EATING OUT: A lesson in taste - the Italian way
What do a physics teacher, a young mum, a sales manager and a journalist have in common? Answer: a love of Italian food.
But there’s more to Mediterranean cookery than pizza and pasta. It’s about flavours and textures, ingredients and techniques.
That’s where Jamie Taylor comes in. He may not sound very Italian, but he’s a top chef.
He started out under Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons, went on to work with Sheffield’s Richard Smith, spent three years at Harvey NicholLs in Leeds, then finally arrived at Nonnas.
He’s been there pretty much full time since 2003 – latterly as head chef at Nonnas Chesterfield – where he has just helped to launch a new cookery school.
So while Jamie may not have been born with that hot-blooded Latin instinct, over the last 13 years he's developed a feel for Italian food and a touch that can out-do most native chefs.
He’s a perfectionist when it comes to baking doughy foccacia; he has a way with pasta and torte; he can transform a dish with a touch of sun-ripened tomatoes, juicy lemons or aromatic basil…
And now he’s sharing the secrets of Italian cuisine with eager would-be cooks of all ages and abilities.
Nonnas Cookery School takes over the coffee bar of the Chesterfield restaurant one Monday each month.
The high communal table, with its solid marble top, makes a perfect workbench for up to ten eager students and the airy sunlit deli makes an enticing backdrop.
Founder Gian Bohan is on hand to welcome everyone. He set up the original Nonnas, in Ecclesall Road, 20 years ago with schoolfriend Maurizio Mori to share their passion for Italian food.
The cookery school is an extension of that: “We found a lot of customers were interested in what we did and that’s why the cookery school was born.”
The programme began last month with the basics on pasta and gnocchi. Future sessions will deal with dolci, pizza and fish, as well as focusing on various different regions.
I'd signed up for a session on Italian Easter: it sounded like the perfect opportunity to brush up on my cookery skills.
Helping Jamie to run the course is business development manager Chiara Albrizio, who lends a touch of authenticity with her Italian heritage – and accent.
Lamb, eggs and mozzarella are a traditional part of the Italian Easter celebrations, she tells us, and all the dishes we’re learning to cook would be served up as part of a typical family Easter meal.
We start with good, strong Italian coffee. Next to me is Zoe, an old hand having signed up for all this year’s courses. Her sunny personality and sense of fun ensure we're all soon bonded as a group.
Our first challenge is cheesecake – which needs time to bake and cool. This is one of the dishes on Nonnas’ new spring menu.
We set to, crumbling digestive biscuits, ladling in melted butter and pressing into trays. Next comes the topping of cream cheese, sugar and egg, with freshly grated lemon zest and the seeds of a vanilla pod.
Tip: “Don’t throw away the pods, you can use them to infuse vanilla sugar – or as a very expensive car air freshener!” says Jamie.
Our completed cheesecakes are taken off to be cooked and we’re busy chopping onions for our polpettes when I spot a solitary egg left on the workbench.
“Oh no! Was I supposed to put that in the cheesecake?” asks Zoe, to gales of laughter.
The meatballs are minced lamb, with an aromatic mix of onion, chopped fennel and fresh sage: “It’s all about getting the best out of fresh ingredients,” says Jamie.
And nothing is left to waste. Another tip: onion skin helps with colour and adds an earthy flavour to stock.
Next on our menu is torta pasqualina – a filo pastry parcel with a cheese filling. Tasty, yes, but healthy, probably not!
Creamy ricotta, mascarpone and grated parmesan cheeses are mixed together, with lemon zest, juice and handfuls of spinach and red chard, roughly chopped.
Then we layer sheets of tissue-thin filo with melted butter and form a spherical parcel round the mix.
These are whisked off to the kitchen and we’re ushered into the restaurant for lunch.
Peppe appears with two different wines from Campania: a medium-bodied red and a fresh, tart white.
We taste both as we tear into loaves of fresh bread, still warm, mopping up pools of tangy balsamic vinegar and fragrant olive oil.
Big dishes of green salad appear, then the highlight of our meal: torte pasqualina, hot from the oven and made by our own fair hands.
My parcel has untwisted itself, but it tastes amazing – if I do say so myself.
Shards of crisp filo fall away to reveal the soft, creamy centre, sharp with the scent of lemon and very, very rich.
Salad of rocket, fennel, red onion, tomato and courgette ribbons is the perfect foil.
It’s a wonderfully convivial lunch. We sample the cheesecake – beautifully moist and creamy – with our coffee, then head back to the ‘classroom.’
There’s just time for a session on pasta al forno before we head home with our goodie bags full of gifts and freshly-cooked food.
Courses cost £100 per person, including all ingredients.
* Nonnas, 131 Chatsworth Road, Chesterfield S40 2AH (01246) 380 035 Nonnas