Matters of taste

It's tastier in heaven
September 18, 2013

"Slow and methodical, stretch and pull and push": Alessandro makes pasta in Tuscany

I died and went to heaven, along a road that wound through Tuscan forest over a ridge into a wide valley where the wavy lines of harvested wheat swept into the curves of the hills so that the whole landscape seemed to be painted with Van Gogh’s wandering brush. August lion coloured fields and baked clay soil, like walking on abandoned tennis courts overgrown with wildflowers. And emerging at the end of the road, a villa fit for a Roman senator. A view of a landscape dotted with medieval towers, a square of green lawn, a pool, a garden heavy with emerald zucchini and fat red tomatoes.

I knew this was my own heaven because the kitchen had been appointed according to my fantasy specifications: a stone sink, two big stoves under a wide old chimney, a wood burning oven, a refrigerator stocked with ricotta and stracchino, the Italian cheese that my mother always says likes to run away over the table, a bowl of oranges and lemons, a tub of 00 flour and a large tin of olive oil.

“What shall we have for dinner?” asked Alessandro, majordomo of this dreamland. “I have made a tomato sauce and a bolognese,” he pointed with a pair of kitchen tongs at two softly puttering pots of rich molten red. Alessandro was a small kind of angel with a thin moustache and a wide smile. He said he came from the south, from Puglia. He was grilling slices of zucchini in a ridged pan.

Dinner on the terrace with my family. The crimson streak of sunset matched the colour of my Campari. The funny thing about heaven is that in real life I never liked zucchini—I found it watery, marrowish bitter. But in this magical place it was delicious: fresh and sweet, only half cooked, a little charred, still firm and toothsome (I had forgotten that word “toothsome”; I wonder when we stopped using it to describe that perfect moment of al dente resistance).

Zucchini epiphany, as if delivered from the original Garden of Eden, fresh al fresco: the perfect food is grown not cooked; the perfect meal is not bought but made, and made with care and attention and shared with love. Every afternoon Alessandro and I made fresh pasta. He showed me his favourite dough: half 00 flour, half semola (a finer milled, harder flour to add a little more bite, a little more toothsomeness) and fresh eggs. Roughly 100g and one whole egg per person. He showed me how to rake and mix the flours and the broken eggs with my fingers, and then knuckle squeeze the wet into the dry, press the mass with my palms into a cohesive dough and use my whole hand to knead. Alessandro knew a trick of wrapping the dough in clingfilm and letting it rest, finishing the kneading with the dough still in the plastic. “My grandmother would turn in her grave,” he laughed, “but something about the lack of air takes minutes off the kneading time.” Slow and methodical and rhythmic, stretch and pull and push, gluten into elastic, at first soft and sticky, then a ball of silky yielding possibility. We cut the dough into pieces and fed each piece through the thickest setting of the pasta machine; roll and fold and through again, each time it emerged a little smoother. “Everything is very gentle fingertips, no pressing,” said Alessandro.

We made tagliolini using the narrower setting and only 00 flour, for a more delicate pasta. We found Sicilian lemons in the market and made a sauce of zest steeped in butter with parsley and a bit of cream. With the juice from the lemons we made granita in the freezer, whisking every 40 minutes to make a sludgy ice-chip texture. We cooked, we talked, we ate. Salted anchovies marinated with garlic and chili oil spread on toast with mascarpone, bruschetta topped with rucola and gooey stracchino, a whole scorpion fish, poisonous spines and all, braised with tomatoes and white wine, potatoes roasted in a slurry of rosemary and thyme and olive oil.

Alessandro took half of the peeled potatoes and roasted them separately so that they were blonde and soft and then whizzed them into a thick paste for making gnocchi. “The potatoes should be as dry as possible,” he explained, “that’s why roasting is even better than boiling.” I pummelled the potato in a bowl while Alessandro sprinkled over 00 flour, a little, and then a little more. Add an egg to make it bind. I kneaded the dough and we rolled thin bolsters with our palms, and cut them into pieces. Alessandro gave me a grooved wooden paddle and showed me how to take the little pillows and with two fingertips pull them over the grooves so that they looked like old-fashioned butter curls.

We ate it with a plain tomato sauce and it was ethereal and light and everything I have always imagined and never actually experienced of gnocchi. There was octopus in the fridge for tomorrow, and the promise of an orecchiette lesson, but I was allowed only three days in heaven and I had to get on a plane in the morning. Paradise lost.