The humble potato struggled for approval from us Brits when it was introduced to our country by Sir Francis Drake in the sixteenth century. The Irish soon twigged that the potato was easier to grow than barley or oats but it took a while for the English to see it as anything more than a novelty ingredient at best or simply downright dangerous. Things that grew underground during this period was generally regarded with a hefty dose of suspicion.
Gradually, this tuber gained admission to our dinner plates. By the mid twentieth century it would be inconceivable to serve a meal without some form of potato. However, it seems in the twenty-first century we are beginning to turn our backs on the spud once again as we eschew carbs and embrace quinoa and other ‘healthy’ grains.
Perhaps what is needed to reinvigorate our love for the potato is a rebrand. Out with the fat drenched stodge and in with something lighter and more elegant. The Italians found such a solution years ago in the form of gnocchi.
Until I met food writer and cookery tutor Ursula Ferrigno recently at The Kitchen Academy at Kingscote Estate, I regarded gnocchi very much as a dumpling – something heavy and leaden. For this reason gnocchi is not a dish I would usually order in a restaurant.
“Not many people know how to make good gnocchi,” conceded Jethro Carr, owner of The Kitchen Academy and Ursula’s co-tutor for the day. I nodded in agreement knowing that I was one of those people.
Fortunately, Ursula is not one of those people. Originally from Amalfi she has lived in the UK for many years. Her passion and expertise is firmly rooted in her Italian heritage. She showed our small group on the Cento per Cento cookery course how to make not one but three types of gnocchi. All slightly different but equally delicious and (most importantly) not in the least bit stodgy. In fact, so good are Ursula’s gnocchi they were the reason her husband proposed to her. The secret to wonderfully cloud-like potato gnocchi is apparently in the ingredients.
“Get the ingredients right and cooking is easy,” Ursula assured us.
The right ingredients are old, floury potatoes like King Edwards or Desiree (anything that you would usually mash) – the older the better as they contain more starch; fresh free range eggs and 00 flour (which means it has been milled twice to make it extra fine). Ursula told us that the latter should be Italian (rather than English) as it has a lower gluten content and therefore the end result is lighter. The potatoes should also be baked in their jackets before the flesh is scooped out and pushed through a sieve or potato ricer. This preserves the starch and intensifies the flavour. These ingredients are mixed together with some liberal seasoning (including aromatic nutmeg) to form a dough which is rolled by hand into long ‘sausages’ then cut into small dumplings. No fork indentations are required as this is evidently ‘old hat’.
It seems unlikely that the trilogy of potato, eggs and flour could produce something in the feather weight category. The little pillows even sank ominously when they were first introduced to the softly boiling water. But within a very short while they bounced to the top of the pan, all puffed and pert, ready to receive the ragu that had been gently simmering along side.
The two variations on the dumpling theme were ricotta gnocchi made with cheese rather than potato and semolina gnocchi, which are possibly the oldest form of this dish. Indeed a few days after the course I came across a recipes for semolina gnocchi in Mrs C S Peel’s Eat Less Meat Cookbook of 1916. The semolina is prepared in the same way you would make polenta then left to set before rounds are cut out, placed in a greased shallow dish, scattered with cheese and baked. Once again these were surprisingly light and far more delicious than the semolina pudding I remember from my primary school dinners. And proof, if ever you needed it, that our fascination with Italian food goes way back.
I believe one of the true marks of a good teacher is someone who manages to disseminate their knowledge in an interesting way and without seeming to lecture or look down on their studenti (as Ursula fondly referred to us). Ursula was at ease with our small group and I felt more like I was being cajoled by a favourite aunt than being taught in a student-teacher scenario. With her charming demeanour Ursula demystified the art of pasta and gnocchi making, peppering her tutorial with anecdotes about her nonna’s approach to cooking and economising tips, like using off cuts of pasta dough to make malfatti (which means badly formed) for use in soups.
We packed a lot into the morning from making gnocchi and pasta to an orange tart, all of which would form our lunch along with a glass of Kingscote Bacchus Chardonnay. The results were impressive (even if I do say so myself). The precariously thin pasta parcels miraculously retained their fillings and the ragu cuddled the gnocchi like a small child hugging it’s favourite fluffy toy. One of the big hits at lunch was the rotolo (a spinach and ricotta pasta roulade) which has the bonus of being a dish that could be easily prepared in advance and looked stunning once it had been grilled. Stodge had been duly banished. The culinary uses for the potato and semolina have definitely been revitalised in my mind.
Ursula will be returning to Kingscote to deliver more Italian cookery courses later this year. She also has a new book coming out in April on Sicilian food. In the meantime, if a culinary adventure in the Sussex countryside tickles your fancy you can find a list of the forthcoming courses at Kingscote on the cookery school website. The next one on 24 February, hosted by Jethro, is on sushi.
With thanks to The Kitchen Academy at Kingscote Estate who invited me to attend the Cento per Cento cookery course as their guest.