We are in the grip of a veg crisis. Lettuce and broccoli are being rationed. Waitrose has been stripped of fennel and red chicory. Worst of all, horror of horrors, poor harvests on the Continent mean there isn’t a courgette to be had. The nation’s spiralisers lie dormant. All hope of a ‘courgetti’ supper is lost. And the lean, clean vegan girls find themselves wailing at the Ocado man: what am I to do? Girls – and boys on a Joe Wicks’ Lean In Fifteen regime of carrot-and-courgette fritters – I have a solution. It is called ‘pasta’.
Don’t panic. I can hear the shrieks of ‘gluten!’ from the aisles of Whole Foods. But it’s OK. I had a bowl of rabbit pappardelle just the other day and, look, I’m still here. Alive and well.
What a lovely word ‘papardelle’ is. In Tuscan dialect, according to Caz Hildebrand and Jacob Kenedy’s The Geometry of Pasta, ‘papparsi’ means ‘to gobble up’. And that’s what I did. Gobble, gobble and no harm done.
A few days later I was at it again with a bowl of mushroom and walnut tortelloni at the Acorn Kitchen in Bath. I like tortelloni for their little, cross, pursed faces, like Mrs Gamp before she has had her spoon of gin. Then, the next night, across town at Sam’s Kitchen I had orzo (shaped like barley grains) with crab, lemon and saffron. Best sort of fuel for Bath’s steep terraces over a freezing weekend.
I quite understand some of the anxiety about pasta – ‘carbs!’ ‘bloating!’ – and I, too, would shudder at the vast spaghetti carbonaras served at high-street pizza chains. Italians don’t eat their pasta like that, in deep gravy-boat bowls. But a classic primo piatto portion, not too much, cooked just al dente, perhaps with a sluttish puttanesca (the tomato, garlic, caper, anchovy, olive and chili sauce Neapolitan tarts were supposed to whip up between clients)? Yes, please.
I’ve tried spiralised courgetti. It’s about the only good use for the puffed up out-of-season courgettes, like Jeff Koons balloons, you get at this time of year. But they have no Lady and the Tramp romance. They tend to sogginess, clagginess and disintegration – and you’re hungry half-an-hour later.
At my local Italian, Briciole on Homer Street, I always have the same dish: tagliatelle with wild boar ragu and Ubriaco cheese. You don’t feel hungry for a week after that. It’s a dish Asterix and Obelix might have before boffing some Roman legionaries. Pasta gives you heart for a battle, and comforts when you are wounded.
The best pasta I ever had was in Venice. My aunt, who knows the city very well, took us over a bridge, along a towpath, down a step, and round a corner to a café – I’d never know how to find it again – where the builders had their lunch. One course, no choice. On our day it was spaghetti alle acciughe. Garlic, olive oil and anchovies. That was it. No green veg. No ‘counts-towards-your-five-a-day.’ No spiraliser needed.
The current courgette famine is not a crisis, but an opportunity. A golden moment to do away with tangles of courgette, beetroot and squash and instead brave proper pasta, unashamed, unapologetic and howling with garlic.