L’atelier des Chefs along with a group of 10-12 food bloggers for an evening of Italian food and sauces. The event was being run by Bertolli to showcase their new range of Italian sauces in association with none other than famous Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo! For those of you who don’t know Gennaro the man responsible for inspiring Jamie Oliver’s love of Italian cuisine and has also appeared in a number of his tv programmes.
Walking down the stairs to the cookery workshop I felt like I was entering some secret underground bunker. The walls were lined with cookware while a large professional kitchen was visible through a huge glass wall. The room was dimly lit and a large table filled one end of the room, covered with a red chequered tablecloth and bowls of olives, bread and olive oil and balsamic for dipping.
Over drinks and introductions we waited for Gennaro to arrive. The other bloggers were a lovely bunch and a lot of them seemed to know each other. I had a great chat with Helen of Fuss Free Flavours but I was also pleased when Anne of Anne’s Kitchen turned up, as I’ve met her once before and it was good to catch up. Then all of a sudden Gennaro arrived and everyone became very excited as he took time to chat to us all individually.
We then made our way to the kitchens where we were given aprons and big white floppy chefs hats to wear before being split into tables to work with. Here’s Anne modelling the outfit. I don’t know if the hats were sized, but I think mine must have been a large as at one point in the evening it fell completely over my eyes and nose, making me feel very foolish. Thankfully I think everyone was too absorbed with what they were doing to notice.
Gennaro started by telling us that most Italian sauces start with a Soffritto base. This is a mix of finely diced carrot, onion, celery and garlic with is sweated off before adding tomatoes and any other ingredients. This gives the sauce extra depth of flavour and is the method and base used for all the Bertolli sauces, which are also made using Italian ingredients. Gennaro told us that he wasn’t promoting the sauces to replace normal cooking but more as good staples to have on standby for when you are short of time or come home late and open the fridge to find only some milk and a few bendy carrots for dinner.
The sauces come in a range of flavours and Gennaro demonstrated three different dishes to us using the sauces. He cooked a chunky beef ragu using the bolognaise sauce, some poached mackerel, capers and oregano in the tomato and basil variety and a vegetarian mushroom and courgette bolognaise. The smells coming off the dishes were fantastic and very fresh and authentic. Gennaro is so passionate and enthusiastic about Italian food and cooking that he was constantly jumping around, shouting Italian phrases and making us laugh with stories, all accompanied by big hand gestures and facial expressions. It made a great atmosphere but meant he never stood still long enough for me to get an un-blurred photo of him!
While these dishes were bubbling away we got to make our own Soffritto base to which we added tins of whole Italian tomatoes – which we had to squash using our hands – nice and squishy!
He then demonstrated that by adding a few chopped chillies we could turn our simple sauce into a spicy Arrabbiatta sauce. He said to use 1 or 2 chillies as the small ones he was given were quite hot, but he then got a bit carried away with his story about how not to touch your face or go to the toilet after chopping chillies (see pic below) and ended up chopping about 12 which he divided between our four joint pots – good thing I like my sauce spicy!
We didn’t have time to finish cooking our sauces so we were all provided with our own customised jar and label so we could bring our sauce home and continue cooking with it later. I thought that was a really nice touch.
Then it was time to eat. We all sat around the big table sipping Prosecco and nibbling on the bread and olives while the dishes were plated up.
Gennaro asked if there were any Vegetarians and of course, up went my hand rather sheepishly. It was the only hand… but Gennaro proclaimed loudly that he loved Vegetarians and that some of his favourite recipes were Vegetarian and gave me a huge portion of the Veggie ragu on tagliatelle while the others sampled the mackerel followed by the ragu (modelled here by Josh of Cooking The Books).
The veggie ragu was delicious and had a wonderfully deep tomato flavour. Being Italian the pasta was of course served al dente, just as I like it. By the appreciative sounds coming from the other diners I think the other dishes were very good too.
At the end of the evening we were all presented with a selection of the Bertolli sauces, recipe cards and recipe book for us to take away and experiment with ourselves. I was also delighted to be given a signed copy of Gennaro’s cookery book, complete with lots of delicious sounding dishes. I came away full, happy and inspired to get cooking Italian food. Thanks to everyone at Wildcard and Bertolli for organising it and to Gennaro for being so enthusiastic and friendly. It was a fantastico way to spend an evening!