Taste the difference with hand made pasta
Ben Arthur, head chef at the Fistral Beach Hotel.
A meal is more than the sum of its parts. A pile of ingredients, no matter how fresh, is just a pile of elements, nothing, until you add the know-how to bring them together.
Food doesn’t have to be complicated but there is a world of difference between a bag of dry pasta shells with a can of plum tomatoes, and the plasticine magic that chef Ben Arthur is weaving when we join him in his hot kitchen at the Fistral Beach Hotel overlooking the world famous Fistral Beach.
If you want to learn to make the best fresh pasta, you need to head to Italy, breathe the air, live the food-obsessed culture, sit at the table with an Italian family, walk the lanes of Florence where grandmothers can be seen through open windows working pasta from raw ingredients with years of knowledge rather than recipe books to guide them.
Ben was one of the first recruits at Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant in London, but it was working on a placement at the famous River Café that proved a turning point. Ben explains: “The River Café is somewhere that Jamie holds quite dear. While I was there I saw one of their pasta chefs and he looked like an absolute wizard and I thought, that is a skill I need to have. So I went off to Italy and concentrated on pasta.”
He has been at the hotel for three years and the first toy he persuaded management to invest in was an £800 pasta machine, “It’s lovely and worth every penny!” he adds quickly.
“You will still find in the streets of Florence, little old ladies rolling pasta out on a table, but when you’ve got to make 500 portions a day you need one of these. I think it’s better to make it by hand like this because then you have a feel for it. It’s better to go by the feel, different flour, different sized eggs and the temperature of your kitchen will all affect your recipe. So rather than going by a recipe, if you work by the feel of it you will always be in the right place.”
When we arrive Ben is already working the ball of dough which looks like black plasticine. Pasta dough is simple to make, it’s just flour and eggs. To the flour Ben adds a sachet of pasturised squid ink which is available from good fish suppliers. The flour is super fine zero zero double milled. Ben tells me it absorbes the egg better and gives a finer more consistent dough. Ben explains: “When we work it through the pasta machine it doesn’t contract as much because the glutens have been worked out more so when we roll it out it doesn’t shrink back so far, it tends to behave itself.”
It’s a pleasure watching Ben at work on his pasta machine, he explains the process: “If you try to take it too thin too quickly you will find that even though it’s dry to the touch there’s a lot of moisture inside it, so you have to work it gradually. You are looking for a velvety product with the flour acting as lubrication.”
He works the dough until he has a sheet 2mm thick. At this stage semolina is used instead of flour on the board because it’s thicker and can absorb moisture and dry out the pasta so it doesn’t stick together. The pasta feels like velvety leather to the touch. Ben carefully rolls the sheet and then cuts the sausage into sections and unrolls them.
As he works Ben explains: “Most Italians will tell you the best meal they’ve had is at their grandma’s house because she makes pasta every day and grandmas are brilliant at it. That’s what I want to share with our customers, that experience.
“I graduated from Fifteen in 2003 and I went out to Tuscany and worked over there at a Michelin starred Italian restaurant in a tiny village in the middle of nowhere, halfway between Sienna and Florence and one of the things that was really important to them was that each day there would be a staff meal which was always pasta. One of the chefs would go in earlier and start getting it ready. Everyone would get the preparation ready and then we would all sit down together. Everything revolves around the food, it was a really big thing.”
Ben puts the fresh pasta into nests to dry out, it can be too fresh, you want it to dry out a bit. “You want it to be al dente, with a bit of a bite to it. If it’s too soft it’s claggy and doesn’t have much texture.”
Our black squid ink tagiatelle is ready. Ideally you would wrap this in clingfilm and leave in the fridge for at least half an hour. Ben suggests using gloves as the squid ink stains.
He speaks to his fish supplier almost every day to see what is good, what is available. The specials board is dictated by that and planned each night for the following day. Ben adds: “At the moment clams, cockles and squid are very abundant. The squid we use are hand jigged by the Looe day boats. I’ve been out and done it, it’s really interesting.”
