I’m now the proud owner of a guitar. It’s not a guitar in the chordophone sense, which is a shame because I’ve wanted one, a black and white fender, since I was twelve. It was 1984 and my dad clunked the cassette of Dire Straits Alchemy Live into the car stereo for the first time and Mark Knofler’s Sultans of swing guitar solo curled seductively from the back speakers. This was followed by The Wall, Dave Gilmour on guitar and an excuse to howl ‘We don’t need no education’ until our lungs hurt. Dad encouraged our over excitement, Mum tried to contain it while Ben and Rosie and took up our air guitars, pulled on imaginary sweat bands and performed boisterously (it would ultimately deteriorate into provoking, pushing, fighting, car sickness and hot tears) on the backseat of the car as we hurtled up the M1 motorway to Manchester.
My new guitar is una chitarra, a gift from my student Lidia, her extremely nice parents and her grandma, Nonna Jolanda, who bought la chittara in her suitcase from Abruzzo to Rome for me. It’s the curious square object in the first photo, a wooden frame tightly strung with fine music wire that actually looks more like a harp than a guitar. It’s for making the Abbruzzese speciality, a thick square spaghetti called spaghetti alla chitarra.
I’ve coveted una chitarra since last summer. My parents were in Rome for a long weekend and we all went for Sunday lunch with Lidia and her parents Sergio and Maria Teresa on their sun drenched terrace in San Giovanni. Nonna Jolander, who is Maria Theresa’s mum, had got up early that morning to make fresh egg spaghetti alla chitarra with her chitarra before she returned home to Abruzzo. We ate the great golden mound of square spaghetti with a rich beef ragu, plenty of freshly grated parmesan, each mouthful punctuated by rather too much wine for such a hot day.
This wooden gift has been the impetus, the spark if you like, I needed to start making my own pasta. Jolander laughed when I told her I was nervous, the secret she said, was practice, lots and lots of practice. She was unequivocal about the ingredients, the flour for spaghetti alla chittara should be semolina flour or farina grano duro (which is hard durum wheat four, not the soft 00 flour, although that is the best second choice) and the eggs should be very fresh with rich orange, almost red yolks. I should start with very manageable quantities, 200g of flour, a pinch of salt and two large eggs which would make enough pasta for two people.
She tutted and ticked her finger from side to side when asked about using a food processor or pasta machine – not that I have either. ‘I must start making and rolling pasta by hand, I should feel the dough‘ she said.
She began, I scribbled and watched; First you sieve the flour into a bowl, then you turn it out onto a clean wooden board and make a well in the middle, this is the fontana di farina, fountain of flour. You sprinkle the salt and crack the eggs into the crater of your flour volcano.
Working with a small bowl of water beside you in case the dough is awkward. You begin by breaking the yolks with your fingertips and then gently, moving your fingers in a circular motion, you stir the eggs and then slowly start to incorporate the flour, eventually bringing the mixture together into a ball. Things may all get very messy and sticky for a while be patient, this is all part of the process – apparently, many people work with one hand at the beginning. You may need to add a little more flour or water she warned earnestly. I wrote equally earnest notes which made her laugh.
Next you knead the dough, pushing it will the heel of the hand, then folding it back on its self, rotating it clockwise and repeating this action again and again for about 10 minutes until the dough stops feeling rough and floury but is smooth, tender and elastic. My ball reminded me of play dough by the end but I resisted the urge to sculpt a small animal. Leave the dough covered with a clean damp cloth or cling film for 20 minutes.
Now the rolling. Now this is the part I was rather afraid of. I’ve read extraordinarily complicated instructions about this process, the inimitable Marcella Hazan’s directions for hand rolling fresh egg pasta suggestions are over 4 pages long and full of must nots and for goodness sake don’t which left me baffled and defeated before I’d even started. Jolander laughed when I tried to explain what I’d read. She shook her head and wagged her finger again, ‘Roll‘ she said ‘cosi” and she held her fingers about 3mm apart ‘non ti preoccupare‘ (don’t worry too much). So I rolled.
Spaghetti alla chitarra is good choice for a pasta novice because you roll the dough a little thicker than normal, after all, you’re aiming for a chunky square spaghetti. I rolled my piece of dough before cutting it in half and rolling it a little more, then I placed it on top of the chitarra. I am sure seasoned pasta makers with wince at my inaccuracy. I was quite pleased.
The nicest part is rolling the pin over the pasta, pressing the soft yellow dough into the wires that cut it into long thin strips and watching them tumble onto the board below. Finally you gently separate the strands, unfurling any that are stuck together and lay them on a cloth or a board and sprinkle them with a shower of fine semolina. I’d made pasta. We both stood admiring the fruits of my labour for some time and then Vincenzo tried playing la chitarra. It was like a drunk person playing an out-of-tune harp.
Our pasta needed sauce. Actually, it didn’t need sauce, I imagine it would have been perfectly delicious tossed with nice extra virgin olive oil, black pepper, maybe some pecorino. We needed some sauce. There was no time for a long-winded ragù (although I have plans) so I made Marcella Hazan’s tomato and anchovy sauce which is my red sauce of choice at present. It’s a particularly tasty deep red elixir and might redeem this post if you are feeling all these words about pasta making with an obscure implement you don’t have – or want – are pretty useless. By the way, you can of course cut spaghetti all chitarra on your pasta machine – it’s the tonnarelli setting, or if you are very patient and steady of hand, you could cut it by hand I suppose. I would like video evidence of you doing this.
So this sauce. You saute some finely chopped garlic gently in extra virgin olive oil before adding some anchovy fillets which you prod and nudge until they melt and dissolve. Then you add some chopped tomatoes or passata, a pinch of salt and some black pepper and let the all bubble and burp away for about 25 minutes. A deep, dark, anchovy infused tomato sauce perfect for spaghetti alla chitarra, spaghetti, spaghettini, linguine……..
Tomato and anchovy sauce
- 1 plump clove of garlic, very finely chopped
- 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 8 anchovy fillets
- 600g tomato passata or chopped tinned plum tomatoes (san marzano are good)
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
Gently warm the oil in a frying or saute pan, add the garlic and allow it to cook very gently for a few minutes – it should not brown or it will taste bitter.
Add the anchovy fillets to the pan and gently prod and mash them with the back of a wooden spoon until they dissolve and melt.
Add the tomatoes, salt and a few grindings of black pepper to the pan and adjust the heat so the sauce cooks at a gentle but steady simmer for 25 minutes or until the oil floats free from the sauce.
Serve with dried or fresh spaghetti or spaghetti alla chitarra. Fresh spaghetti alla chitarra takes about 3 minutes to cook in fast boiling, well salted water.
I made pasta, I may well print a T-shirt or a badge at least. I’d love to know about your pasta tales. Have a really good week.