This safely wins the prize of my favourite challenge so far. I chose this challenge because I’ve always fancied doing some sort of cookery course but never have. Apart from Home Economics lessons at school, which involved a lot of homework drawing pictures of jacket potatoes, but not much time actually learning to cook. We made a few fairly useless things like baked apples, but I left home completely unable to make a meal for myself. Admittedly this could also have been avoided if I’d been a little bit more prepared to help out my parents – both of them good cooks - in the kitchen as a teenager. Obviously I’ve learned a lot since, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement, especially as I am having to cook for us almost every single day now we don't get to eat out much any more.
Whilst the most useful cookery course for me these days would be one entitled “How to Prepare Food That A Toddler Will Eat Without Needing It To Be Disguised By Baked Beans”, a little while back the regular weekly e-mail update from our local delicatessen pointed me to exactly what I was looking for. It mentioned a new cookery school being set up by Sara Danesin Medio. When Charlotte was just a tiny baby, Dave and I became hooked on a particular series of Masterchef, as it was all we could manage to watch on television during the one hour we had to ourselves each evening. Sara Danesin Medio, an Italian intensive care nurse who lived in York, reached the final, but ultimately her divine-looking cocoa and partridge ravioli lost out to the zany burgers of a bespectacled American called Tim. It was Sara’s food that Dave and I had salivated over throughout the entire series, at a point in our lives where we were having to live off Waitrose ready meals from the freezer because we were too exhausted to cook properly for ourselves.
And here suddenly was a chance to meet Sara, and learn from her. I sent off an enquiry via her website and after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing an available date was found.
Ironically, when the day came I was almost as exhausted as I was when I had watched Sara on Masterchef, since Charlotte chose this week to get the coughing virus from hell, which left her running a fever bordering on 40 degrees and entirely unable to eat or sleep. Which meant none of us had been able to sleep. For nights on end. Not wanting to cancel, I left her in Daddy’s capable hands to have a far less fun day than he had been hoping for, and walked across town to Sara’s house for a warm and friendly welcome. Rather than setting up her own restaurant, Sara runs a dining club from home on Saturday evenings, Sara @ St Johns. She serves 12 covers, does all the food preparation and clearing up herself, and has only her husband on hand to assist with front of house. The menu is fixed and the wine is bring your own. Oh, and it’s booked up for the next year.
Three of us were signed up for the course. Once the other two had arrived, we set to work. Though it was actually Sara who did most of the work. She was understandably wary of letting strangers loose with knives and hot oil in her kitchen, despite her intensive care nurse qualifications. So nearly everything we needed was already measured out and chopped, and she did any hot plate, oven and hob work herself.
We spent the day making a three-course menu: aubergine parmagiana served with pesto, Taggiasche olives, vine-roasted tomatoes and a parmesan crisp; fresh egg pasta filled with spinach and ricotta and drizzled in a beurre noisette (burro bruciato) and white truffle sauce; and a vanilla panna cotta served with a berry and kirsch compote. Sara started with the panna cotta, leaving it to set in the fridge while we prepared the other two courses. These meant my first attempts at using a chef’s ring to make a vegetable stack, at making and rolling my own pasta, and at plating up “prettily”, using smears rather than dollops of sauces. Miraculously, while I wouldn't go as far as to say that I carried out any of these activities with aplomb, I avoided any humiliating disasters and was pleased with my efforts.
|My very own spinach and ricotta filled pasta|
|Cooked and served with a burro bruciato and white truffle sauce|
|Panna cotta with generous smears of compote (my greed wins over grace)|
Sara made it all look so simple. And really, there was nothing complicated about what we were doing: every recipe could easily be replicated at home. Sara’s approach was all about touch, smell, feel and taste rather than science and technique. She had calculated the exact ratio of gelatine sheets required for the panna cotta, but once she had the mixture prepared in the jug, a sixth sense seemed to tell her that another half sheet was needed to get a perfect result. And talking of feel, the temperature of food or scalding water that Sara will merrily stick her fingers into without so much as a wince is really quite scary.
Sara also insists on good quality ingredients. The extra virgin olive oil she was using costs 15 pounds a bottle, but I have never inhaled the scent of or tasted one so utterly, richly exquisite. The eggs that she uses for her pasta have yolks of an astronishingly vibrant yellow which give a sunshine-like sheen to her dough. The Taggiasche olives we perched on our aubergine parmagiana looked like tiny brown pellets but took olive-eating to a whole new gastronomic level.