The squid are attracted by the boats’ lights to the surface. They feed in areas where freshwater and saltwater meet. “We prefer the smaller squid generally because they are thinner and they cook quicker. Squid is one of those things that if you don’t cook it for the right amount of time, it’s tough as old boots. You need to cook it for a long time or super quick, anything in the middle and it tastes like rubber.”
So are customers increasingly more interested in where their food comes from?
“Yes and no, if you walk through Newquay or Truro pretty much every restaurant you see will have a board outside saying we only use fresh produce and I think there’s a certain element that it’s nice to say you do that, but nobody really uses 100% Cornish produce. I mean for example if you go round Cornwall and try and find someone that is foraging wild mushrooms you won’t find them. So let’s celebrate the things that we do grow locally, if we have to get onions from Spain it’s absolutely fine because that’s where they come from. Before we launch a new menu, we have a big menu briefing and we cook all the dishes for our front of house team and we talk to them about where the ingredients come from, what the idea is behind the dish, why we put things together.
“Right now we have a supplier growing tomatoes for us, they started with 30 different varieties on the vine. They have been through loads of types of heritage tomatoes that no one is using any more, rescued the seeds and started growing them again, from that they whittled it down to 13 awesome tomatoes so I’m looking forward to putting them on the new menu.
“There’s really nice samphire and sea beets growing around the he
adlands so I take a little carrier bag of that and put it with the fish I’ve caught so it’s a totally local dish, you talk about food miles, but that’s yards from the house.”
Back to our dish, it’s time to prepare the squid and sauce. The ingredients are fennel, parsley, samphire, capers, anchovies and one squid per portion.
Get your dry pan smoking hot. Ben explains: “If we don’t get the pan really hot the squid will stick to the pan and boil in its own juices, we don’t want that, as it will get tough, fast or slow is the only way to cook it.
“We look for a bit of smoke coming out of the pan, we oil the squid not the pan so the oil doesn’t burn. ” Blanch the fennel and the samphire in hot water. The anchovies, chillies garlic and the capers join the squid to create a little bit of a sauce. “The anchovies add seasoning, the capers work well with seafood.” After blanching add the fennel and samphire to the pan.
The pasta goes in hot water where it will take 10 -15 seconds to cook the super fresh pasta we are using. If we had made it the day before it would take about a minute.
A little of the pasta water goes into the pan with the squid to make the sauce as the starchiness will help the sauce to stick to the pasta. After a minute or so the pasta goes in the pan with the squid where it is tossed with a little bit of lemon juice and parsley to allow the sauce to bind to it. “You can add butter but if strictly Italian it would be olive oil.” The whole process is over in a minute and a half.
Serve the pasta and squid on a white plate for the best dramatic effect, and dress with the herbs.
Ben explains through the steam: “What we are trying to do is spoil people, show people what things are supposed to taste like, let the ingredients speak for themselves.”
Pasta is such a passion for Ben, he is very protective of it and stresses that it is all about timing if you want it to be good.
“When you serve a table we do the pasta dish last. I won’t plate it until everything else is ready. Because the pasta is fresh it’s still thirsty, any moisture that is in the dish it will try to take that away and you don’t want that, we want it to still be quite juicy when it goes in front of people. Then I have to account for conversations, sometimes people have the food put in front of them and they are on a date or a business meeting and it is a few minutes before they stop talking and start eating so we have to anticipate that. It’s not just putting the food on the plate.”
These are the extra details that make a great restaurant. We are lucky in Newquay to have true obsessive perfectionists like Ben. But they can only aspire to be the best if that is what the market wants and it is a reflection of how Newquay has changed over the years that the best is both demanded and offered by Ben and the team at the Fistral Beach Hotel. n
Ben plans to demonstrate pasta making at the show and I thoroughly recommend you try to catch his demonstration, 3pm Sunday at this year’s festival.