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The hard task of inventing a truly great dish

Uovo in raviolo

All around us, chefs are producing dishes that are creative, inventive and exciting, making it look so easy. But coming up with a new recipe is harder than we think, writes Anna-Louise Taylor.

Anyone can follow a recipe, but writing one is a much harder skill to master.

Many "new" recipes are reworked versions of something older, passed down or tried once and recreated, with changed flavours or presented "with a twist".

True inventiveness in cooking is something that few pull off, but those that do are much lauded and imitated.

But sometimes a chef presents the world with a dish that is truly creative and inventive, food "of its time" that it becomes a hallmark of a cuisine, much copied and reproduced, and loved by those who try it.

I had never eaten uovo in raviolo, or egg in ravioli, before my most recent trip to Italy.

Handmade at home:

Pasta machine

Go gourmet with your own egg in ravioli

Knead your own pasta dough first

But while there, I had this dish twice, it was so good. It combines an element of surprise with simple and delicious flavours and textures.

The beauty of it is that when the ravioli is cut open, a runny egg yolk spills out.

It is a dish that celebrates Italy's home cooking and fine dining experiences at the same time, in a way that demonstrates that most fine dining has humble roots in good ingredients and exceptional techniques.

Hundreds of chefs, Italian and non-Italian have recreated it, but I was privileged to enjoy a version made by a man who was trained by the chef who invented it.

Valentino Marcattilii from the San Domenico restaurant, in Imola, outside Bologna is a master of the dish, which has been described as "a bridge between the past and future of Italy's haute cuisine".

His food is influenced by both old and new, the classic French chef Auguste Escoffier, and Italy's famed Nino Bergese as well as nouvelle cuisine.

The dish was born in the 1930s at the hand of Nino Bergese, who was a chef to Italian royalty and many of Italy's artistocratic families.

Little pasta parcels:

  • China invented filled pasta - the original ravioli - in the form of wontons or pot stickers - wheat dough encasing mixed ingredients. Archeologists have found examples from the 9th Century.
  • The earliest records of Italian ravioli are in the letters of a merchant from Prato in the 14th Century.
  • Francesco di Marco describes them as being stuff with pork, eggs, cheese, parsley and sugar, and for Lent they would be filled with herbs, cheese and spices.
  • The basic and original kind were stuffed simply with spinach or curd cheese.
  • Ravioli appeared in England by the 14th Century - recorded in a recipe for "rauioles".
  • Agnolotti are similar to ravioli but round or semicircular in shape.

Sources: McGee on Food and Cooking, and the Oxford Companion to Food.

Most chefs do not start out working in kitchens where they can have the finest ingredients at their disposal.

But even in aristocratic kitchens, the lesson of frugality and making food stretch further was as relevant then as it is today.

Valentino Marcattilii says when Bergese began as a chef working in the nobles' houses, he was paid 500 silver lira a month.

"After World War WWII, even greater houses had to cut back.

"Bergese would speak to the lady of the house and work out the menu, how many guests there would be, and he'd also cook for the children who'd eat apart.

"If he managed to save any money from the overall budget the nobles would let the chef keep it.

"This is how they dish came about because it was cheap to use eggs."

Bergese eventually began his own restaurant La Santa in Genoa and introduced, for the first time in Italian restaurants, the idea of "home cooking" as fine dining, which up to then had only been entertained within the walls of aristocratic homes.

Valentino began working at San Domenico as Bergese's apprentice at the age of 16, and studied under him for seven years, until his death.

Full of flavour:

Pumpkin ravioli

Treat yourself to pumpkin ravioli

Luxuriate with lobster ravioli

Sample sweet potato and pine nut ravioli

Wrap raspberry, ricotta and mincemeat in pasta

He then spent time training in many of France's great kitchens, before returning to San Domenico some years later, where, after learning classical French culinary traditions, he became known for "uovo in raviolo".

"We're from Romagna, a region where fresh pasta is really important and this ended up being a flagship dish at Imola," he explains.

His classic technique, sensitivity towards the surrounding region and quality products are at the heart of his dishes, he says.

Eggs in ravioli is an example of this, because it is a simple concept focusing on local pasta and ingredients, but tricky to execute.

"The egg in ravioli dish is a very current and modern dish," says Valentino Marcattilii.

"It's a kind of an artisanal cuisine, with everything done by hand.

"You can prepare it only up to an hour in advance, or the eggs might break or become too humid and not stick together."

Start Quote

What you want is to look at the butter melting the parmesan, this bubbles, so it is a 'Champagne' butter”

End Quote Valentino Marcattilii Chef

It has become his trademark, since the dish became popular in the US in the 80s when Valentino opened Ristorante San Domenico in New York.

What makes it special?

Each ravioli contains one egg yolk. Spinach is blanched and sprinkled with nutmeg, before being mixed with parmesan and ricotta to form a paste.

The paste is then piped in a circle on to the ravioli pasta base. An egg yolk is separated from the white and placed inside the circle, and the ravioli sealed and then cooked only for "a minute and a half".

It is seasoned with white truffle (which while simple and true to the region it is from, can make it expensive) and parmesan, and hot melted butter is poured over the top.

"One of the tricks of this dish is that the butter must be brown," says Valentino.

"What you want is to look at the butter melting the parmesan, this bubbles, so it is a 'Champagne' butter."

The recipe has travelled around the world, and been reinvented many times.

"I first made it 45 years ago but if feels as if it was just born recently and is new contemporary Italian cuisine, which was the basic concept of the Bergese cuisine," Valentino explains.

Because like all good Italian recipes, it was truly inventive and has since been handed down generation to generation.

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