Apparently, there was a stage in the UK when people didn’t really eat pasta. Not only didn’t eat it, but literally didn’t really know what it was or how to cook it. There’s an episode of the 1970s series ‘Delia Smith’s Cookery Course’ (which, like all good Delia, carries the air of a government information film) in which she instructs the nation on how best to prepare a spaghetti bolognese, right down to the most efficient way to load the spaghetti onto a fork. To contemporary eyes, it would barely pass as a parody, so obvious the information now seems. It’s as if she’d filmed a tutorial on how to tie your shoelaces or where one might go to purchase bread.
Considering that most people of my age probably spent a good third of their teenage mealtimes shovelling down overcooked spaghetti, the idea that it was, at some recent point in history, not a ‘normal’ foodstuff feels almost incomprehensible, so inseparable from the day to day British diet it seems. That said, if my early attempts in the kitchen are much to go by, I’d imagine the average casual pasta consumer rarely strays beyond the safety of Spaghetti, Penne and maybe the odd Tagliatelli in the course of their home cooking, and so it is that I recall the joy of my first encounter with Pappardelle; I was sat outside Carluccio’s in Hampstead and, through the light fog of a mild hangover, a plate of wide, zig-zag cut, oily noodles, tossed in a parsley-flecked sauce of wild mushrooms appeared before me.
I don’t know what it is about the novelty of oversized versions of familiar food (I also remember my first encounter with Udon noodles extremely clearly; I was a child and we were eating at perennial Greenwich grease-pit Tai Won Mein. The idea that noodles could be so thick and toothsome was a revelation to my young self, and I’ve never forgotten it) but something about those inch-wide ribbons was thrilling to me, and the experience has stuck in my memory.
And so, when I initially flicked through Real Fast Food and discovered this recipe, I knew it was one for me.
It could hardly be simpler: parboil the pasta, toss it in a little olive oil and enough black olive tapenade to coat the ribbons, tip the lot into a gratin dish, scatter over a few pine nuts, grate on some cheese, and stick the lot in a hot oven for 15 or 20 minutes whilst your prepare whatever accompaniments you have in mind.
I made the slight mistake (thanks to not checking over my shopping list very carefully) of using Grevé cheese rather than the suggested Gruyère (though Nigel does helpfully state that you can use whatever you like). Grevé, it transpires, isn’t the best melter and generally failed, despite encouragement, to brown, so it made the topping rather reminiscent of a nacho plate from a pre-Wahaca (thank GOD for that place) Mexican chain restaurant, but it by no means ruined the meal which emerged from the oven, as promised, ‘singing’ and delicious. If there’s a lesson in all that, it’s to read my shopping lists a little more carefully, though I suspect it’s one I shall never learn.
We ate it with a simple avocado, hazelnut, gem and rocket salad, some from-a-jar artichoke hearts (seriously, who doesn’t love those?) and some steamed broccoli lightly dressed with the best olive oil in the cupboard. As a midweek quick dinner, it’s hard to think how it could have been improved beyond being eaten outdoors which, given the pronounced evening-chill of the Swedish Springtime, isn’t quite viable yet.
Buy your own copy of Nigel Slater’s ‘Real Fast Food’ HERE.