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Heavenly simplicity

When ingredients are as good as those to be found in the Italian region of Puglia, a cooks needs to do very little to create spectacular dishes. Charlotte Metcalf learns from a master

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

Borgo Egnazia in Puglia opened last year and immediately gained a reputation as one of Europe’s most spectacular holiday resorts, not least thanks to its cookery school under the tutelage of the resort’s executive chef, Mario Musoni.

Until recently Musoni had his own Michelin-starred restaurant outside Milan. When I asked why he didn’t seem unhappy to be uprooted from his hometown relatively late in life, he grinned and replied: ‘This is where the best food is. Milan’s vegetables come from down here. Puglia is the garden of Italy.’

Indeed, Borgo Egnazia is surrounded by orchards, olive groves and vegetables thrusting up from rich soil. There is also a daily supply of fresh fish from the nearby village of Savalletri, and one warm, sparkling morning, Musoni took me to the fish market, right on the water where the boats chug in with their catch. Later that night, as I tasted octopus, tender and comforting in a robust inky broth, he reminded me that only hours earlier we had seen it writhing around alive.

Musoni enjoys sourcing his ingredients from such fertile ground. ‘If the produce is good enough, you hardly need to touch it. My philosophy is zero kilometres. Everything comes fresh from a mere walk away.’ Now is the season of the artichoke, and it lasts till June. One night, Chef Musoni served a spring artichoke feast, accompanied by an aromatic Jermann 2009 Sauvignon. It began with slivers of rare herb-marinated lamb topped with artichoke carpaccio and truffle oil and continued with artichoke croquettes on a velvety fondue of cacio cavallo (local cheese), followed by creamy carnaroli rice artichoke risotto with prawns.

‘The secret is not to fry the rice because that locks in the starch,’ said Musoni. ‘Just boil it for 17 minutes with beef stock and the artichokes.’ Then there was red snapper with artichokes and tomatoes, and finally Musoni’s specialities: pistachio ice-cream with olive oil and espresso soufflé.

Musoni’s ‘less is more’ philosophy meant I was almost disappointed by the small handful of ingredients on the table for my first cooking lesson, but I was soon to appreciate the benefits of restraint. Chef taught me to make orecchiette pasta by simply kneading semolina flour with water and then pushing it into shape with a knife blade and thumb. Musoni eschews butter in favour of the estate’s own olive oil. We heated it with garlic for 30 seconds, chucked out the garlic, threw in cherry tomatoes, added basil and grated dried ricotta and stirred in the orecchiette. ‘Always take pasta out of the water before it’s cooked and finish it off in the saucepan to absorb the flavours,’ he said.

He had promised to show me how to cook fish and so I was summoned when the fishermen delivered a vast monkfish. Again, his methods were magically simple, though he did already have a delicious fish stock boiled up from the monkfish head (‘Only use garlic, celery and onion, carrot’s too sweet’). It took a mere seven minutes to serve two Michelin-star standard dishes. The first involved simply frying cherry tomatoes then adding the monkfish, stock and basil, and the second involved frying tomatoes again and adding stock, quartered artichokes blanched in lemon and water and a sprig of tarragon. Once broad beans and peas are in season, he will throw those in too.

When it came to dolci, Musoni agreed to part with his pistachio ice-cream recipe. However, I am sorry to report that for those trying this in Britain, he makes his pistachio paste only from nuts that grow around Etna, as apparently it’s the volcanic soil that renders them particularly delicious. No wonder Italians can afford to practice the simplicity they preach when their raw ingredients are so exceptional. That’s not to say we don’t have our own fair share of excellent seasonal produce and I am looking forward to practising my newly acquired culinary talent for restraint. As for Musoni’s heavenly espresso soufflé, the recipe remains a closely guarded secret.

Charlotte’s trying to learn how to cook the food she writes about on her travels.

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