It’s 15th August today – widely celebrated in Italy as Ferragosto.
There is something of the Marie Celeste about Italy in August, but in a good way. There’s no traffic; no scrabbling for tables at good restaurants – waiters, in fact, seem delighted to see you; in markets and museums alike you have the chance of actually seeing what is being displayed. There’s also among those remaining a touch of blitz spirit, a sort of easy camaraderie.
I arrived in Bologna about a week ago as the exodus was starting. I was just in time to catch the restaurant Siete Tavoli before it closed for the holidays. The following day I caught the tail-end of the sales in the shops and markets. All over the city grills were already locked or clanking to the ground. The whole city was, quite literally, closing down.
Walking home alone at night through the empty streets, with the occasional echoing Third-Man-like footstep, sudden headlights at corners, silent gliding bicycles, the odd phrase of music floating out of a dark window, was a little eerie.
It was with this experience fresh in my mind that I enjoyed watching again the idiosyncratic Pranzo di Ferragosto (lunch on the holiday feast of The Assumption) – which is all about a cash-strapped middle-aged man who is looking after his elderly mother. It’s 15th August, the Feast of the Assumption, the pinnacle of the exodus to the sea. The long-suffering, incredibly patient and good-natured hero however is remaining with her in Rome. He ends up playing host to three other old ladies and it doesn’t all go smoothly. It’s a delightful story, delightfully told, albeit to a stringent budget (£430,000) and tightly edited (it’s only 75 minutes). You can watch the trailer of the film below.
In the course of the story one of the ladies starts explaining that she never puts Béchamel sauce into her pasta al forno, and she describes the dish with all its marvellous flavours. Another lady, who has been pretty unceremoniously dumped with our hero by her son, a doctor, has arrived with a massive list of dietary requirements – basically not allowed to eat anything other than lightly boiled vegetables. Needless to say she is caught with said dish in the middle of the night.
The dish is made by substituting cream cheese for the béchamel and it makes sense… there’s already enough flour in the pasta and this method is also quicker – it saves you the trouble of making the white sauce, avoiding the lumps etc – and so I thought it worth giving it a go. And, indeed, it is exceptionally good. Here is the recipe. You can also experiment with the variation given in Comptoir Libanais by Tony Kitous and Dan Lepard which substitues feta, tahini and yoghurt for the Béchamel and parmesan of a standard lasagne.
Go here for an alternative dish for Ferragosto.
- 10 sheets of instant lasagne
- 2 kg minced beef
- 2 carrots – chopped
- 1 stick of celery – chopped
- 5 tbsp red martini
- 250g mozzarella – roughly chop and divide into three
- 300g Philadelphia cream cheese – roughly chop and divide into three
- 2 red onions – peeled and chopped
- couple of sprigs each of rosemary and thyme – taken off the stems and roughly chopped
- 1 bottle of red wine
- 1 tbsp sundried tomato paste
- 1 litre of passata
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
- smoked salt and pepper and a little grated nutmeg
- 3 cups grated pecorino cheese
- preheat the oven to 180ºC
- take the meat out of the fridge and allow it to get to room temperature (this is so that you sear it, rather than boil it
- heat the oil in a large saucepan
- add the celery, carrots, onions, garlic, rosemary and thyme – this will take about 15 minutes
- remove from the saucepan
- ensure the oil is still hot, and add the meat to sear – this will take about five minutes
- once the meat is browned, return the vegetables and stir and cook all together for another ten minutes or so.
- when the meat starts to stick to the bottom of the saucepan add the wine (minus half a cup) and reduce by quite a bit
- add the tomato paste and the passata, cook for another ten minutes or so, seasoning with the salt, pepper and nutmeg
- in a nice ceramic lasagne dish put a layer of the meat sauce
- then dot over a third of the mozzarella and Philadelphia
- then a sprinkling of a third of the pecorino
- then the same layers of everything two more times, except the lasagne – you only need a total of two layers of this.
- then pour over the rest of the wine
- then put in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes
This post is dedicated to Laura Camba
Trailer for Pranzo di Ferragosto
And since we’re enjoying the Feast of the Assumption today, you can enjoy listening to Tyler Rix’s Ascent while you prepare the dish.