Cacio e pepe a casa mia

Pasta alla Norma

Post-Italian holiday induced perhaps, I’m pretty obsessed with pasta at the moment.

Pesto pasta

Visiting Sicily made me realise how the regional differences in Italian cooking are so pronounced. In the south they make all their pasta with purely water and flour: no oil or eggs and barely any kneading or resting time. That makes it very fast to make, but you get a chewiness and bite to it that might be a little strange if you’re more used to dried or fresh egg pasta.

Tischi Toschi, Taormina

I didn’t like it much at first but came to appreciate it after cooking it ourselves in a day class we did at Ristorante Nettuno in Taormina and eating it every day during the trip; with pesto, simple pomodoro sauce, or the handily-vegetarian local speciality dish, alla Norma, with aubergines and ricotta. (Above: alla Normas at Vineria Modì and Tischi Toschi in Taormina, and spaghetti pesto at Red&White. And yes, that other dish is just a bag full of melted cheese – it was stupendous.)

pasta

Even the shapes are different: in Sicily it’s all about bucatini – stubby tubes like a cross between spaghetti and macaroni (which we made by hand in our class by rolling the dough around the metal spokes of a broken umbrella) – and ‘maccheroni’ which is actually ridged tubes like rigtoni, the better to hold sauce. Northern Italy is where you’ll find gnocchi and filled pastas like ravioli, though we did have a go making gnocchi in class anyway.

cacio e pepe

I was really hoping to try cacio e pepe in particular in Sicily after having a knockout version at Borough Market’s Padella, but that’s decidedly a Roman thing so there was none to be found. So I had to DIY once I got home. Luckily my favourite recipe site Serious Eats had my back and I made a pretty passable version; I went to town making fresh egg pasta and all. The most critical step is the very end where you emulsify the oil, butter, pepper and cheese with the starchy pasta cooking liquid to make a creamy, combined sauce with the perfect texture. I found you have to get over the fear of slopping in quite a bit of water and making it look quite wet, since the pasta will soak a lot of it up and leave you with the perfect creaminess, rather than something that dries up as you plate it.

Next I really want to try spaghetti all ubriaco: cooked in red wine, the strands of pasta take on a freaky oxblood hue and I can just imagine how richly complex it’d taste. I don’t actually like drinking red wine much, but this recipe jogged my memory of a dish I had at Estela in NY of endives and walnuts with a ‘drunken’ red wine marinated cheese. Damn, that was a fine dish. Maybe I could throw some nuts and endive into this pasta dish…

I’ll just have to get to Rome sometime to try a true cacio e pepe. But in the meantime, my top three places to eat pasta in London: Rotorino, Burro e Salvia, Padella. Any more to add to the list?

Ercol factory tour

I’ll be honest here. A particular reason I chose this week to revive my blog is because I was asked along on an Ercol factory tour and new season preview, and figured it’d be the perfect event to get me out there photographing and writing again.

Ercol
Thanks to Ciara for the right-hand photo

Ercol is a nostalgic brand to me. I grew up admiring my grandma’s nest of ‘egg’ tables, which always got pulled out for hot chocolate time, or turned upside down to play ‘boats at sea’ when we were very little. So it was a treat to take the train out to Ercol’s impressive HQ in Princes Risborough, Bucks, and see how some of their furniture is conceived, designed and made all under one roof.

The sprawling HQ was purpose built about 15 years ago and feels very unlike a typical factory. Surrounded by the Chiltern Hills (the heart of of traditional furniture-making country) and also housing the showroom and factory shop, it’s the thoughtful and human-centric design you’d expect from this well-loved British manufacturer. If you’re strangely into weird and wonderful machinery (and oodles of lovely oak timber) like I am, the factory is a dreamy place to visit. So many machines engineered to doing one job well, from precision-angle drilling to sucking sawdust away into the biomass burner that powers the building.

Of course some jobs are best done by hand, such as the gent we spoke to whose job it is to analyse all the cut timbers for grain and colour variances and sort them into co-ordinating piles, ready to be assembled into drop-leaf tables or panelled doors for a sideboard.

Here’s the Bending Room, where the raw ‘green’ oak is steamed in big ovens to make it soft then bent into shape to form many of the signature curves of Ercol pieces. Some of the metal frames are as old as the Ercol company, and new ones are made for each new design. It’s a mix of heavy machinery and the dexterity and skill of the guys working here – one of whom has clocked 37 years at the job – to get the perfect curve without splintering or cracking the timber.

The polishing zone, where the raw pieces are given their coats of lacquer then blasted through an infrared oven to harden them up.

Finally, many pieces are finished by hand. We saw a classic Windsor chair get its spindles and back assembled in a matter of minutes. With hands and eyes on the pieces at every stage there’s built-in quality control, and that care is evident in the final pieces of furniture.

There was just time for lunch in the nicest canteen ever and a quick browse around the on-site retail showroom before we had to hop back on the train. No time even to check out the on-site factory outlet shop, but my aunt lives in this neck of the woods so I reckon I’ll be back soon.

Thanks to Ercol for having me.

Hello

Hello. I’m going to try something new here.

I think it’s been so long since I blogged that I have stage fright. The fear of the blank box with the blinking cursor. My camera sitting gathering dust rather than being faithfully dragged around. Things to say and not being sure where to start.

I started to feel like I needed to make posts in a certain way: crafted, longform, considered and edited.

It takes too long! And it’s a blocker to just throwing up what I’d like to share, right now.

So I’m going to try to start approaching this space differently.

Smaller updates, more often. Lightweight, less considered, more frequent (hopefully).

A place for when I have more to say than an Instagram or a tweet, but without the pressure of needing to be a writer, editor and photographer all in one.

Let’s see how it goes…

About the house

home

It’s been a long time – nearly a year! – since I shared a house update. We were dithering over whether to move for a while, but ended up doing a bit of building work earlier this year (taking down a wall in the hallway to the back door, opening up my spare/study/sewing/guest room into a bigger room) which has made the whole flat work a lot better. (Well, I have more space, so no longer have itchy feet.)

Continue reading “About the house”