If I had to pick a favourite moment of the cookery holiday in Spongano, organised by Demuths, I would really struggle. I was so taken by it all, from the location (the splendid palazzo Bacile di Castiglione), to the guests, from the recipes and fresh produce bought daily from the market to the programme of activities, that I secretly wished the holiday had lasted two weeks instead of one...not to mention the food, which was always delicious and fresh, inspired by the region and made by all to share.
Despite the difficulty in choosing, two events are still fresh in my memory and I am sure I will cherish for a long time: the visit to a small caseificio (cheese making facility) and second being taught how to make fresh pasta. Both events were characterised by the generosity of those who took time to explain and teach us their art, with care, enthusiasm and passion.
Making fresh pasta was an exciting affair as we all gathered around Giuseppina to watch her expert hands knead and shape a dough of semola flour (durum wheat ground very finely) and then moved to our places around the table with flour and water and set about to work. To our expense we learned straight away that when Sirocco blows in from the South-East making pasta becomes a rather difficult affair, although it probably just applies to beginners who take their time to think about the next step rather than go into auto mode to dish out orecchiette, maccheroni al ferro and sagne incannulate at the speed of light. While she helped us with our pasta making, Giuseppina gleefully talked us through a host of very interesting anecdotes, from the ideal width of tria (the local tagliatelle featuring in the dish ciceri e tria, a chickpea pasta dish) based on how tobacco leaves were cut, to the nicknames of mogli e mariti (wives and husbands) for orecchiette and maccheroni when they are combined together in the same dish.
Giuseppina told us that pasta making in southern Italy is now an activity relegated to special occasions, perhaps a religious festivity or weekends, yet, the sauces reflect what must have been an almost daily practice as they are both simple and based on ingredients readily available in everybody's garden. Even nowadays the outskirts of Spongano are dotted with little small holdings, what I called glorified allotments, covered in all the vegetables we were able to buy daily in the markets and shops: cime di rapa, chicory, chillies, peppers, the last of the winter tomatoes and aubergines among others. Fresh ingredients that the expert hands of Giuspina turned into delicious sauces for our pasta feast...one of many during our stay at the Palazzo.
Our next cooking holiday in Italy is 25th Sept - 1st Oct 2016. If you can't wait that long to learn pasta making skills, don't despair! Read our top tips on making homemade pasta, and get our essential recipe for homemade egg pasta.