When you meet the eclectic chef, author of over 30 cookbooks, including “Classic Italian Cooking” (winner of the International Gourmet Award), you can’t help guessing where she might come from. She is fair and tall like many British and her English is perfect but she is too lively and laid back to be one of Her Majesty’s subjects. The mystery is soon revealed: her father was an English army officer who fell madly in love with her mother, an Italian countess, and so Valentina grew up in a Tuscan castle, complete with vineyards, olive groves, vegetable garden, chickens and a constant supply of guests. This great heritage made her one of the most appreciated cook in the UK.
Valentina, in your opinion, what makes the Italian cuisine enduringly interesting?
I think it is the vibrancy of the flavours and colours and the relative simplicity required for the preparation of really delicious food that manages to effortlessly stimulate the senses because it relies on the quality of the ingredients rather than any really complicate long-winded techniques. Also, Italian food is emotional, more so than any other food thanks to the stories surrounding the origins of many of the dishes and the culinary traditions which underpin the recipes, so it cannot fail to grab you by the heartstrings as well as the taste buds.
Your first cookery book “Perfect Pasta” was a hit, translated into six languages. How do you explain that huge success?
I was in the right place at the right time. It was the 70s, and the rest of the world was just waking up to the fact that Italy’s culinary heritage is a vast playground of tastes, colours and textures, with all the regions of Italy happily continuing to honour their own gastronomic heritage and celebrating it with pride. I was cooking this food with all my love and passion because it was and still is food that I intrinsically relate to and understand on so many levels.
And what does really make perfect pasta?
First of all, if we are talking about dried durum wheat pasta, like spaghetti, for example, it is the quality of the ingredients used to make the pasta itself, so choose a good, reliable brand. Then allow the pasta to dance and change partners as often as it wants to while it merrily boils in plenty of salted boiling water in a pot that is big enough to give it freedom of movement. Then it is about realising that there is a relationship between the shape of the pasta that is chosen and the sauce that goes with it. Essentially the pasta is the canvas, and the sauce you use to dress it with is the paint. Get it right, and you will create a masterpiece.
In terms of fresh pasta, they say that the most essential ingredients are the gossip that was flying around in the kitchen while people gathered together to make pasta together, and the love that goes into making it, each time.
Other books followed over the years: “What Pasta, Which Sauce” and “Pasta Galore”. Which are your favourite recipes among the ones you have suggested and why?
I haven’t really got a favourite pasta dish, because it depends so much on my mood at the time, but I love a fiery Puttanesca, iron-rich Pasta ai Carciofi, and nothing can beat a really good, freshly prepared Trenette al Pesto, made in a classic way with green beans and potatoes boiled together with the pasta.
You are the youngest of a large Anglo Italian family and descendant from the noble Renaissance family Sforza. Do you have any particular culinary memories to share with us? Did you use to make fresh pasta at home?
We never made pasta at home, this is something I learned to make much later when I became a chef. Our meals at home were always huge affairs with at least 20 people seated around the table to enjoy simple but fantastic dishes. My favourite was always Malfatti, Spinach and Ricotta Gnocchi, and I learned a really nifty way of making them perfect and light using a cold tumbler with which to shape them. I also remember the careful preparation of risotto, the first dish I ever learned to make. My risotto rules are still the same today, and each time I make this dish I am transported back to that Tuscan kitchen of my youth.
Many Italian restaurants abroad try to tweak their dishes to suit the British palate sometimes compromising the original flavour. What do you think about this?
I think it is shocking, especially considering that there is no longer any excuse not to seek out and use the best possible Italian ingredients, which are now available literally anywhere. I cannot understand how I can eat perfectly authentic, really Italian tasting food in the Maldives whilst on holiday, but struggle to find a dish that is recognisable as anything remotely Italian in a downtown Italian restaurant in, say, Cardiff or Brighton. For me, to bastardise Italian food is as great a sin as throwing a pot of metallic paint over the walls of the Sistine Chapel. To not respect Italy’s culinary heritage is insulting, as this is a great richness and a patrimony that must be protected. It has been, after all, respected as an art form from the Florentine Renaissance onwards.
As an Anglo Italian and a great chef, how do you cope with the typical British way of boiling pasta using the kettle and eating overcooked soft pasta?
I think Pot Noodles has a lot to answer for! Is that actually food?
Nowadays people are always in a hurry. They cook very seldom preferring the takeaway or the ready-made meal. Do you have any tips for the pasta-lovers who would love to have a healthy Italian dinner quickly?
I think the ultimate quick sauce is made using just a clove of garlic, a little oil, some tomatoes (canned or, only if in season, fresh and softly ripe) and knowing just how long to cook it for, over a lively heat in a frying pan. This sauce forms the basis for so many other garlic based sauces, like Puttanesca or Arrabbiata, and as long as it cooked with care, the results are amazing. The garlic is fried until pungent but not at all burned, then removed before adding the tomatoes and cooking quickly until the orange ‘cornice’ is formed around the edges of the pan, and then adding seasoning and perhaps freshly chopped herbs. That is all. Yet it still amazes me just how many non-Italians get it so horribly wrong!