I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m mildly obsessed with Italy (!), so when Bertolli invited me to an evening with Gennaro Contaldo I assented without a moment’s hesitation. As well as being a very successful, talented and well-published chef in his own right, Gennaro is the mentor and friend of our nation’s sweetheart and my cooking heart-throb, Jamie Oliver (who I am also mildly obsessed with). I was in, for shiz. The evening was billed as an Italian Cookery Workshop, so I was excited to see a little bit of Gennaro in action, get some tips and maybe a little taster too.
Gennaro cooks in the Amalfian style and as my grandma grew up only a few miles down the coast in Sorrento I was particularly interested to meet Gennaro and discuss the region with him. My grandma was the belle of Sorrento in her day. Look at her, all glamorous and beautiful and shit. I remember looking through black and white photos of her as a child and being in absolute awe of her. Slim, tanned and framed in black and white against picturesque Italian scenery, she appeared to be from of a bygone time… a time of Sophia Loren, the rat-pack, and Hollywood glamour. Apparently she, and the other local girls, used to swim in the water below the promenade and men used to throw coins at them. Hah! I love it.
Even after my grandma grew up, married my granddad and moved to England, Sorrento was still very much a part of my family’s life. Every summer my grandma would take my mum and aunt back to her home town for two months. My mum has so many memories in Sorrento with her nonna. Here she is with three generations of the Ercolano clan: my great-grandmother, my grandma, and my mum. I love this photo. Check out my grandma’s short shorts. Yeow! Hot stuff.
So I was keen to talk to Gennaro about how his life and cooking had been influenced by the Almafi and Southern Italy. Immediately upon arriving, a glass of prosecco was thrust in my hand and I was led to Gennaro Contaldo, who greeted me so warmly and enthusiastically that he put me instantly at ease. Part of Gennaro’s success has been down to this ineffable charm. We’ve seen him banter with Jamie on shows like Jamie’s Italian and we’ve felt his warmth and charisma resonate through the screen. Well in person it’s tenfold or more. Whilst he was talking to me, I had his full attention despite the hubbub of arrivals and chatter that surrounded us. We had a really lovely chat about Sorrento, the Amalfi coast and how different it is now from when he and my grandma were growing up there. He admonished me for not speaking Italian (a shameful truth that I’m determined to resolve) and he was absolutely lovely. What a legend he is.
After a little schmoozing time, we got down to business… which was basically Gennaro showing us how to go about making a basic ragu from scratch using the soffrito technique. I won’t explain the step-by-steps to this as I’m sure that most people know how to sweat vegetables… but basically, many Italian pasta sauces start with a base of very finely diced onion, carrot and celery sweated off slowly with garlic.
We all got to wear our Bertolli aprons and chefs hats whilst we chopped and diced following Gennaro’s instructions and then some of us got a turn at the front with teacher. It was like being back at school in home economic class. Here’s Luiz (of the London Foodie) getting a little help with his ragu.
The basic premise of Gennaro’s pitch was that whilst foodies like us wouldn’t generally use a from-the-jar sauce, there are some folks out there that simply don’t have the time or inclination to make pasta sauce from fresh. (Well yes, we know that’s true enough; check the recent revelation of the candwich for proof of that fact.) Well, if that’s true then it would be good for these lazy people (his word, not mine) to have sauces that aren’t shot full of e-numbers, wouldn’t it? Well yes, that’s true too I guess. So, his point was that Bertolli’s sauces are made “the way mamma used to make it” using the soffrito technique (i.e. more or less the way you and I would make our own home-made pasta sauce) and then jarred and sold. Nothing added and nothing taken away. Hurrah for Bertolli.
Even in Italy it is not uncommon for people to use shop bought sauces, and brands like Bertolli who use traditional techniques and quality ingredients can be found in larders across the country. No shame in it. For our dinner, Gennaro demonstrated that you don’t just have to use jars as stir-through sauces in pastas. You can use them for a base for more involved and interesting meals. For example, he poached mackerel in the basic ragu, which I’d never really thought of doing and was really good.
It was great to be taught by Gennaro. We all know the stereotypes that are associated with Italians: passionate, emotional, charming, expressive, impetuous and animated. Gennaro seems to encompass and personify all of these traits. Standing at the front, he enthused effervescently about the simple ragu sauce on the stove. Every time he took a taste he banged the table violently with the back of spoon… “that’s what I’m talking about… delicious…”. In fact his every thought and feeling was accompanied by some physical expression. But that’s Italians all over isn’t it? We were even given this book in our goodie bags! Gestures are as much part of Italian culture as food and fashion.
Once dinner was ready, we all sat down and had a good old feed on Gennaro’s wares. The poached mackerel spaghetti was the winner for me and I will definitely be trying that at home. The meat ragu was bloody nice too.
It was amazing to watch Gennaro in action. I’m sure you can imagine… lots of laughter and frivolity, lots of exuberance, and lots of gestures! But the nicest thing about the evening was having the opportunity to sit with Gennaro and a bunch of my fellow bloggers and enjoy good food, good wine and good conversation. It was great to meet Rachael, Uyen and Simon, Carla, Luiz and Joshua.
I leave you with Gennaro’s take on Italians and gestures, which I think gives you a little taster of our evening with him.
Thanks to Bertolli for having us.