the additives that cheap shop-bought ice cream has. In front of each pair of children gathered round the refectory table is a neat mound of flour with two large brown eggs in the centre of it.

Nothing else is needed to produce the golden strands of pasta that will be the first course for lunch. To sta, they make the sauces. The acidity of the tomatoes has to be balanced with the sweetness of the red onions. Katie shows a way of chopping onions that is less likely to end in tears. She leaves the root intact, because it contains most of the chemicals that make tear ducts swell up. "I liked learning random stuff like that," my son, Alfie, said later.

The fact that pine kernels, one of the ingredients of pesto, conceal little was another of those nuggets of information hoarded by 10- year-old boys. To make the pesto "we're going to bash the living daylights out of this basil", says Katie. With two sons of her own she's particularly adept at keeping potentially destructive boys engaged. The children sniff the basil leaves like seasoned Italian market shoppers before consigning them to the mortar where they don't stand a chance against the serial pounding.

This pesto is made the Tuscan way with pecorino. What kind of milk other than cow's can be turned into cheese? No, not goat's this time. Not cottage. Not human. Nor buffalo, nor rats, as suggested by a Simpsons fan. This is a sheep's milk cheese. The time comes to make the pasta and they all get stuck in. Katie suggests turning their heaps of four into a castle wall and besieging the eggs. "Make sure your walls are well fortified," she says, keeping the analogy going, "or your eggs will escape and end up on your shoes."

By the time all the egg and flour has been mixed together, each pair of children has a beautiful smooth, elastic ball of very yellow pasta dough. They do battle with the clingfilm dispenser and then karate chop, prod or juggle with their clingfilmed dough balls. One boy turns his apron round to make it into a superman cloak.

Before it's sliced into ribbons the pasta is rolled through the machine, becoming like a scarf. Miraculously none of the children picks theirs up and whirls it round their neck.

Finally, the fish parcels involve nothing more complicated than picking pieces of tuna, sea bass, courgettes, peppers, cherry tomatoes and herbs, arranging them on a sheet of greaseproof paper, wrapping it all up and writing their name on it. "It's great when you can get kids to try things they think are disgusting," says Katie. The doors of the Caldesi Cookery School's mews building were open. Outside in the lane an Italian waiter all in black has filled up glasses for customers sitting outside Caffe Caldesi. If the sun had been shining it really might have seemed as if we were abroad. And if I hadn't stayed behind, I'd have had a morning off in Marylebone, London's gastro village, returning just in time for lunch.

By then, tall, dark and Roman-nosed Stefano, Caldesi's head-chef, had been in to cook the pasta while Katie and the children prepared the table. Their tagliatelle and tomato sauce was a sensation. The children wolfed down their fish parcels and polished off the smoothest, creamiest ice cream they'd ever eaten.

Just three hours learning to cook some of their favourite things gave them what seemed like several days' worth of action, nutrition and satisfaction; enough to seem like a glamorous and very Italian interlude in a mostly London-based summer.

Katie's Kitchen at La Cucina Caldesi, 118 Marylebone Lane, London W1 (0207 487 0750; caldesi.com). The next class for six to 10 year olds takes place on 23 October; 25 October for over-10s and on 28 October there is a Hallowe'en class for six to 10-year-olds. Classes take place from 10am-1pm and cost £40 per child

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