Nine of us gathered in Chorlton High School’s spacious food technology room to learn about real Italian cooking from Jay Hickson, food lover and co-owner of Chorlton’s latest foodie destination, Hickson & Black's delicatessen.
Before opening the deli with Steve Black, Jay's job for over 10 years was sourcing cheese. For him, cooking is less about ‘food tech’ and lots more about sharing his passion for good fresh ingredients, put together with loving care to create something really tasty and satisfying. His knowledge and enthusiasm for cooking were infectious, and he was a mine of information as he talked us through the cooking of three gorgeous pasta sauces.
Using the ‘holy trinity’ of onions, carrots and celery as a starting point, Jay showed us the legal way to make ragu (spag bol) – yes, in 1982, the citizens of Bologna were so incensed by the motley array of sauces passing themselves off as Spaghetti Bolognaise that they decided to resort to the law to protect the reputation of the dish. They made it illegal to cook ragu in any other way.
For our ragu, we used three different kinds of meat, including Shropshire sausages (see photo). We sizzled the meat separately, until it was brown and crispy, then added wine to dissolve away the sticky brown goo on the pan – the smells by now were stomach-growlingly good. Jay advised cooking the vegetables and the meat separately to stop the meat steaming away its flavour in the vegetable juice.
We also made Puttanesca sauce, the Italians' classic leftover recipe – in this case, olives, chillies and capers. These, we discovered, are the flower buds of the caper bush, and much tastier when bought salted rather than preserved in vinegar (don’t forget to soak them first).
Jay gave us so many great tips, and we learnt how to bash cloves of garlic with the flat side of a knife so the skins simply slip off and they're easier to chop – no more cleaning out pulp from your garlic crusher either! You can do the same with olives to de-stone them – which is good to know, as the tastiest part of the olive flesh is next to the stone, so ready-pitted olives have lost the best bit.
For boiling pasta, the Italians use quantities of water, pasta and salt in a ratio of 100, 10 and 1. We didn’t quite have pans that big, but nevertheless we were amazed at the large handful of salt Jay threw into the water. Salt water boils at a higher temperature, which helps to achieve perfect results – together with using the best pasta, made from durum wheat. It stays al dente for longer, rather than going from crunchy to slimy in seconds like cheaper pasta. It costs more, but the results were so satisfying – the pasta was lovely and chewy and absorbed the sauces beautifully.
To make a very simple savoury dish of Pasta All’Amatriciana, we heated a couple of tiny dried Italian chillies with chopped pancetta until the chillies started to toast, then removed them before adding the other ingredients – they give the oil a nice kick. This packed quite a punch – we could feel the chilli vapour prickling our eyes! Jay talked about making pancetta: apparently you don’t need mountain air to dry your pork – Jay makes it in his shed in Chorlton, where he hangs his salted pork to dry.
Unlike the dried chillies, Jay advised never adding lemon juice or freshly ground pepper until the very end of cooking, as their essential oils evaporate if heated for too long. And while in most cases good food costs a little extra, he divulged that the best beef stock cubes are either the cheapest ones, or the organic ones. The rest are to be avoided because of all the additives they contain. And the only herb he advised using dried was thyme. The rest are best used fresh for flavour (and we had rosemary, bay leaves and sage, all from his garden).
We were all Jay’s apprentices for the evening, absorbing his knowledge and appreciation of good food as we cooked. And despite nine of us sharing a kitchen to make three different dishes, the evening was fun, relaxed and calm: a million miles from my memories of cookery (or domestic science) lessons at school.
We sat down together to enjoy the fruits of our labour, washed down with what was left of the cooking wine. We all agreed that the ragu was unlike anything any of us had cooked at home – and sooo flavoursome. Spag bol will never be the same again.
There is a second Pasta Plus class on Saturday (10 July), which will be led by Jay's Hickson & Black's partner Steve. It starts at 11am-2pm at St Ninian's Church Hall, and costs just £15 (£10 concessions). To book your place, call 0845 652 2572, email firstname.lastname@example.org or pop into Hickson & Black's deli.