When my friends at the House of Peroni emailed to ask me if I would like to take a pasta masterclass with their Master of Taste, Italian chef Francesco Mazzei, I was a definite yes. When they added that the experience would also involve an overnight stay at Soho Farmhouse in Oxfordshire, with an aperitivo hour and dinner cooked by Francesco Mazzei and hosted by The House of Peroni, I was all YES YES YES.
You may remember that earlier in the year I visited Milan with Peroni to celebrate the launch of their House of Peroni 2016 theme – For the Love of Italy (Amare Italia), which celebrates the visual and creative ideas of three influential contemporary Italians, Margherita Maccapani Missoni, Simone Caporale, and Francesco Mazzei. In Milan I had the pleasure of the company of Margherita, as she showed us some of her favourite places in and around the city, and now, at Soho Farmhouse, it was the turn of Francesco Mazzei to tutor us in Italian cookery – with a little added Peroni to keep us going.
Soho Farmhouse is the latest UK outpost of the Soho House empire. Whilst the accommodation on site can, in theory, be booked by non-members, in reality the combination of members rates and its overall loveliness means that it’s almost impossible to get a reservation – even for members.
Happily it also functions as a members club, with all sorts of fun activities, from horse-riding to swimming, so I’ve popped in several times for lunch and to walk Lettice when I’ve been en route to my parents who live nearby, but I was super excited at the chance to play in the Cookhouse (above) which wasn’t functioning when Holly and I stayed last summer during the Farmhouse’s soft opening.
The House of Peroni took it over for the morning, and invited five guests – and their plus ones, including lovely Xanthe Clay and her daughter, and my friend Hannah, to learn how to make stracci al pesto from scratch under Mazzei’s eagle eye.
Smocked off the shoulder top: GAP (on sale)
I cannot lie: I was a little nervous. Given that I can and do cook professionally, I definitely get the fear when I take cooking masterclasses. It would be a little embarrassing to cock it up in public – someone once told me it was endearingly human for experts to make mistakes but I’d rather not, given the choice…So, when Mazzei asked who had made pasta before I kept my mouth firmly zipped and got on with it.
First we made a rustic pesto the old school way with a pestle and mortar, having measured out our ingredients on the long central table. This bit was relatively simple – I’ve made pesto many times before, although I’m usually to be found standing watching my Magimix take the strain, given the pressure of time in my kitchen.
Then it was pasta time. I love the energy and rhythm that goes into making pasta by hand, although I rarely bother in London. The last class I took was at Fifteen Cornwall, where I made some very successful fettucine in a tent at their farmers market, so I was hoping for similar results this time.
It is such a simple thing to make, yet it requires craft and thought. Most of all I love that almost alchemical moment where the hard dough suddenly turns silky soft on one of its many cranks through the pasta machine.
We were making stracci – small handkerchiefs of pasta that are hand cut with a knife, and I wanted my pasta to be so fine that I could see the marble through it, without it tearing.
We blanched green beans, and a purple potato from the Farmhouse gardens, and then plunged the pasta into boiling water for a matter of seconds to heat and cook through before draining it (I reserved a little water), and tossing it with the pesto. Then I moistened the dish with a little of the water, added the beans, and crumbled the purple potato over all, with a very generous shower of grated Parmesan.
We each ate our own bowl of pasta at the table in the Cookhouse, overlooking the kitchen gardens (below), before testing Mazzei’s billowing clouds of cheese-filled tortellini, and his frankly epic caci e pepe, made creamy only by the pasta cooking water emulsified with the cheese.
Three bowls of pasta each later, we waddled off to our cabin to digest lunch, feeling a little like anacondas that had swallowed cows.
I had a read of Mezzogiorno: Francesco Mazzei Recipes from Southern Italy, whilst I digested, and then it was time to get on our Soho Farmhouse bikes and explore the site. Hannah and I haven’t been biking together since we spent the day at the Queen Elizabeth II Olympic Park and you could tell – straight lines not being a speciality.
And then it was aperitivo time!
Followed by the most incredible food – both in taste and quantity, with a very seasonal menu, inspired by Mazzei’s foraging earlier in the week in Soho Farmhouse’s extensive kitchen garden.
Soho Farmhouse: 1 Tracey Farm Cottages, Great Tew, Chipping Norton OX7 4JS