Katie Caldesi: Spring Has Arrived
Katie Caldesi and her husband Giancarlo are the owners of London’s Caffé Caldesi, Caldesi in Campagna in Bray, and the Marylebone La Cucina Caldesi cooking school. Katie has written or co-written 11 books, the most recent being The Long & Short of Pasta, published by Hardie Grant on 31st May.
Often, Italian food is very simple: a combination of a few ingredients that flatter one another on the plate, rather like a well-chosen outfit with stylish accessories. Cheap, poor quality vegetables, fish or meat have no sauce to hide in - just the drizzle of cooking juices or single-estate extra-virgin olive oil to anoint a portion of hake or slivers of steak.
Our style of food is traditional, so some of the dishes are from recipes that haven’t been changed for hundreds of years. We have caponata made from slow-cooked aubergines, olives and celery on the menu which is a recipe from Sicily hundreds of years ago from a time when the Arabs ruled the island. It uses raisins, vinegar and a little sugar to give a sweet and sour flavour. Most Italians don’t dare to change recipes that they learnt from their families or previous head chefs – it’s just not done. It is their heritage and identity. I can hear my husband Giancarlo saying, “you change my mother’s lasagne and you change the world!” And why change what works? We have been making our signature seabass ravioli for 20 years and cooking the calf’s liver in the same way with butter and sage for even longer. If we ever take our classics off the menu our customers quickly complain.
However, Gregorio has to keep up with the seasons, and as the year evolves we want to eat differently. Instead of hot soups and comforting stews we want light spring salads, grilled fish and fresh fruits. The porcini mushroom sauce that coated the silky ribbons of pasta will now be replaced with white Cornish crabmeat, fresh peas and leaves of wild garlic. The beef ragu exchanged for spring Welsh lamb and red pepper ragu – a recipe I love from the mountains of Abruzzo.
A head chef needs to have a good palette, be a good teacher, an organiser and an artist. Gregorio brings his style of cooking to the kitchen by using his experience to play with the presentation; I’m often there too, photographing and suggesting ideas. We might try 10 to 15 ways until we are all happy. I watched Gregorio plate up a salad last week. He folded soft, translucent slices of gold and purple beetroot onto a huge white plate, brightened them up with tiny lime-green leaves of lemon balm and made them shine with drops of sweet onion infused olive oil. They looked like petals fallen from a rose next to a moon-white ball of mozzarella, plump and whole, waiting for the customer to make the first cut and reveal the milky, salty interior.
It has always been our ethos to use the best of British ingredients and cook them in an Italian way. A combination of the two nationalities, like Giancarlo and I, at the heart of our business. To give an example, Gregorio will take British mackerel from the day boats in Cornwall, fillet and grill them simply and serve them with the Sicilian caponata. We import only what we can’t buy here, such as parmesan, Buffalo mozzarella, burrata or the first ripe tomatoes from sunny Sicily or Campania. When the Isle of Wight tomatoes come into season, we will switch to those.
I have annotated our travels in Italy over the last 20 years; each trip, the best meals or visit to a farm or deli has been turned into a recipe. We have written eight cookbooks on Italian food, each one full of recipes from Italian mammas, nonnas, chefs, family and friends. Our recipes come from all the 21 regions of Italy although we might have a bias towards two of those regions, as Giancarlo is a proud Tuscan and Gregorio can’t deny his Sicilian roots.
You can plan a spring menu way in advance and you know what vegetables should be available, but until you feel those rays of sunshine on your back its hard to feel what people might actually like to eat – it’s like trying to think about Christmas in June, and we can’t experiment until we have the produce. We have all seen how produce is available earlier than its natural season due to poly tunnels, but I think we should all employ restraint and only choose ingredients with proper flavour. No strawberries should appear on a winter’s table. We got excited about some huge purple and black heritage tomatoes that looked incredible, but in fact they hadn’t basked in enough Italian sunshine and tasted sour, so we will revisit them in summer.
Our greengrocer or ‘frutivendolo’, (a word I love and one of the first I learnt in Italian) is a man called Paolo Puddu. He is Sardinian and lives a nocturnal life of sleeping through the day and going to the market late at night. Every evening after service, Gregorio phones the order into Paolo. Sometimes they speak directly, other times Paolo texts photographs to Gregorio to show him what is available in case he wants to add it to his order. Paolo delivers huge boxes of vegetables, punnets of delicate fruit and heavy sacks of onions and potatoes to our restaurant early morning every day. This week there were bunches of asparagus from Norfolk, Jersey Royals, plump broad beans and wild garlic leaves, so we ordered them in and started experimenting.
At the end of last week, we held a tasting and decided between us what is on the spring menu. At this point, the kitchen brigade are taught the new dishes and practice them until they are perfect. We take a photograph of each finished plate and write up the recipe just to prevent things from mutating and to ensure consistency. Now spring has sprung, the menu is finished and our merry little team in the kitchen are busy proudly working with everything that the British larder has to offer.