On a shaded terrace above the glittering Amalfi sea, we are learning to gut and bone anchovies. It’s a scene of carnage in miniature. First you nip off the head, taking care to pull out the entrails with it, then you unzip the tiny fish down its spine with your thumb and extract the bone, leaving the tail in situ. Graziella, our cooking teacher, arranges the anchovies with great ceremony in a large pan on top of a swirl of olive oil and scattered garlic. Five minutes on the hob and sprinkling of oregano and they’ll be good to go.
We are on a cookery course run by the Edinburgh-based travel company Flavours. It’s a good wheeze, letting the guests cook their own lunch. Making fresh tagliatelle for eight or so people by hand (no pasta machine) would take hours, but with all hands on deck, painstakingly rolling and cutting, we can have several trays airing in the sun in no time. It’s a sociable and satisfying process.
Accommodation is a large, shiplike, rather extraordinary house built on several levels and clinging to the cliff. The garden is a series of descending terraces. This is the order of the day: have breakfast, trot down the steep steps for a dip in the beautifully clear sea (lots more tiny fish in there), then back up to don our aprons and get busy with the 00 flour. In the afternoons we are generally off-duty and Graziella reclaims the kitchen ahead of dinner.
We are learning regional and seasonal rustic cooking; here on the Amalfi coast the emphasis is particularly on fish and seafood: so we learn to make, among other things, stuffed baby squid, baked sea bass, cuttlefish ink tagliatelle and spaghetti al vongole. In Tuscany or Puglia or Sicily, other Flavours destinations, the ingredients and recipes would be different (see below for a recipe for homemade pappardelle with lamb ragu).
Amalfi is famous for its lemons and in our first lesson we started on limoncello. You slice off the very uppermost layer of peel – no pith, just zest – of green lemons and put it in a bowl with strong alcohol (you can buy bottles of 96% proof in Italian supermarkets). As the peel infuses, all the colour leaches from it into the booze, which becomes the characteristic fluorescent yellow. After a few days you strain the mixture in a muslin, then add a sugar syrup, then put it in the freezer before drinking. I’m no limoncello fan generally but this was pretty good and zingy – better than the shop-bought stuff.
Graziella used to have her own restaurant and she is a lovely calm teacher, gently correcting us if we slice the aubergines incorrectly or mangle the fish prep. When everything is ready to cook, she whisks it all away to the kitchen to take care of the final stages while we sink into chairs on the terrace and drink some well-earned prosecco.
Pappardelle with lamb ragu
For the pasta
400g durum wheat flour
250g 00 flour
Very finely chopped parsley
Mix the flour in a large bowl. Make a well in the middle, and stir in the eggs and the parsley. Mix with a fork and then, once the dough starts to form, your hands. You can add a little warm water if you think it is needed. The more you work it, the better. Let it rest for about 15 minutes to activate the gluten. Then divide the dough into two or three pieces. Roll out each ball with a rolling pin until it is about 2mm thick. Cut into ribbons about 2cm wide. Spread the lengths of pasta on a tray to dry out a little.
For the ragu
1 white onion
1 rib of celery
1lb boneless lamb pieces (shoulder perhaps)
Small glass of white wine
5/6 good ripe plum tomatoes
Salt and pepper
Put the tomatoes in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Pierce their skins, remove them from the water and remove the skins. Then chop them up (if you want to, you can scrape them through a wide-mesh sieve with a spoon to make a passata). Finely chop the onion, celery and carrot and cook in olive oil on a low heat till golden. Add the herbs and put in the lamb to brown gently. Add the white wine, raise the heat to bubble away the alcohol, then reduce the heat and add the tomatoes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir the pan, cover it, and let the ragu cook on a low heat, for at least an hour and a half. Remove the lid at some point if you want it to reduce more. Cook the pasta in boiling water for a couple of minutes, until al dente. Drain it, toss it with grated pecorino, and then with the ragu.
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