As the suggestion of summer warmth takes over from the dewy freshness of spring, Saturday morning finds me hard at work alongside Paola, a cook renowned locally for the quality – and bounteous quantity – of her authentic Tuscan fare, as we make batches of stuffed pasta for this evening’s dinner. For a group of The Factor House guests are celebrating an important anniversary and have elected to use the services of one of our chefs for the memorable occasion. A sensible choice, I muse, because however competent you might eventually become in the art of Italian cookery, and however slavish you might be to the authenticity of your recipes, you will simply never be able to source ingredients like a local.
And provenance is critical, particularly since sitting down to any meal in Italy requires an involved discussion of the source of your ingredients. I once remember one early spring – when a table in the dappled sun of an ancient olive tree already allowed for outdoor dining – barbecuing a local chicken and serving it along with some potatoes simply roasted in the oven with olive oil, fresh rosemary and some sea salt flakes. The lengthy discussion which followed wasn’t about the chicken – its heritage was secure enough – but about the potatoes. Whether I was still using the white-fleshed winter mountain spuds, or whether I’d moved already – and here there was consternation that it was too early in the season – to the waxier, yellow-fleshed and russet-skinned potatoes from the Tuscan plains. And whether I’d got them through Piero, the local greengrocer, trusted because he is the third generation in the family business. (Of course I had: I’ve been here long enough now to know these things are immutable!)
The nearby local markets of Barga (Saturday) and Castelnuovo di Garfagnana (Thursday) are a pretty good place to start – and finding the stalls of the local smallholders who have descended from the hills to display all manner of home-grown fruit and vegetables (undoubtedly picked fresh that morning), and artisanal honey, cheese and salami, is a joy. But a true local does things differently. And so now we are braising bietole (chard) picked that morning by Paola’s husband from his naturally organic vegetable patch – the same patch tended by her father, and her father’s father on a fertile and well-drained hillside adjacent to the family home in the spectacular hill town of Sommocolonia (justly famed for the exploits of posthumously-honoured Lieutenant John R Fox in defending the Gothic Line in World War Two). This we will mix with ricotta, fresh ewe’s milk cheese collected that morning – and made from just the previous day’s milk – by Paola from her neighbour who shepherds a small flock of sheep on the adjacent hill. The same shepherd has also provided some pecorino stagionato, an aged hard ewe’s milk cheese which we will finely grate in the same manner as the more familiar parmigiano-reggiano (parmesan), and add to the bietole-ricotta mix.
And here, despite more than six years in this spectacular country, I make the error that emphasises my other-worldliness: that I am not, and sadly can never be, Tuscan. For we are making two fillings for this evening’s stuffed pasta parcels: bietole e ricotta and another of minced veal and pork with thyme. Both have been incased in the same square pasta parcels with crimped edges. “Tortelli”, I say, referring collectively to our morning’s endeavours. “No!”, Paola nigh on shrieks, “sono ravioli” (those are ravioli). She sees and senses my confusion. Leaning over she gently cuts one of the newly-fashioned ravioli in half and gestures at the filling. “Ecco, formaggio” (look, cheese), she says, nodding sagely. And therein lies the difference between a tortello and a raviolo. Well, at least here in the Garfagnana, I think.
RECIPE: Ravioli bietole e ricotta a burro e salvia
With a little patience, fresh pasta making can be a relaxing (think cathartic!) and rewarding activity. It’s helped enormously by utilising a food processor to make the dough – though you can, of course, kneed by hand – and I admit to an electric pasta machine (mine’s an attachment for a Kenwood Chef mixer), which speeds up and simplifies the production of gossamer-thin sheets of pasta.
Slice the long sheets which come out of the pasta machine, and you make lasagne (a lasagna is a single sheet of lasagne). Chop them into random flat triangles and you have maccheroni, at least here in the Garfagnana (elsewhere in Italy maccheroni are better known as pasta tubes), where they’re typically served with the same meat ragù which sandwiches sheets of lasagne to produce the ubiquitous pasta dish known the world over.
For six people you need 350g of 00 flour, 2 large eggs, 5 egg yolks and a generous pinch of salt. Put all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor and pulse briefly until it forms a loose ball. Kneed briefly together, wrap in cling film and chill for about an hour in the refrigerator to allow the gluten to form.
In the meantime, make the filling. Wilt 300g of chard in boiling salted water. Remove, plunge into chilled cold water, drain and squeeze out as much of the moisture as you can. Chop fairly finely. Beat 4 large eggs into 1kg of ricotta – the freshest you can find – and add a handful of grated parmesan, a couple of tablespoons of flour and a generous grating of nutmeg. Add the chopped chard and season well with salt and pepper.
Remove your pasta dough from the fridge and split into 4 equal balls. Pass each ball through the pasta machine – folding back into a manageable rectangle each time – gradually reducing the thickness, but repeating three times on each setting. Remember to dust the surrounding work surface well with semolina flour, to avoid the pasta sticking.
To make the ravioli, lay out two lines of small equally-spaced teaspoons of filling along the length of one of the pasta sheets. Lightly wet around the balls of filling with a pastry brush, and then lay another of the pasta sheets on top. Press lightly around each ball of filling to expel the air and seal the parcels. Cut into squares, either with a knife or, preferably, a serrated pasta wheel (which also seals the edges better). Store in a single layer on a well-floured tray.
To cook, lower into salted water that is boiling, though not furiously. They will take only a couple of minutes. Remove using a large perforated ladle, and serve immediately and simply, with melted butter in which a handful of fragrant sage leaves have been sautéed. Buon appetito!