Linguine Alle Vongole - A Cooking Lesson From Madre & Zia

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Linguine Alle Vongole - A Cooking Lesson From Madre & Zia

There’s me- gawping over the stove, compensating for my inability to communicate with animated facial expressions and excitable noises. To many, this behaviour would have been received with bewilderment, or even irritation. But drama and overemphasis is clearly quite welcome in an Italian kitchen. Indeed, Gina and Bianca appear to find my eagerness entertaining and heart-warming. Of course - for these two highly characterful sisters, cooking is a ritual with the primary purpose of generating happiness. As the room began to fill with the inviting smell of clams sizzling in white wine, life certainly started to improve.

Bianca (left) & Gina (right)

Bianca (left) & Gina (right)

The four of us clamber into Gina’s charming, light blue 1999 Fiat 600; full of personality but lacking in seatbelts! Safety swiftly put to one side, we head to Marina di Camerota’s fantastic pescheria, Peppenella, and in keeping with the small town vibe, are greeted warmly by owner Angelo Santuccio. Gina and Bianca energetically chat away with the staff, the standoffish and hostile environment of the London commutor’s life feeling a distant memory. Rather bizzarely but nonetheless received with gratitude, we are offered a sugared almond while we wait. Unlike most fishmongers back home, Peppenella operates both as a shop and a restaurant; customers are free to pick their seafood on the spot and wait while it is cooked in front of them. As tempting as this undoubtably was, when you have Gina and Bianca offering to cook for you, no other option could possibly compete. Clara and I chomp away on our sugered almonds while Gina and Bianca rapidly and efficiently work their way round the well-decorated seafood counter. 1 octopus, 2 squids, and 2 kilos of clams later - we make the short journey home, the two sisters launching straight for the kitchen with quite some impetus and purpose. It was time to feast.

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The collaboration and organisation between the two sisters was immediately striking, Gina assuming the role of head chef with Bianca playing the supportive but equally imporant role of sous-chef. Together, though, they are very much a collective unit. They both share the task of sorting through the clams, a very significant part of preparing vongole for safety reasons. This is all done with two big smiles and lots of giggles, reflecting the reoccuring theme that both sisters do not find cooking to be stressful or a chore, but quite the contrary an enjoyable and even therepeutic experience. While the clams are cooking, the squid is washed and cut by Gina before being handed over to Bianca to be shaped into rings. After being submerged in homemade batter, they are then crisped up in peanut oil. As the first batch is finished, Gina and Bianca do what Italians do best - feed others. They must know how great their calamari is, but nonetheless insist on a second opinion. To be thorough, I gave my opinion several times and ended up scoffing a portion before we had even sat down for lunch. My greed barely caused a dent, and out came the biggest platter of fried calamari that I’ve ever seen. Bianca and I both seem to share a particular love for the tenticles, but she of course insists that I eat the last one. Similarly, when dishing up the vongole, Gina generously but disproportionately fills my plate with clams at the expense of her own portion. My feeling of greed seemed to move in correlation with their genorisity. But if one of Gina and Bianca’s intentions with their cooking was to generate happiness, then they certainly achieved this. Home cooking just doesn’t get better than this, and it can of course be put down partially to the freshness of the ingredients used. But mostly, it must not be underestimated how much of a difference it made to have these two sisters in control of these ingredients, their skill and personalities permeating through the flavours of the food. Cooking comes as naturaly to Gina and Bianca as breathing does to me.

Very few would disagree that it is courteous to do the washing up if someone else has cooked for you. But this was never going to happen, and my offer was utterly futile. If there’s one thing Gina and Bianca seem to love as much as cooking, it’s cleaning!

Linguine Alle Vongole (Serves 4)

Ingredients

  • 2 kilos of live clams

  • 2 cloves of garlic

  • Extra virgin olive oil

  • 6 vine cherry tomatoes

  • 500g linguine (Rummo or Garofalo)

  • A glass of white wine

  • 20g fresh parsley

  • Black pepper

Method

  1. Put the clams in salty water so that all the residue sand is cleaned away before being cooked. Discard any clams that are blackened at this point.

  2. Put the garlic and olive oil in the pan

  3. Once the garlic begins to brown, add the live clams and add white wine.

  4. In another pan, boil the cherry tomatoes for a couple of minutes and then peel their skin off.

  5. The clams should all be open after about 10 minutes. Any clams that do not open should be removed. At this point, add the cherry tomatoes.

  6. Cook the linguine in salted water until al dente, and add the pasta with some of the cooking water to the clams. Cook on a high flame for 30 seconds.

  7. Serve with fresh parsley.

Cook, RecipeJake Levy