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Food and Travel Review

All good cookery classes begin with a superb teacher and when that teacher is acclaimed food writer Valentina Harris, you know you’re off to a solid start. Although Italian by birth, Harris’s Anglophile father would have her listen to BBC World Service radio and repeat the phrases. ‘Everyone expects me to sound like Gino D’Acampo’s mother,’ she laughs as she introduces herself. As 13 of us eagerly wait for the class to begin, mounds of butter are placed on marble- topped workstations: this is not a class for the calorie-shy.

First up, the Regina of Risotto shows us how to make the perfect rice dish with butternut squash and feta. We peel and cube the butternut before roasting it in the oven for 30 minutes. To guarantee finely diced onions, Harris instructs us to place a palm over the top of the knife and rock back and forth with the blade to ensure the knife tip stays on the chopping board. We’re left with onions that are roughly the same size as a grain of rice that will cook evenly.

‘Italians love butter, you can never use too much of it,’ Harris chuckles as we melt the fat in a deep, heavy-based pot with the onions, finely chopped sage and the softened squash, before adding the arborio rice. ‘You want to cook the rice until it’s screaming for liquid,’ Harris tells us. As the rice starts to stick, white wine is added slowly before the stock, stirring all the while. Once cooked, we take it off the heat and mix in the crumbled feta, leaving it to stand covered with a lid for five minutes before serving in a bowl with a generous sprinkling of parmesan. As we sit down to try our creations, each mouthful of the dish feels like a warming hug.

Next, it’s spinach and bread gnocchi. ‘It’s very easy to make gnocchi that you can play cricket with, but we want them to be like little clouds,’ Harris explains. We start by boiling the spinach and soak stale ciabatta in full-fat milk. Once soaked, we squeeze as much milk out as possible in a fist and crumble into breadcrumbs. Following the same process with the spinach, we finely chop it before combining in a large bowl with egg, breadcrumbs, grated nutmeg and parmesan. We add the gnocchi to boiling water and cook until the pieces bob up and down. Once floating, they’re ready to be served and drizzled in melted butter and grated parmesan.

As we feast on the impressive – and delicious – results of our day’s work, Valentina shares an Italian saying, translating roughly as, ‘cheer up, your mum loves you enough to make gnocchi’ and tells us she’d be proud to serve ours. SD. A full-day Gnocchi and Risotto course with Valentina Harris costs £175.

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