I spent a week helping in a restaurant kitchen in Sardinia. I learned how to make ravioli—and that there is no real mystery to great foodby / November 17, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Whenever I make ravioli they disintegrate. The pasta is too fragile or the filling too wet and the little parcels stick together, leak and tear. My birthday was coming up and, for a gift, I wanted nothing less than the answer to the mystery of ravioli. My mother, an organisational superhuman, (lists, dear, lists!) found me a week-long spot in a friend of a friend of a friends’ well-reputed fish restaurant, Al Tuguri, in Alghero on the west coast of Sardinia.
And so I arrived at 9 o’clock on a Monday morning, my knives wrapped up in a dishcloth, and was set to work immediately by Miriam, the diminutive, tough, wry daughter of the proprietor Benito. She had me deboning filaments of poached skate for a dish of linguine con razza. The skate flesh was then kept under oil, and this was my first revelation: storing the fish this way preserved and softened the flesh, in turn, the oil took on its flavour and was used as the base for the sauce.
“Here, like this, skate oil in the pan. A little chopped tomato. Only a little. Stop! Enough. Now salt.” Miriam was 29 and had been working in her father’s restaurant since she was 14. Six days a week she was in the kitchen at 8.30am for morning prep, then lunch service, afternoon nap for a couple of hours and finally back at 6.30pm for the evening rush that lasted, in high season, past midnight. Her mother did the coffees and desserts, her brother waited in the dining room. Miriam had the special touch, the taste, the nuance of pasta. After the skate oil hissed against the raw tomato for a few seconds, a couple of ladles of boiling pasta water were added. Miriam shook the pan, swirling roughly. “Because it’s oil and water, and they must mix.” She put her nose in the steam, to check its amalgamated progress.
Meanwhile the linguine was boiling towards that just-right point of al dente. She turned the fire off under the tomato base, added the skate, then put in a few threads of basil. When the pasta was cooked it was added to the sauce, in the Italian way—not as we lazy Brits do it, sauce dolloped on top of pasta. Then Miriam shook the pan to coat each strand evenly with skate and tomato-inflected oil. No extra ingredients, no fuss: this was pure and light as if a school of skate had swum through a wavy forest of linguine and we had harvested this phenomena onto a plate.
Simplicity is the essence of Italian food, together with fresh and local. Sardinia is famous for its bottarga, smoked blocks of fish roe, shaved over a simple pasta; for its thin crackerbread, a base for slices of marinated mullet or whatever fish was fresh in the market that morning; and fregola, toasted pasta kernels, tossed with, perhaps, mussels. At 11am we stopped for a lunch—a feast of leftovers and outtakes from the market: tiny, tiny translucent shrimps tossed with butter, garlic and a slice of chilli pepper, gnocchi with tomato and lashings of pesto, confit of slow-roasted tomatoes, strips of braised liver flambéed with brandy, crispy roasted diced potatoes, the sweetest Muscat grapes that grew in Benito’s garden and a glass of light local Vermentino.
I expressed delighted amazement at these lunches. “What do you eat in England?” asked Miriam, surprised at my surprise.
“Oh, they eat nothing but fried cheese sandwiches!” said Laura, the master of the grill. She liked to disappear into her mind—“dreaming to another place” as Giuseppe, responsible for antipasto, put it—when she chopped parsley into the finest green dust I ever saw. “Cheesy panini fried in butter!”
As Miriam tossed out a batch of linguine I had made which was “troppo cotto per Italiani!” (too cooked for Italians), I doubted that I could ever cook as well as her. Yet she told me, one day, “I am not a cook, really. I wanted to have a dress shop.”
My week at Al Tuguri made me realise there is no single answer to the mystery of great food. It is in every nuance and gesture, in the briefest sizzle between oil and tomato, the extra flip of pasta against pan, the well-judged slosh of wine, the calibration of capers—gestures that Miriam inherited from her father, and had been drummed by practice and repetition into a precise ballet.
As for the ravioli, one afternoon Benito took me to visit the artisan who makes the pasta for the restaurant, including the onion ravioli (Miriam supplies the filling, sweetly sweated onions mushed with a little potato to bind). The pasta maker used only semolina flour and fresh eggs, kneaded and then pushed as many as 20 times through two stainless steel rollers in a 50-year-old machine to elasticate the dough into a satiny sheet. He pushed the pasta into each depression of a ravioli mould with a wadded towel, piped in the filling, brushed a little water to help seal the edges and laid a second sheet on top.
I watched as he cut each raviolo separate with a pastry cutter and laid them on a sheet of greaseproof paper, before dusting them liberally with rice flour. “Ah!” I said, triumphantly. “The mystery of ravioli is the rice flour!” I had my present.