When we were introduced to Ursula by Vanessa, the founder of Cooks Academy, as the most inspirational Chef she has ever worked with, the standards were certainly set high.
Needless to say, she blew every standard out of the water with her cool Anglo-Italian style. Ursula turned out to be the nicest, warmest and down to earth instructor I have ever had. If you read my previous post about teachers you will know that I do not say that lightly.
Within moments of her greeting us all it was clear that this woman had a huge heart. She seems to care for nothing in this world so passionately as two things. Pasta, and her Family. At one time she seemed to punctuate each sentence with quickly little anecdotes about her daughter. She exudes energy and vivaciousness in every movement. In every word. She casually throws into conversation that she was teaching last night in London. This is at Ten AM on a Friday morning. How she manages to stay at the top of her game with that kind of schedule I will never know.
She speaks at length about her time growing up in a small town in Italy. How she was a very naughty child and her Nonna (grandmother) would keep her working hard in the kitchen from four in the morning to keep her out of trouble. She must have been some troublemaker. Everything about Ursula is Old School. She once got so annoyed with her messy kitchen drawers that she emptied them all, keeping just a pair of rolling pins and her favourite gadget, the board scraper. She hates to waste things. Every off cut of pasta, every gram of flour is used. Nothing is extra. Nothing is unnecessary. It is a beautiful way to work. Her accent is a light English sing song, but Italian words weave themselves effortlessly into her conversation. It is wonderful to behold her passion for everything and anything delicious.
Anyway, enough of my adulations. Have to stop before it gets creepy. Well,.. creepIER! The first thing we learn is how to make pasta. This isn’t so much the first thing we learn, as it is the only thing. Everything we did that day came back to the craft and skill of making really great pasta. People have, and will, devote their whole lives to engineering the perfect bowl of hand rolled Italian pasta. The importance of having the correct, Italian, flour. English or Irish flour just won’t do. The flour must be 00 flour so the gluten is strong. (This coming the day after our bread day I’m beginning the think of gluten as some kind of Food God Particle.) The room must be cold. End of story. She is trying to get her husband to OK the building of another kitchen in her house. “The War of The Two Kitchens” is on-going she tells us with a giggle.
As she deftly rolls out long sheets of pasta in front of our eyes she stresses the importance of working on wood. “You want to grain from the timber. You simply don’t get that from anything else.” She prefers to roll by hand with a rolling pin as opposed to using the machine. This struck me as odd looking at the pasta machine beside her. A simple implement of metal with a few cogs and gears. A piece of equipment that has remained the same basic design since the beginning of the 1800’s. It still has a hand crank for God’s sake. That! That is still not “Old School” enough for her. I might be a little bit in love. And I said I was going to stop with the adulations?
Her “Party Trick.” She would kill me if I didn’t include it.
None of this is to say that she would shy away from the truth. She kept busting my ass because my pasta was coming out really thick. She pulled no punches in telling me that it just wasn’t up to scratch. You can’t put a price on that kind of frank honesty in a teacher. She gives us a run down of all of the different shapes of pasta and what which type of sauce goes with which. The science of sauce. We eat lunch a make a little tiramisu in the afternoon along with an quick experiment into Squid Ink Pasta.
Then, like a Culinary Mary Poppins, she was gone. Off to teach some other group of students the joys and pleasures of Italian Cuisine. To share with them the stories of her family, of growing up knee deep in pasta flour and fresh tomatoes. We are then left, breathless in her wake, trying to pick up the little bits and pieces of lessons she taught us throughout the day. Technique, skill and kitchen temperature seem secondary to what her major belief seems to be. Love. That is what Mary Poppins was preaching to that family and you can be damn sure that is what Ursula Ferrigno was preaching to this one. And she did it in the most delightful way.
~ Mark O’Brien