When I was 19, my college held a Charity Slave Auction and I foolishly offered myself up as a Maid for a Day. I got up in front of all my fellow students wearing a pinny and rubber gloves (as well as my normal clothes, I hasten to add) and was delighted to go for a respectable sum.
Then I found out that sixteen of the b*stards had banded together to bid on me and as a result I was beholden to the lot of them.
There's only so many shirts you can iron in one day.
My very last chore was to make supper for all sixteen of them, so I decided to cook up an enormous vat of spaghetti, told the buggers to bring a bowl each to my unfeasibly small room and then dished up - half pleased that I was getting to feed so many people, and half wanting them all to choke on the stuff.
The point of this is I've always like cooking Italian food. But I've never really known too much about it other than what I've gleaned from the odd cookbook or TV programme.
So when I was invited with some other bloggers to take part in a cookery class at La Cucina Caldesi, I was champing at the bit to have the pros show me how it's done.
La Cucina Caldesi is a little cookery school attached to the restaurant Caffe Caldesi in Marylebone.
We were lucky enough to have chef-patrons Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi themselves as our tutors.
These guys are good - Katie is no-nonsense and clearly knows her stuff, but she's encouraging, making even the most nervous of us feel at ease, and Giancarlo is very funny, but very professional - the speed at which he deboned a poussin almost left me cross-eyed.
And now I can do the same, although not remotely as fast as he can.
The three course meal that we helped to prepare (and then wolfed down at the end) was as follows:
- Gnocchi nudi di spinaca con burro salvia e pinoli
- Polletto al mattone
- Patate e cipolla al forno
- Cioccolata in tazza
The gnocchi nudi were a mix of spinach, egg, ricotta and parmesan which we pressed into quenelles and then gently poached to form a much lighter version of the tradional potato gnocchi. These were then tossed with butter and wilted sage leaves and were beautifully delicious and pillowy - probably my favourite dish of the night (and I'm an unrepentant carnivore).
As for the polletto al mattone (ie chicken under a brick), after deboning the baby chickens, we stuffed them with chopped garlic, rosemary and raw chillis, seasoned and rolled them up again before roasting for about 20 minutes.
These came out wonderfully moist, spicy and extremely delicious. I've always held the view that bone-in meat is sweeter, but for once I could see that there might be something behind deboning after all.
I was also surprised to find out that chillis are used quite a lot in parts of Italy, assuming stupidly that it began and ended with aglio olio pepperoncino and puttanesca.
The Cioccolata in tazza was a drinkable molten pudding of dark chocolate, double cream, eggs, sugar, milk and brandy - the recipe had in fact been precociously extracted from a chef by one of the Caldesi sons.
All these recipes can be found in Katie Caldesi's book The Italian Cookery Course, a hefty tome filled with 400 recipes and 40 masterclasses, the result of three years' travelling and studying Italy's regional cookery.
As well as the Caldesis themselves, the courses at La Cucina Caldesi are run by a range of chefs and experts such as Valentina Harris and cover subjects as diverse as regional Italian cuisine, pasta-making, food for friends, and sweets. They're also pitched at different audiences such as busy mothers, couples and even teenagers. With durations varying from a one-off evening class to a seven-week course, the cliche that there's something for everyone is eminently applicable.
The evening I'd just spent may have only been a taster, but it was great fun, especially getting to sit down together at the end to enjoy the fruit of our efforts and I left there feeling inspired (and with a new skill to boot). And you can't say fairer than that.
La Cucina Caldesi
118 Marylebone Lane
London W1U 2QF
0207 487 0750/6/8