Sara’s kitchen is spacious and light, but not full of fancy pans and gadgets. She has an Aga, but otherwise everything else was prepared on just two gas hobs. The most complicated thing she owns is a Thermomix, a small plug-in pot whose website claims it “weighs, grinds, purees, simmers, steams, emulses, crushes, kneads, minces and maintains chocolate at 37 degrees”, presumably while doing the washing up, defrosting your freezer and clearing out all the spices past their use-by date in your store cupboard. She had used the Thermomix to prepare an incredibly dense tomato and shallot sauce for the aubergine parmagiana, though she insisted that the sauce could just as well be prepared in a pressure cooker or on a low heat on the hob. A slightly battered pasta machine, her grandmother’s wicker ravioli scoop and a black angled spotlight above the Aga (which Sara nicknames the “gynae light”) complete the set-up.
I learned so much from my time with her. That large knives are actually less dangerous to handle than small ones when chopping vegetables. That you should source vanilla pods online. That it is almost as quick and far less messy to make pesto in a pestle and mortar rather than in a food processor, and that if you keep the mortar in the freezer, the pesto will turn out a brilliant emerald green every time. That a mix of parmesan and pecorino cheese are perfect for pesto. That the basil leaves we grow over here bear no resemblance to the tiny ones used in pesto by the Genoese. That parmesan crisps are simply grated parmesan scattered into discs, put in the oven for 3 minutes, peeled off the baking tray at just the right moment and shaped over a rolling pin. That if you salt and drain slices of aubergine for a couple of hours and then wring them out in your hands and deep-fry them, they won’t absorb gallons of oil and will taste exactly as aubergines are meant to. That when it comes to garlic, using less rather than more is enough to give a magical, subtle flavour which makes it somehow all the richer. That when chefs say “Add a little bit of salt” they generally add about ten times as much as I would have thought to. That the perfect consistency of pasta dough has been reached when the ball is as soft to caress “as a baby’s bottom”. That when pasta is stretched out and thin, it is unbelievably elastic and robust. That breadcrumbs can be like powder. That a sprinkling of semolina flour helps fresh pasta to dry and not to stick to surfaces. That if you coat the entire interior of a filled pasta shell with egg white rather than just the edges, the pasta is less likely to spring a leak on cooking. That it is a lot easier to extract panna cottas and parmesan crisps from silicon bakeware. That listening to the sound of butter melting in a frying pan allows you to determine when you have reached the perfect point to begin a beurre noisette sauce. That you should cook pasta in lots and lots of water. That no restaurants ever make their own filled pasta fresh for you – at best they may parboil then reheat them for your plate.
Sara’s tales of working in restaurants made me really understand why she does what she does, sticking to running a small and intimate dining club where the guests can be like family and she can control everything she serves from start to finish. It’s well-documented that restaurant chef life can be full-on, exhausting, male-dominated, and rife with fiery tempers, filthy language, bullying and more than occasional drug use. You might have to spend an eternity chopping vegetables at a work station before you are allowed to show any creative flair of your own. Sara is immensely gifted and incredibly hard-working. She was plainly a brilliant nurse and she is also a brilliant chef and gives everything she attempts her all, yet she is also resolutely determined to maintain a quality of life and a work-life balance, to be there for her family and to see the world. It was a real lesson to me to see this, knowing that I haven’t often found true happiness in the work place, as I battle on with these 40 challenges in my own bid to discover where I want to go next.
We ate the food we had created at various stages throughout the day, glad of a sit-down after long periods on our feet. Sara’s tabby cat Zorba sat outside the kitchen patio doors, peering in at us jealously. Apparently he likes nothing more than a plate of pasta and courgettes. If Sara had cooked them, who can blame him? We washed down lunch with a beautiful Piedmont Chardonnay, asked any foodie questions we had, and listened to Sara’s stories. She had also experimented with a sort of ravioli that contained the yolk of a quail’s egg on top of the spinach filling. The idea of it is that the egg doesn’t cook through or scramble, so that when you cut into the pasta, this glorious yolk comes oozing out all over your plate. Needless to say, when she sat down to try it, she had completely nailed it. With our post-prandial coffee or herbal teas, Sara also fished out a box of home-made hazelnut meringue cookies that were little crunchy mouthfuls of heaven.
“Little” is definitely part of Sara’s ethos when it comes to serving the finer, richer foods in life. Cream, butter and sugar are all delicious things, but left unheeded they clog up your arteries, and Sara has seen plenty of the consequences of that during her twenty years working in intensive care. So keep dessert portions small, and keep exercising to burn them off was definitely her message. I took away so much from my day with her, including a free bag of star and moon shaped pasta for the poorly little lady at home. I know and hope that we will be seeing a lot more of Sara Danesin Medio in the years to come. I’d better get my dining club reservation in now.