Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Ravioli with pecorino, potato and mint

I realize that I have arguably been over-generous to France as the country that introduced me to proper food and that I might need to redress the balance somewhat by presenting an alternative image of eating habits in France that go far beyond all the anecdotes about red wine, garlic and longevity. I could point out that France is currently nearly as preoccupied as we are with childhood obesity, although their school dinners, in my experience, were immeasurably better. I won't, though, because I marked a whole pile of essays on 'l'effet Jamie Oliver en France' last year on that very subject and it has bored me somewhat of the whole topic (no offence to the worthy campaigns about children's eating habits - just that they don't need my input). Instead, I would rather talk about a little 'departement' in northern France, Picardie, that happened to be twinned with County Durham where I grew up, and where we were inevitably sent on school trips. I went there aged 12 for a week-long school trip staying in a scary centre for school children, with apparently minimal security and the kind of food that 12 year old picky British kids will not eat. I returned aged 13 for an exchange visit and stayed in my penpal's house; I can't remember anything I ate except banana cereal, which made me gag, so I had to pretend to be someone who couldn't eat breakfast and then go hungry until lunchtime. The reason I mention all this now, though, is the third trip, when I was 16, again with the school but this time for work experience, although younger kids on the trip were there to do an exchange (my brother, for example). This time I was accommodated in a very odd household for which I was totally unprepared. I had begun A-level French and we had been taught to converse on various topics that would, we were told, come in useful at the dinner table in France - that is, the recent regional elections; the position of France in the Common Market; Maastricht, and whether or not Eurodisney would work longterm. Fab topics, obviously, just the sort of thing we all like to pontificate on at the end of a day's work. Not. Anyway, I arrived primed and ready to spout forth my second hand opinions, and found myself in a household where no one knew there had been elections in France or what the Maastricht treaty was. They were obviously very poor: there was no furniture apart from a dining table and a television; beyond the dining area we all sat on the floor. There were 5 children but only 3 bedrooms; a bathroom with a door that wouldn't close (which led me to shower in a dressing gown...) - and at night they would creep into my room and stare at me so I was too unnerved to go to sleep. Furthermore, the food was awful. Every night, they opened a catering sized tin of ravioli in tomato sauce and fed me that with stale bread; I ate before them, for no apparent reason, while they stood in a line and watched me and I tried bravely to talk, but they just flinched at all my conversational gambits. I couldn't bear it: I bought a book of Maupassant's short stories and read them unhappily, and listened to my Walkman. I gave up trying to speak and just read, and wrote letters, until the school registered just how dire it was and moved me, whereupon the family all cried, feeling I had let them down - it seemed that they had liked having me, and it turned out I was their first ever guest. Probably their last, too. I was moved into a teacher's house, where the teacher had a huge party with caviar and an ice sculpture and a friend and I were bored waitresses, but it was a ridiculous jump from the tinned ravioli. The point of this story was simply to show that I do know that not everyone in France eats fantastically well all the time and that ravioli is not always a good thing.

This latter point was picked up by my brother who asked what I was having for dinner, and, when told, commented that he didn't like the sound of cheese with mint and made silly remarks about whether the next thing would be Polo mints with feta cheese. When he says things like this, I remember what he was like when he was a kid. I ignored him, obviously, and went on to make Jamie's ravioli anyway. We have made fresh pasta quite a few times now but this was only our third go at ravioli, which is by far the most fun part of making pasta because the little parcels (flying saucers as Freya called them...) are so amazing.

I won't go through how to make pasta, but we (making pasta involves 2 chefs rather than me and a sous-chef in our house...) made the pasta dough and chilled it while I made the filling: potatoes, baked for an hour in a hot oven, cooled slightly, flesh scooped out and mixed with lemon zest, pecorino, mint, butter and nutmeg. We used a ravioli tray to make up the ravioli and it worked perfectly - in fact the whole experience was easier than usual, which I ascribe to the fact that I used OO flour instead of 0 'pasta flour' which is all Tesco sell, and I kneaded more than usual. There was no dangerous moment where the pasta almost tore; no possibility that it might fail. It just worked.

Making ravioli is such an easy and pleasurable way of feeling domestic goddessy. Having made the little ravioli, I boiled them for 3 and a half minutes, while heating butter in a frying pan. I drained the ravioli (or rather the sous-chef did) and I then added the ravioli to the frying pan with a little of its cooking water and simmered a bit until the water and butter coated the ravioli like a light sauce. I sprinkled with whole mint leaves and shaved pecorino.

This ravioli was utterly delicious - for me, the best fresh pasta dish I have ever had, let alone made. I loved the combination of flavours, as I told my brother this morning; no one should scoff at this delectable dinner, let alone brothers who want a Christmas present. This is right up there for me in the super league of the best dishes out of this book, and it fits the book's ethos perfectly - fun to make, simple, classic, and indescribably better than any ready made version of the same.


FreyaE said...

I love this article! So fun and interesting! I particularly liked your reference to Maupassant!
Seriously, if UFOs really were made of pasta, I might just start to believe in them...
Freya x

WayneOnMain said...

just made it myself... actually said the same thing you did about it being the best thing i've ever eaten/made myself... def'nettly really rewarding! thanks mr oliver!