It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl without a recipe book to hand sometimes puts ketchup in her spaghetti Bolognese. Or end up covering her guests in double cream because she didn’t realise that you’re meant to use gelatine when you’re making panna cotta.
Yes, when it comes to Italian food, I’ve always been well intentioned, but rather clueless. Who better to enlighten me than Diane Seed, internationally successful cookery writer, former Italian-food consultant for Marks & Spencer and expert on all things Mediterranean?
Diane, twinkly eyed and full of enthusiasm, runs cookery schools in Rome, Puglia, Sicily and on the Amalfi Coast, as well as further afield in India and the Greek islands. Rather taken with the idea of a Roman holiday, I signed up for a four-day course in her Tiffany-blue apartment in the Doria Pamphili palace, which overlooks Piazza Venezia and the Coliseum.
There, Diane taught five of us, hailing from Europe, the USA and even Australia, everything there is to know about authentic Italian food – starting with how to boil pasta. It turns out that I’ve been cooking mine for about twice the amount of time you’re supposed to, and in far too little water. That explains the state my saucepans are in, I suppose…
Kitted out in our smart matching aprons, we chopped garlic, puréed tomatoes, sliced aubergines and crumbled dried chillies, with Diane on hand to provide guidance and encouragement. Then, once the sauces were simmering, we would pause for a glass of wine or a chat about the pros and cons of different types of olive oil – about which Diane knows a tremendous amount, having worked for the International Olive Oil Council for many years. Having lived in Italy for 40 years, she has an insider’s knowledge of the country’s cuisine, and interwove her recipes with fascinating snippets of history.
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Then, of course, there was the food. Over the course of just four days we cooked (and ate) linguine with tuna, lemon and rocket, taglioni with smoked salmon and cream, asparagus risotto, chicken with black olives and fennel seeds, pork with fennel and orange, panna cotta, spaghetti alla putanesca, traditional Genovese pesto, chicken scallopini with tomato, mozzarella and basil, crispy pizza-flavoured yeast fritters, baked aubergines and, of course, proper Bolognese sauce, which bore absolutely no resemblance to my ketchup-based creation.
We also tasted rich, inky balsamic vinegars, went on a shopping trip to the nearby Campo de Fiori food market, and sampled rather a lot of Italian wines. The atmosphere was less like a formal cookery school and more, as Diane put it, like having ‘lots of friends round for dinner’.
For me, whose idea of a weeknight supper not infrequently extends no further than a packet of crisps on the bus, having whole days to experiment in the kitchen was a real luxury, and wonderfully restful. I returned home from my culinary adventure determined to mend my ways, equipped with a portfolio of delicious, fuss-free Italian recipes. Next time I have people round for dinner, I’ll be dishing up a generous serving of la dolce vita, thanks to Diane.
* For more information on Diane Seed’s cookery schools, or to book a place, visit the website Italiangourmet.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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Photographs: Robin Smith