As I walk down the cobbled lane to La Cucina Caldesi, I see Valentina Harris’ face peering through the window in the stable door entrance. Minutes later she confesses: “I always wonder who is destined for my class as people walk down the lane”. Assistants Ben, Georgiana and Jo have already set up the workspaces and serve tea, coffee and biscotti for us all as the remaining stragglers arrive. Finally, there are eighteen of us name tagged, hands washed, aprons on then Valentina takes control with a quick knife warning: “I want no pierced buttocks!” With such anecdotes, Italian passion and confidence Valentina sets the tone for the morning’s Pasta, Pasta, Pasta! class.
You would be forgiven, even by an Italian, for sticking to dried pasta most of the time. You must choose good dried pasta of course, such as De Cecco, which you will find in most supermarkets, leaving you to concentrate on an exquisite sauce. Neither fresh nor dried is better than the other they are just different. Valentina -– half Italian, half English, 100% Italian spirited – informs us that making fresh pasta should be reserved for only very special occasions. So we are to make four dishes: two with fresh pasta and two with dried.
Dried pasta is made from durum wheat and water whereas fresh pasta is made from durum wheat and eggs. You cannot make pasta alone, Valentina stresses, and shouldn’t – it is a communal event, pasta is emotional food, it should be made in an environment of love and gossip. She conjures up an image of all the women in an extended Italian family, making pasta together whilst engrossed in chatter.
Valentina shows us how to roll with it
I create a pile of mixed fine flour and semolina, add two beaten eggs into a well at the centre. I get stuck in. It does get a little messy but is remarkably easy to make the dough, and after combining then applying some light kneading it's done – you know when it's ready when the temperature drops and the dough contracts when you touch it. Setting the dough aside we move on to the different sauces and fillings – pesto, fat-free tomato sauce, tomato and garlic sauce, spinach and ricotta filling and a mushroom filling. We divide ourselves into four groups and tackle a dish each. I am on the fat-free tomato sauce – a reduction of boiled tomatoes, celery, carrots, onions and garlic – part of the Pasta alla Norma dish from southern Italy.
We all have a go at making ravioli, rolling out the pasta in to strips ready for the filling. We are to use both hands to “hug each parcel as if it were a baby hampster”. Valentina grabs our attention regularly to keep us up to date with the progression of each dish and proffers handy tips such as “never wash a pasta machine, just brush it clean and store it”. Then it's on to the Rotolo di Pasta, a pasta roll filled with mushrooms, mascarpone and walnuts. This is definitely a dish for those looking for an impact as you can slice and serve it up at the table.
We eventually get to sit down and try the four dishes. All of the pasta is served al dente, Italian-style, and we try to pace ourselves as the food keeps coming. Thankfully we can take away doggy bags. This class is relaxed, fun and gives you the confidence to plan an occasion worthy of pasta making, but it must be filled with love and gossip!
PROS: Valentina – she's the kind of Italian godmother or aunt you would love to have; bursting with energy she has stories and expertise from a lifetime of travels and experiences. A great class for simple and easy-to-recreate pasta sauces.
CONS: You do not get to cook everything on the menu or individually – it's your responsibility to take a break from your group to wonder around and see the other recipes being put together.
La Cucina Caldesi, 118 Marylebone Lane, London, W1U 2QF. Daytime and evening classes start at £28, Italian Mama’s Cookery Club for 6-16 year olds has classes starting at £40. You can also enroll in the seven week Complete Italian Cookery Course for £525. Classes are taught by a whole range of tutors including Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi, the school's proprietors.