Chef Marco Cavallucci brings alive the cooking and flavours of northern Italy at Focaccia
It’s strangely therapeutic. I reflectively beat grainy sugar into a bowl of velvety ricotta. In the background a heavy stock pot quietly bubbles with carrots, onions and bay leaves. Michelin Star Chef Marco Cavallucci from Italy looks over my shoulder thoughtfully. “Add the nuts now,” he suggests. I tip a bowl filled with creamy white cashew nuts onto my chopping board, and start slicing through them. Soon they join the sweet ricotta, along with chunks of dark chocolate and candied fruit. Once the mixture is suitably speckled, it’s covered in cling wrap and set in the fridge to chill. One Michelin starred dessert: Done.
I’m at the Hyatt Regency’s chic Italian restaurant, Focaccia, for a cooking class with talented Chef Cavallucci, who’s aided by chirpy Nicole Poggi from Poderi dal Nespoli Wines. The class begins with Nicole sketching a rough map of Italy, to demonstrate where exactly the winery is located in Emilia-Romagna, Northern Italy. “We’re trying to raise awareness of the food of this region,” she says, adding “In Italy if you drive for 20 minutes, from one village to another you’ll find the dialect different. The food different.” Talking about how many households are still very traditional, she adds, “Even today, if I go home in the afternoon my mom will be at the kitchen counter making pasta with a big rolling pin. Everyday at 1 p.m., we then sit down to eat a big bowl of pasta with a glass of Sangiovese.”
Lulled by my easy Cassata (the ricotta-based dessert), I attempt Chef Cavallucci’s prawn cake vegetable Ratatouille. “It’s a combination of Mediterranean flavours,” he says, “Lots of tomato and basil — the fundamentals of Italian food. When we make it in Italy, everything is local. From our region. We use balsamic vinegar from Modena.” He adds, “When you cook, keep the flavours close to Nature. So don’t cook them too much. And don’t use too many sauces.”
The prawn cake does involve some intricate construction, though. Chef Cavallucci dries thin slices of eggplant that have been layered with salt, and toasts them on a flat pan. Together we put them into a circular steel ring and then arrange a circle of pink curly prawns on top, before piping the centre with a generous squiggle of prawn mousse. The steps are repeated three times before the cake is pressed down, and unmolded. For the main course, I’m introduced to Passatelli, an equal mix of Parmesan and bread crumbs, kneaded together with egg, nutmeg and lemon zest. The resulting dough is forced through a pasta maker and cooked in fragrant vegetable, chicken or fish stock. Once the faintly granular spaghetti-like pasta is done, it’s tossed together with Chef Cavallucci’s signature pesto (recipe in box) created as a lighter alternative to the traditional garlic-pecorino-basil blend.
The final Michelin-starred lesson? Surprisingly, it’s simplicity. Technique is important, of course. As is imagination. But at the centre of it all, every cook should remember that clarity is the key, when dealing with great flavours.
Chef Cavallucci’s light pesto
Take 50 gm pine nuts and 50 gm Parmesan. Blend with half a cup of olive oil. Add 30 gm of basil. Blend for a few seconds. Add one small shallot. Blend again and season with salt and pepper