A few days ago we wrote about the simplicity of Italian cuisine. We had eaten at a couple of trattorias in Teulada on the island of Sardinia, and once again Italy had blown us away with its attitude towards food. Simple, honest dishes made using the best ingredients, and treating them with respect.
But that doesn’t mean that the ingredients have to be expensive as Maria showed me as she taught me how to make orecchiette con sugo al pomodoro.
We began with a lesson on how to make orecchiette, a local pasta shaped to look like a little ear. All pasta has a shape for a reason and this shape is perfect for holding a little sugo al pomodoro (tomato sauce) in each piece.
Maria had come over to our trullo with her pasta board (a portable wooden board that covers a table or bench for making pasta) and a huge bag of flour, Semola di Grano Duro, which she used to make the pasta, pizza bases, and bread dough. More on the pizza making in another post.
We’re really talking about simplicity here. Farina e agua. Flour and water. Measured by eye, and kneaded with love and plenty of elbow grease. “No sale (salt)?” I enquire. “No,” she says. “No l’uovo (eggs)?” I persist. “No,” she replies. “No l’olio di oliva (olive oil)?” I insist. She stops rolling the dough. “No. Nothing else. Farina e agua.”
After about ten minutes of vigorous kneading the dough is perfect. Maria cuts a piece off and rolls it into a snake-like rope and then chops off a piece with a small knife. At first I can’t make out what she’s doing because she’s so quick. It looks like she’s simply cutting a small length of pasta and throwing a prefect piece of orrichetti into the pile.
The reality is she’s pushing each piece of pasta against the side of the knife, rolling the knife over the piece to flatten it, then gently scraping along the surface of the pasta to create a pattern, while placing a finger on the pasta on the other side of the knife to hold it in place. Done.
After Maria demonstrates the technique at a slower rate a few more times, I take my turn at the pasta board. It takes me a few minutes to get the hang of it. By the time I’m proficient I’m still making them at a quarter of the speed of Maria. She’s a pasta machine in a pair of jeans.
Once the board is covered in cute perfectly-formed orrichetti, Maria asks me “How do you make sugo al pomodoro?” “Oilo di olivia, cepolla, aglio, peperoncino, pomodori pelati, doppio concentrato di pomodoro e bassilico,” I reply. Olive oil, onion, garlic, chili, peeled tomatoes, tomato concentrate, and basil.
Maria looks at me somewhat surprised. I’m not sure whether it’s because she’s impressed at my Italian vocabulary, limited as it is to ingredients lists, or she’s horrified at one of the ingredients of my sauce. I think it’s the garlic.
“Sugo al pomodoro, sì?” she repeats, as she heads to the kitchen. “Sì,” I reply. She upturns her bottle of home-made olive oil into a saucepan on super high heat. She cuts and adds a couple of thick quarters of Cipolla di Tropea, the famous red onion native to the Tropea area of Calabria.
Maria then produces a massive bunch of cherry tomatoes (pomodorini) that have been strung together and span a couple of feet in length. She says they always have these in the kitchen and she’s leaving a bunch with us.
To be honest the tomatoes look like the kind of over-ripe, partially rotting fruit that sometimes get passed off as ‘organic’ at farmers’ markets. “Agosto,” she says. Lara and I look at each other and we both realise that she means that this was when they were picked – August, last year.
For nine months these tomatoes have been hanging in Maria’s kitchen. Maria explains that they do this every year and because there is no heating or air-conditioning in the trullo kitchen, they don’t really rot, they just increase with intensity of flavour.
Maria picks a few off tomatoes and tosses them into the sauce. She takes a small dried chili and crumbles it into the sauce before sprinting out to the garden. There she heads for a shrub and picks some laurel leaves to put in the pot. Back in the kitchen she picks a few fresh leaves of basil from a bunch and tosses those into the pot as well.
The nine-month old tomatoes are now really flavouring the sauce, but she grabs a tin of peeled tomatoes off the shelf, and puts about ¾ of that in the sauce as well. Perfect for two, she says in Italian. “Now, 2–3 litres of water. A tablespoon of salt for the pasta. About 8–10 minutes in the boiling water. Test them at eight minutes.”
With these instructions and kisses on the cheeks, Maria says ciao, and leaves us to finish off what will be our dinner tonight.
A couple of hours later I cook the pasta. “Oh my god,” says Lara. “That’s the best tomato sauce I’ve ever tasted.”
I wasn’t sure whether to share her excitement or be offended that my tomato pasta sauce had been relegated to a distant second place. But she was right.
Maria’s orecchiette con sugo al pomodoro was so sublime it would be joining my repertoire of pasta dishes.
Although I secretly wondered how I could smuggle some rotting cherry tomatoes and a bottle of home-made olive oil in my luggage, knew I’ll be content with taking away a simple lesson about a simple local pasta and a simple sauce that is simply brilliant.