As I turned the corner to approach the studio building I was greeted by a lazy summer breeze; it carried the chatter of enthusiastic Italians, and the smoke of the wood fires beyond. Drawing nearer, the inside of Pizza Pilgrims’ traditional oven glowed at me; it promised rustic dough which had become pock-marked as little pillows of air had blistered in the intense heat, preserving them in a crisp crust. The pizza topping belied its true nature. “That looks like passata, it can’t just be passata… maybe it’s some special imported Italian passata with a twinkle in its eye.” This pizza was so authentically simple it confidently boasted how much they could achieve with so little. It’s this kind of ethos that unites this evening’s contributors.
Opposite Pizza Pilgrims sat the custom-built barbecue of Forza Win. The spit roast crackled and flared as meaty juices dripped down from the joints of pork into the fire, while a few halved lemons charred on the grill below. Bash Redford, founder of Forza Win took pride in the provenance of his ingredients. The pork, which came from the Ginger Pig in Malton, was marinated overnight in rosemary, olive oil and seasoning, ready to become moist middle roasts in crispy crackling jackets the following day. These would be sliced and covered with the juice from the charred lemons and served in a slightly chewy roll with hand-made pesto and rocket to make porchetta. Well, after enduring 15 minutes that felt like a small eternity; the previous batches had been consumed as quickly as they were carved – so I took my mind off the wait with a trip to the bar for a Birra Moretti.
The inside of the venue had been laid out in small streets lined with vendors, which had been adorned with rustic props, and signage which linked the vendors with the regions their food came from. Throughout the night there was a compare who co-presented master classes with each of the chefs. Representing the Lombardia region were Cooking Cooks whose master class was on pasta and ravioli making. A peek behind their counter revealed tray upon tray of beautifully made butternut squash ravioli, which were swirled round a pan of sage butter before serving with the tiniest crumbling of Amaretti biscuits and a speck of ham. It just teetered on the edge of being too sweet before the salty ham and bitter sage balanced the flavour. Its preparation was an elegant thing to watch in itself, after all, in her early career chef Alice was a food dresser for the BBC before meeting her other half and business partner whilst working in an Italian restaurant in Soho.
It occurred to me that the room was filled with stories like this. As the evening progressed I discovered that all the participants had fantastic tales of how they came to this point in their culinary journey. Everyone was keen to tell their story and they did so with the same kind of passion and personality they gave their dishes. This created a lively atmosphere full of heart and soul, and the kind of goodwill that’s quite infectious. But that’s what Italian food is all about isn’t it? It’s soul food.
Take Pasta e Basta for instance. The ragu which accompanied their gnocchi, made with pork shoulder – visibly falling apart in its lovely stewy sauce – could mend the most sickly of stomachs and devastated of hearts.
Then there was Gurmetti, providers of charcuterie from their little farm shop just outside of Parma. They had the most exceptional cured pig’s cheek – sliced into translucently thin curls, sat on top of little dough puffs and accompanied by slivers of strong Parmesan.
This went brilliantly with a bottle of Birra Moretti’s La Rossa. It’s like the Italian’s answer to an Old Peculiar – quite dark, malty and sweet, yet still somehow light enough to be refreshing. If, like me, you don’t enjoy sweet wines then this might be a good drink between main meals and desserts. It was 7.2% though, so aside from being best handled on a full stomach it was quite good for rekindling the appetite. Just in time too – as I needed to try the ice creams before I left. Gelupo’s little van had the most wonderful Piedmont Hazelnut flavour which was the kind of proper gelato that wasn’t so much scooped as squidged into its little card pots. With this I ambled off into the warm night air to muse over the evening.
I thought back to every sweaty and polystyrene-clad, homogenised, barely legitimate street food I’d ever had – ironically for roughly the same price as these lovely treats, and I wondered why we still only seem to see this quality at festivals and special occasions? I must develop patience. This event reassured me that it won’t be too long; there are so many like-minded people who are taking these matters into their own hands, and doing so rather successfully. Meanwhile, I’ll take heart in watching the fake fast food culture gradually wither – more than likely from the queue to an independent caterer’s van.
by Rachel Watson