More than once, I have heard an Italian chef scoff at the way Brits use pepper.
In the UK, the ubiquitous seasoning is more habit than flavour enhancer. Put pepper on the table and it might go over fried eggs, fish, shepherd’s pie – anything and everything. A twist of a pepper mill has become as deeply entrenched in dining habits as saying grace once was, and “season with salt and pepper” is, for many recipe writers, their standard signoff – no matter what the dish.
It’s a different matter in Italian cuisine. There, pepper is used more as an ingredient. It doesn't appear as frequently, but when it does, pepper is often the hero of the dish. Forget pre-ground, we’re talking whole peppercorns which have been bashed into shards – big enough to properly taste and be a flavour in their own right, rather than a mere flavour-enhancer.
There’s little better example than ‘pici cacio e pepe’. The ancient dish dates back to the Roman era, it has travelled well and withstood the test of time. So, when legendary pasta bar, Padella, put it on their menu it was little surprise that chef, Tim Siadatan scooped the ‘Dish of the Year’ (London Restaurant Festival 2016).
The following summer, when he launched the much-anticipated cookbook, Trullo, I flicked straight to the page and had a go myself. It's a recipe for life, made all the better by the absence of a pasta machine or complicated ingredients – just quality peppercorns.
The lovely people at Square Peg have allowed us to share this recipe with you for 30 days, which adds an element or urgency to your pasta making, so don't waste any time and get rolling pici and smashing peppercorns ... just like a Roman!
Trullo: The Cookbook, by Tim Siadatan (Square Peg, £25)
Pici cacio e pepe
For the pici
375g white bread flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
pinch fine sea salt
For the sauce
160g unsalted butter
100g parmesan, finely grated
4 tablespoons freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Add the flour to a mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. Mix together the water, olive oil and salt and pour into the well. Start incorporating the flour into the water/olive oil/salt mixture until a dough starts to form. Once it forms, take the dough out, transfer to a clean table and start kneading it until it becomes smooth. With a rolling pin, shape it into a rectangle about 2cm thick, wrap in cling film and leave to rest for at least 30 minutes somewhere cool.
To make the pici, cut the dough into 15g strips (weigh one to check and use as a guide) and keep covered with a damp tea towel. On a dry, clean work surface – stainless steel or wood, you don’t want something too smooth as a little bit of friction helps – start rolling the strip outwards, with both palms of your hands, applying pressure evenly and pushing out, until you have a noodle the same thickness as a biro. Basically, you’re making wriggly worms. Repeat until all the dough is used up. Cook straight away, or, if making in advance, store lengthways on a heavily floured tray (they stick together) covered with cling film and refrigerate for no more than 24 hours.
In a large saucepan, bring water up to the boil and season with salt to resemble mild sea water. Drop the pici in water and cook for 5–6 minutes. Meanwhile, add the butter, black pepper and a splash of pici water to a saucepan on a medium heat and then turn down to a low heat until they emulsify (melt into each other).
When the pici is cooked, remove it from the water and add to the saucepan with the butter and pepper. Keep the pasta water. Add the parmesan – but do not stir. Leave the parmesan to sit and melt from the residual heat of the pan – this prevents it from becoming chewy little cheesy balls. Once the parmesan has melted, stir the pici and sauce together to incorporate. Season with salt and serve immediately.