Can you think of a better way to spend a month in Italy than traveling around the Salento area of Puglia learning traditional pasta making techniques from the locals? That’s what Katie Leaird – pastry cook, caterer, personal chef, food blogger and now a cook at America’s Test Kitchen in Boston – did last year. She summed her experience up for us in five essential lessons:
Lesson Uno: Get your hands dirty.
Maria, a self-taught Michelin-starred chef at Ristorante Pasha in Conversano, produces all of the pasta for her restaurant with her own hands, and she showed me that the secret to her orecchiette, the pasta shaped like “little ears,” is to literally put your own thumbprint on them.
These small pasta shapes are made with grano arso (smoked flour). Maria mixes this black flour with water, salt, and a swirl of olive oil to make a sturdy but supple dough. After ample kneading, she lets the massive ball of dough rest under an overturned bowl.
Next comes a test of strength, as Maria chops off a segment of the dough and forcefully pushes it against the table using her whole palm. She exerts pressure down and out, manipulating the dough into a smooth rope. Next, she cuts the dough into little pieces, each about a half inch long. Placing the edge of a butter knife behind a small pillow of dough and holding the knife perpendicular to the table, Maria pulls it towards her body, flattening out the dough as she scrapes.
She drops the knife with a controlled clang, picks up the flattened dough, and carefully forms it down and around the first joint of her thumb. She proudly shows me a finished, concave, black orecchietta.
My own “little ears” were quite a bit smaller than Maria’s orecchiette, on account of my smaller hands and fingers. She taught me the meaning of making something by hand—each of us produced something slightly different. . When I formed each one over my thumb, I literally left my identity in every piece of dough.
Piazza Castello, 5
(39) 080 4951079
Closed Tuesday. Reservations required.
Marta gives cooking lessons at her Kitchen Aid sponsored cooking school. See the restaurant website for details.
Lesson Due: Keep it simple.
Enza is Chef Maria’s sister, the bread-baker for Ristorante Pasha and breadwinner for her household of six. Quiet and thoughtful, Enza is a joyful soul who became my friend to the extent that one day I asked if we could meet away from work and make a pasta feast for her family.
Enza immediately makes a list of all the pasta tricks she wanted to teach me. We start with gnocchetti, rolling out long thin ropes of dough, pinching off tiny pieces, and scraping them along a grooved wooden gnocchi board until they popped off as ridged, conch-shell-shaped noodles.
We make farfalle by rolling out thin sheets of dough, which we then cut into strips with a pizza cutter, then into two-by-one-inch rectangles. Using our thumbs and index fingers, we pinch seams in the centers of the rectangles to form bow-tie noodles. We make trofie by rubbing dough in between the palms of our hands three or four times until they look like delicate string beans—skinny noodles, about three inches long, with tapered ends.
Her boys wander in and out of the kitchen, helping where they could, practicing English with the first American they had ever met, and eventually carrying bowls of our fresh pasta out to the apartment’s balcony for an al fresco dinner. Enza teaches me how to feed a crowd with nothing more than flour, water, and a couple of simple sauces.
Lesson Tre: Pasta makers mean business.
To learn more about pasta from southern Puglia, I visited my dear friend, Daniela. She is the chef proprietor of Le Macàre, a restaurant in the tiny town of Alezio just west of Gallipoli and the Ionian Sea. Daniela arranged a tour at a local pasta factory.
The factory owner shows us behind the counter where sparkly machines mix, knead and roll out dough. Daniela and I look at each other confused, as this place is known for hand-made pasta. The owner sizes us up, evaluating whether he should trust us, and then led us to a side door.
We climb an open-air staircase from the patio to the attic where we found the true pasta makers—half-a-dozen teenaged girls, sitting around a wooden table. Each girl faces an identical setup: one large cardboard tray for finished noodles, a sheet of dough, a steak knife, and a metal skewer.
I ask questions in my broken Italian, and they respond with sheepish, but flawless, English. Their hands were in constant motion, but everything else was still; they slouch over their work like hunchbacks. When I ask if this caused any aches and pains, they sighed in unison, gesturing to their sore backs and necks.
The girls are making maccheroni al ferro (“iron macaroni,” named after the skewers). They place a metal skewer on top of a long skinny segment of dough, lay a palm on top of the skewer, and with three staccato rolls, produce tubular noodles that are taken off of the skewers to air dry. These girls showed me pastamaking through a new lens. For me, it’s a fun hobby. For them, it is a livelihood, a repetitive job that may constitute their entire work life—yet they still take pride in their craft and respect each noodle.
Lesson Quattro: Savor the process.
Daniela asked the farmer who supplies the restaurant’s vegetables to bring his mother in to meet me. Anna DeSantis still makes everything for the family’s table with her own two hands. Anna and her sister Ada started my lesson by dumping two kinds of flour, semolina and orzo, out on the table.
One flour mound comes alive and starts moving—bugs had gotten into the orzo! My eyes widen and Anna just laughs, one of those contagious, hearty chuckles. She sifts the creatures out of the flour and continued unfazed.
The sisters dig wells in the centers of the flour mountains and add water in slow trickles, using forks to incorporate the wet into dry. As they massage the dough, they chat and laugh and look everywhere but down at what they were making.
They teach me to make le sagne—ribbons of dough that you twist between your palms. We made cappelletti, twisting semicircles of dough cut with the rim of a champagne glass, into little hat shapes. These women show me how making pasta is best done with others, while telling stories, sharing and savoring the experience with family, friends and strangers.
Via Mariana Albina, 140
(39) 0833 282192
Reservations needed during the summer months.
Lesson Cinque: Pass it on.
Angela Raimondi hails from Bari, the biggest city in Puglia. When I want to visit the old ladies who make orecchiette out in the streets of the “Old City,” Angela offers to be my guide after I met her at Maria’s cooking school at Ristorante Pasha in Bari.
As we walk along Via dell’Arco Basso in Bari Vecchia we are met with hard, menacing glares. Angela deftly breaks through the uninviting barrier with a hearty greeting using her native Bari dialect, a language unrecognizable to the Italian I know. She tells the old ladies about how much I want to bring their technique back to the United States.
The women start talking all at once, faces lighting up, hands flying while telling lively stories, arms opening for welcoming hugs. Ladies poke their heads out from behind their beaded curtains to invite me in to their homes.
One woman shows me the old butter knife she uses to make orecchiette. The knife has been in her family for more than 100 years. The tip is broken, and the handle has been worn down so she just wraps her hand around the exposed metal shaft. She would never consider using any other tool to make pasta.
I watch the women all afternoon making orecchiette faster than I could imagine. In contrast to Chef Maria’s careful shaping, these women scrape bits of dough on their outdoor tables, folded them quickly over their thumbs, and popped them off into the air to later land on drying screens.
They start shape the next noodle while the first is still mid-air. I can hear the percussive rhythm of the knives cutting and scraping dough on wooden boards that buzzed around me in those city streets.
Meeting and working with these women in Puglia allowed me to witness the transmission of culture through the art of making pasta. I was a lucky and grateful recipient of both their hands-on lessons and their wisdom. Thank you, pasta mamas!
Katie Leaird blogs about her pasta adventures at www.kneadpastaproject.com
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