If you’ve ever been to Caffe Caldesi in Marylebone lane, you’ll be familiar with the friendly, family feel of this Italian eaterie. The staff shout at each other in Italian interspersed with English and that, plus the pervasive smell of garlic and basil, all attest to an unforced genuineness. Head of it all is Giancarlo Caldesi, recently married to long-term partner Katie. We are also under the watchful cameras of the BBC (a programme about the Caldesi's is due in the New Year). For the last few years they both have been running well-attended cookery courses in the kitchens of Caffe Caldesi and Caldesi Tuscan Restaurant.
Demand has been growing for these courses, Giancarlo explains, and there was a need for a dedicated school kitchen. Also as he points out, a professional kitchen is not designed for lecturing. There are bad sight lines and the equipment is professional. It’s one thing to cook on a fast flame pro hob, quite another when you get home to your common or garden Beko. So an old garage in the mews behind Caffe Caldesi has been turned into a school kitchen.
No expense has been spared to create a state of the art teaching environment, although Giancarlo could have been spared the attentions of Health & Safety. ‘Crazy!’ he says. ‘So many things that seem ridiculous, I had to install so many toilets I wondered if I would have any room left for the classroom! Everything is paperwork, paperwork, inspections and inspections.’ This and other delays, such as very expensive ovens that once installed decided to sulk and not heat up, has led to tonight’s press night being a close run thing. Giancarlo and his team were painting the walls not a few hours before we all fetch up, but he radiates calm. With him are Katie, Stefano Borella his darkly handsome Pastry Chef, Lindy Wildsmith teacher, chef (and a few hours earlier, she cheerfully informs us, Chief Floor Mopper) and Franco Taruschio ex Chef Patron of the renowned Walnut Tree Inn in Abergavenny. Small and twinkling Franco is to be the butt of much of Giancarlo’s jibes about Wales tonight but it is obvious that Giancarlo holds him in high respect nonetheless. Franco is in fact ‘retired’ but he’s here tonight to show us one of his specialities, Vincigrassi, a kind of lasagne.
First it’s into our Caldesi aprons and form up in rows behind the custom worktables, which will convert into dining, tables later. It reminds me of handicraft lessons at school all those years ago, where an exasperated woodwork teacher informed me in scathing tones ‘you can always take wood off boy, but you cannot put it back,’ this after I had cheerfully planed my plank of wood down to the size of a lollipop stick. This comes back to haunt me soon after when I put too much flour in my pasta dough and get the same speech, but with flour replacing wood as the crucial noun. This time, however, the class does not dissolve into sycophantic giggles.It’s interesting, though. I always made my pasta dough in a food processor but it’s not as satisfying and it makes a rather leathery dough. This way –500g of flour, 2 whole eggs and a dollop of water - is more fun. Not so much fun is the rolling out. This I do at home with a wine bottle with less than satisfactory results or, and better, with a pasta machine. Here we use elbow grease and wooden rolling pin although I notice Franco is quietly rolling his pasta through a motorised pasta machine. It’s hard work and many a restaurant critic, whose sole athletic achievement hitherto has been to get back to the office after lunch, is looking knackered. After a while and with much jostling for space, we all have large sheets of near transparent pasta which Giancarlo, having increasing trouble being heard over our increasing rowdiness, shows us how to cut into various classic pastas.
Franco meanwhile has been busy and is now ready to show how to make one of his favourite dishes Vincigrassi, a kind of lasagne with porcini mushrooms, Parma ham cream and all topped with truffle slices. The truffles are black and there are about ten of the golfball sized beauties on the counter, a considerable sum of money’s worth of the ‘black gold’. The aroma is pungent, I don’t know why they need dogs (or pigs) to sniff these out, I could find one in the dark no problem at all.
From this point it all rather resembles a kid’s party, people stirring, pouring, sticking unwary fingers on the hot plate and getting burnt. Franco remains calm at the eye of the storm and after a reasonable time the lasagnes are in the oven. Next we spend some more quality time building a Summer Fruit Beltrane, a luscious pile of fresh summer fruits with lashings of Maraschino. We also make some Cantuccini biscuits, sugar bombs with almonds inside so rich the new ovens refuse to cook them and they have to be taken into the restaurant kitchen. Giancarlo is unfazed, ‘teething problems, we knew we would have them and it’s best to get them out of the way. This press evening is a pressure test on the brand new equipment and now we can recall the engineer to fix these ovens.’
And so to eat. The clever tables are designed to be lowered to turn into dining tables and we tuck into the fruits of our labour with wines chosen and introduced by Chris Loveday who looks every inch the CAMRA enthusiast, even down to the bushy beard, but who is a true wine buff. It’s a fine end to a fine evening.
La Cucina Caldesi is running lots of courses, both half and full day, and will be having a range of guest chef/teachers coming in. You can even go cooking in Tuscany. To find out more, visit www.caldesi.com or call Daniela or Katie between 9am and 5pm on 0207 487 0750/9