In the midst of strong December winds and rain I found the sunshine of Tuscany. A great morning hosted in Hampton Place with Tuscan chef Alessandro Piccinini. Alessandro has a cookery school in the small medieval village of Montisi not far from Montalcino in southern Tuscany. Along with his work at the school he holds cookery classes with private lunches and dinners such as the one I attended.
Our hostess for the morning was Ann Alexander who spends part of her time here in Brighton and the other half in Montisi where she runs Montisi Magica organising holiday experiences and weddings. She came to know Alessandro through her work and they now collaborate on numerous projects.
That morning six of us gathered round the kitchen island to learn about three different types of Pesto sauce for pasta, followed by a deliciously frothy dessert made with Mascapone cheese, hazelnuts and caramel. The recipes were simple and easy to make but certainly tasted as though they came from a star kitchen. Under Alessandro’s knowledgeable eye, we amateurs weighed, stirred and cooked our way through each recipe, to surprise ourselves with the excellent results.
Of course all the sauces called for a good olive oil and before starting to cook we enjoyed a mini tasting of some extra virgin olive oils from the Montisi region, including an excellent example from the nearby Santa Giulia winery. The style of oil from this region is very appealing as it has a good fruity favour without being too aggressive. We also tasted two oils from Fratelli Bruno et Giovanni Puddu. One was from the last season 2022/23 and the other from the current harvest 20023/24. This oil won the Contadini Award at this year’s Festa del Olio in Montisi. It was, of course, first class, but the older oil was still lasting very well.
Each of the three pesto sauces had their admirers but my favourite was based on Aragula or rocket rather than the traditional basil. This was blended with pinenuts, extra virgin olive oil and a few walnuts to counteract any strong bitterness and to give a sweeter flavour to the sauce. Alessandro used this sauce to toss perfectly cooked fusilli, adding just a little of the pasta cooking liquor to loosen everything.
The original herbal base for basil proved the most popular of the three. Here Alessandro mixed finely grated Parmesan with grated Tuscan Pecorino cheese but warned that most of the Pecorino cheeses available in the UK do not come from Tuscany and can be very salty. Pinenuts, and garlic completed the recipe. He also advised adding two or three ice cubes to the blender. This helps to stop the basil losing its lovely green colour through oxidation and heat from the blades. Long pasta such as Linguine or spaghetti are a good choice for this sauce.
The final sauce was less popular but a couple of the participants chose this as their favourite. It was Pistachio pesto. Here basil, grated Parmesan and cherry tomatoes are blended with the nuts, again with a touch of the pasta cooking liquor to make sure the sauce filled up the centres of the chosen tubular pasta.
Finally, we turned on the egg whisks and mixed lightly worked whipping cream with mascarpone cheese and sugar. Alessandro advised against double cream as it is prone to overwhipping and a light result is needed. The creamy mixture was then chilled for an hour while we made the caramel for the topping. For the final touch was dessert was sprinkled with lighted toasted hazelnuts. Yummmm!