One of most memorable meals that we've ever had was probably one of the simplest. It was about five or six years ago. We were staying in a lovely old farmhouse in the hills in Tuscany, Northern Italy for the summer. Evo, the owner (and Mel Gibson doppleganger) who lived nearby would leave fresh vegetables from his garden for us on the doorstep every morning. He didn't speak any English apart from the odd greeting and our Italian is very basic but we managed to communicate and made good friends with him. One day he invited us for supper.
He arrived in a dilapidated rickety old jeep, that had no seat belts, accompanied by an English speaking writer who lived in the nearby old town of Arezzo. Our villa was quite high up and had to be reached by scary, windy roads that made the tyres smoke as we drove up (...honestly people would flag us down to tell us they were smoking...) Evo proceeded to drive us further up into the hills, along muddy rutted roads through shrubby countryside between low bending trees.....we were almost unseated a couple of times......but when we arrived at our destination we understood why he'd taken so much trouble.
Evo had driven us to a little house. It was a real Hansel and Gretel cottage right in the middle of a chestnut wood.....tiny, tiny. He made us stay outside while he lit a fire and candles and then invited us in.
It was truly magical.....the main room was just big enough for a large kitchen table and chairs. There were a few shelves and cupboards on the walls and a blazing fire in the corner of the room. A wooden ladder led up to another floor. Evo let us climb up and peep at the tiny bedroom. His English speaking friend explained to us that it belonged to Evo's farm and that it had originally been for the use of chestnut collectors. The area is famous for the enormous marrons that grow in the chestnut woods high on the hills. The upper floor would be covered with the nuts and the fire lit, the warm air would rise up and they would dry out and eventually be taken to be made into chestnut flour.
Evo was the most hospitable host, he gave us hard Italian bread toasted on the fire and then drizzled with olive oil and rubbed with garlic.
He then cooked up enormous bowlfuls of spaghetti but didn't drown them in sauce. He did something simple but it tasted amazing....I think it was just oil or butter and garlic and herbs....
Then cooked meat on the fire and gave us green salad....lots of red wine......melon and liqueurs........It was all so lovely...and so unexpected, we thought we were just going to have supper at his farmhouse.......
I'll never be able to recreate that meal, but we do often cook spaghetti with very simple ingredients like ripe tomatoes, garlic, really good olive oil, lots of sea salt, basil and crushed black pepper.
This is what I'm making for supper tonight....a kind of Spaghetti Puttanesca or 'Lady of the Night Spaghetti' but without the salty, capers, olives or anchovies. Instead I'm adding heat with fresh chilli and small, bottled hot bell peppers.
.For two people just slice a couple of shallots and fry in a little olive oil.
.Crush a couple of cloves of garlic and chop up one or two chillies and add.
.Add half a can of chopped tomatoes, or two ripe fresh ones chopped finely. Not too much because you don't want to swamp the pasta with sauce just coat it.
. Add any other ingredients including seasoning and chopped herbs.
. Meanwhile cook the pasta in boiled salted water til tender.
. Drain and toss in the sauce.......yummy
.Top with more fresh basil and if you like grated parmigiano-reggiano, but I don't think it needs it....
.....all it needs is a nice glass of red wine, and someone to share it with.......
...preferably in a chestnut lodge.......