Luciana Sampogna appears to the waiting, aproned class members, petite, dark and slightly harried looking. With the briefest of introductions she begins sweeping a pile of flour into a wide well on the wooden work-top and cracking in eggs. Beating the eggs with a fork she gradually incorporates some flour until the mixture is no longer runny, then begins scraping and squashing in the remaining flour with a broad, bladed tool until it forms a dough. She explains the crucial contribution of the moisture in the air and that we will all have to put up with the un-air-conditioned heat until after we have made our pasta dough. “Now you must go in and see if he complain,” she says in her wonderful accent. Translation: test if the dough has too much moisture. She then demonstrates a kneading action used to feel if the dough is sticky. Her eyes are barely open as she communes with the pillowy mass and adds more flour, a sprinkling at a time, until it reaches “just past the complaining point”. Now it’s time to knead the dough for a full six minutes to activate the gluten and make it stretchy. She uses her whole body as she rocks her weight from back foot to front foot, leaning into the dough with the heel of her hand before pulling it back towards her. It’s a labour of love. “Dancing with the dough,” she calls it. Just watching her in this simple repetitive act, you see, you understand her yearning, desperation even, to hand down the secrets of her food culture and in doing so ensure its survival.
Cucina Italiana, Luciana’s cooking school, runs from her own home, a beautiful heritage-listed Italian villa in Annandale, built by the Melocco Brothers for their mother almost a century ago. Growing up near Venice, Luciana learned a love of Italian food from an early age, watching her mother and grandmother cook. She studied under the famous Simili sisters, Margherita and Valeria Simili, in Bologna. Since 1998, when Luciana opened her first cooking school in Auckland, she has upheld the sisters’ philosophy of passing on the traditions of regional Italian cooking to thousands of eager students.
All 24 of us make our own pasta dough from the neat hillocks of flour already measured out onto the benches in the split-level kitchen. The eggs are piled into rustic wire baskets in the centre of the tables and we each have a fork and a scraper. Once we’re done our kneaded mounds are placed under a large upturned mixing bowl to rest and keep moist. Meanwhile we move through to the dining room to watch Luciana make antipasto. We’re seated at a long, white-clothed table laid for dinner underneath an ornate moulded plaster ceiling with a chandelier. Luciana takes centre stage and mashes borlotti beans with a potato masher, to keep them chunky. She adds finely chopped red onion, a few drops of red wine vinegar, chopped parsley, salt and pepper, a shocking amount of extra virgin olive oil (there are a lot of us, after all) and some olives. She tastes and checks the seasoning, her eyes flickering as she goes inside herself once more, then spoons the beautiful, unctuous concoction into two large bowls for us to eat with warm, dense Italian bread. It’s so simple and yet so delicious – the texture of the beans, the mild kick from the onion, freshness from the parsley, all bound by luxurious olive oil. Accompanied by a glass of wine, poured by Luciana’s two kitchen hands, it’s a majestic start to the meal. As we eat, Luciana explains that bread is a big part of traditional Italian cooking, padding out a meal and providing comfort to the stomach in times of great poverty. In Tuscany, where this antipasto recipe comes from, they eat a lot of beans and vegetables and not much meat.
Once we’ve finished, Luciana whips up a quick coffee-flavoured semifreddo – egg yolks, sugar, espresso, cream and egg whites – and bungs it into the freezer in a clingwrap-lined loaf tin. Next we’re back in the kitchen rolling out our pasta using a pasta machine. Once at the correct thickness we form it into ‘tortelli’ with two pre-prepared fillings of roasted pumpkin and beetroot, both mixed with parmesan, salt and pepper, freshly grated nutmeg, and egg to bind. Our little parcels are left on racks to dry in front of an electric fan while Luciana demonstrates ‘scaloppine with herbs’. She beats and stretches thinly sliced chicken breasts (you can use veal, too) with a smooth mallet, “to make the husband think he has a big piece of meat on his plate!” Dusting them in seasoned flour, she briefly pan fries them in butter and olive oil. Many in the class gasp every time she adds salt, butter, oil or cream to anything. She acknowledges the current fear of salt but says, “You eat salt, you get heart disease. You don’t eat salt, you get mental disease. Which you want to die of?” which produces a laugh. The sauce for the scaloppine starts with chopped garlic and chili in olive oil, gradually heated from cold and stirred constantly so that the garlic imparts all its flavour to the oil and colours only slightly before being deglazed with white wine. To that she adds fresh herbs, lemon juice and zest, and chicken stock and lets it reduce a little.
Meanwhile, the kitchen hands have been cooking the pumpkin tortelli and they bring them over, still in their enormous pot of boiling water. Luciana makes a sauce from melted butter, thickened cream and nutmeg and scoops the tortelli from the pan straight into the sauce, swirling to coat them. Colanders are a no no for fresh pasta, given it’s so fragile, and she uses a wonderful large wooden implement called a ‘mandolino’ that reminds me of a lacrosse stick. We’re told she can only find them in Italy and brings them back to Sydney by the suitcase load! We’re herded back into the dining room and soon they’re serving the tortelli to us in shallow bowls, three of each kind. The beetroot ones are coated simply in melted butter with sage leaves and a sprinkling of poppy seeds. Perfectly al dente, they’re worthy of any restaurant and I can’t believe they’re made by our own fair hands! The scaloppine come next on large plates in a pool of the herby, wine sauce with more fabulous bread (from Haberfield, next to the IGA) to soak up the juices. Luciana turns the semifreddo out of its tin, peels off the clingwrap and dusts it generously in chocolate powder before it’s taken away to be sliced and plated. It’s a lovely cool, sweet, creamy end to the meal. Luciana takes questions during which she tells us we can use any leftovers in tortelli, including roasted meats – that’s the Italian way.
“I aim to record and safeguard the Italian cooking heritage which has been lost in many misinterpreted recipes around the world… I aim to preserve the soul of Italian cooking – so rustic, so simple but so defined,” says Luciana in the introduction to her book Light of Lucia: A celebration of Italian life, love & food. A little bit in love with her, I can’t resist buying it at the end of the class and in a large, florid hand she writes inside: ‘Caroline – Enjoy the flavours of Italian life – Luciana – 6.11.12.’ I feel this as an entreatment rather than a friendly wish; an urging to take what I’ve learned, practise, improve, continue to learn, at all costs keep the knowledge alive. As we gather our belongings she implores us all to make pasta again at the weekend, “otherwise you forget”.
Well, I’ve done as I was told (Luciana is slightly scary, after all) and I made tortelli for dinner last night. The pasta dough did not form as easily for me on my own as it had in class, but it came good in the end and tasted just the same, which makes me think it must be quite a hardy substance, unlike, say, pastry dough. As luck would have it Mr T had roasted some pumpkin and parsnips earlier in the week and there were loads left over, so I felt I was being authentically Italian in using them up in the filling. Luciana would most definitely approve. We may not have eaten until 10pm and the kitchen may have looked like a bomb site, but the result was enormously satisfying – as were the oohs and aahs from Mr T! Exhausted and happy I felt something of Luciana’s labour of love, her mission to preserve her culture, and in some very small way, felt I’d done something to contribute to that great goal.
Tortelli di zucca, drying before being cooked
Tortelli di zucca with butter and cream sauce and parmesan
84 Johnston Street, Annandale
Class taken 6 November 2012