Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi’s empire spans a number of well-known businesses: Caffe Caldesi, Italian restaurant, café and bar in Marylebone, London; La Cucina Caldesi, an Italian cookery school, also in Marylebone; Caldesi in Campagna, a fine dining restaurant in Bray in Berkshire and Katie’s Kitchen, a cookery school based in the couple’s Gerrard’s Cross home. Between them they have written three award winning cookbooks: “The Italian Cookery Course” (Kyle Cathie), “The Italian Mama’s Kitchen” (Spruce) and “Return to Tuscany” (BBC Books), the latter being the written account of a journey the couple made to Giancarlo’s home town, and the recipes they cooked back home with “la famiglia”.
The courses that are run at Caldesi in Campagna in Bray are very different from what you might expect from a normal cookery school. Here the premise is that you work alongside the chefs in the restaurant kitchen, looking and learning from them as they prepare for service, whilst also having hand-on experience in creating the recipes on the menu and learning different methodologies and techniques. There is no separate cookery room, so students get to experience the real cut and thrust of quite a small, hot and busy professional, working kitchen.
One of Giancarlo’s chefs, Gregorio, was on hand to help us all with knife skills and with showing us the breakdown of the recipes: how chefs prepare dishes in the professional kitchen is really quite different from how a home cook works, and it was fascinating to have an insight into a world very few people get to see and understand.
The class sizes are kept quite small, so that we can all fit in the kitchen and so that we can all receive individual attention. There were only 6 people on the “Autumn Supper” course I went on. Giancarlo is originally from Montepulciano in Tuscany, where his family still lives, and the menu is, of course, very much influenced by his upbringing and heritage. Some of the students on the course were loyal customers of the restaurant and had come to see just how the dishes are prepared.
The recipe list for the day was quite ambitious, considering that we would start at 10 am and finish by 1 pm, in order to sit down and eat our lunch.
Pasta fresca – fresh pasta
Sugo al pomodoro classic – a classic tomato sauce
Sugo ai funghi porcini – porcini mushroom sauce
Vitello ai funghi con timo e vino bianco – veal with wild mushrooms, thyme and white wine.
Scottiglia – a Tuscan hunter’s stew
Branzino al forno con finocchio e vino bianco – seabass on fennel with white wine
Souffle di zucca con salsa al burro e salvia – pumpkin soufflé with sage and butter sauce.
Patate e cipolle al forno – oven baked potatoes and red onions with pancetta
Cavolo rosso al forno con mele e cumino
Baked red cabbage, apples and caraway seeds
Crostata di prugne – plum tart
Giancarlo continually emphasised the importance of correct procedure: from the perfect way to simmer onions, to the best way to slow cook a sauce, to tearing mushrooms by hand and making sure your tagliatelle are cut to the right size, his eyes did not miss a thing. It was interesting to see how much more oil they used in the pans, and they used seed oils for frying, not olive oils.
“By understanding how we work, we hope to encourage you and to give you greater confidence,” Giancarlo explained. “We teach what we believe in, and I really do believe that by seeing what we are doing in here can only give you greater confidence and make home cooking easier.”
Throughout the cooking we were all urged to use our senses, to continually smell, taste, look, listen and touch in order to understand the transformation of ingredients from raw to fully cooked.
Slow cooking wild mushrooms into the perfect, crisp au-point softness proved amongst the most interesting of the processes: the liquid the mushrooms yielded evaporated over time to leave a medley that was perfectly soft and yet firm. While slicing our way through the chicken, duck, guinea fowl and partridges that went into the Tuscan hunter’s stew, Scottiglia, we also realised how lucky were those of us who had excellent butchers who did all the preparation work behind the scenes.
In the kitchen we cooked on an Ambach gas stove, with all rings ablaze, the heat rose around us and the noise from the air extractors buzzed in our ears. We very soon learned to respect the physical fitness of the five men that work here day to day. There is a separate gallery patisserie section where Giancarlo showed us to make the plum tart, and we also watched Gregorio prepare the pumpkin soufflé. The pace in a professional restaurant kitchen is quite relentless, and as the minutes tick away closer to opening time you can feel everyone, including the pot washer, speed up.
In the Caldesi kitchen we learned how they buy special eggs from Emilia Romagna, imported via the wholesaler Machiavelli Foods, and the colour of their yolks is a very bright sunshine yellow – flame orange, so that the pastry and the pasta were canary coloured. Those chickens are fed on a diet of solely corn.
We moved into the conservatory of the restaurant when it came time to prepare the fresh pasta, and Giancarlo showed us his own technique. It is very interesting, as an Italian, to see how other Italian cooks’ techniques vary. The tricks of the trade change from hand to hand. Giancarlo also showed us how he makes spaghetti alla chitarra, using a traditional wood and wire stringed “guitar” over which he rolls pasta sfoglia that has already passed through the kneading roller of the pasta machine.
For lunch we all sat in the main dining room, having removed our aprons and having thanked all the chefs still hard at work in the kitchen. How grateful we all were to be relaxing after all our concentration, sipping wine and receiving one delicious platter of food after another.
The interior style of Caldesi in Campagna is very much a reflection of Katie’s talents as an artist: there is a calming and relaxing décor of pale wood, neutral colours, rich, textured materials lining the walls, bright pink single stemmed roses in purple glass vases and baroque style mirrors hanging over fireplaces. The look is very feminine, comfortable and “boudoir” in its intimate chicness. There is a very peaceful garden at the back, lined with beautiful terracotta pots, flowers, herbs and climbers, and there is also a wood fired pizza oven.
Throughout the day there was constant banter and laughter between Giancarlo and his staff: Gregorio was teased because he comes from Sicily, Nedo, the waiter and bar man, was teased because he comes from the wrong part of Tuscany and Vincenzo, the restaurant manager, was teased because he comes from Naples. But during the lunch Giancarlo admitted how proud he was of his whole team and how very professional they are. In the company’s newsletter, “Il Giornale di Caldesi”, which is printed just like a colourful newspaper, filled with photos of food, locations, wines, Italian landscapes and the London restaurant, the talents and skills of all the staff are showcased: La Cucina Manager Jo tells us her perfect Panzanella recipe, we hear that Nedo is actually a supporter of AC Milano, Vincenzo takes us through his top five wines and Elena, the Caffe Caldesi general manager lists her favourite food and wine pairings.
As you leave the Caldesi restaurant after your extravagant feast, recipes in hand, do make sure you take a post-prandial walk around the village of Bray. Home to the Waterside Inn, The Fat Duck and The Hind’s Head, it is a surprisingly unspoiled corner of England, despite its vicinity to London and the number of Maseratis and Aston Martins that line its narrow lanes. There are beautiful old cottages with pristine gardens, roses tumbling over walls, a very attractive interiors shop and an old world charm and feel that is really worth exploring. And you will definitely need a good walk after the wonderful food and wine at Caldesi: there is nothing quite like Italian hospitality and bonhomie.
Caldesi in Campagna
Old Mill Lane
Berkshire SL6 2BG
Telephone: 01628 500
Follow on Twitter: @KatieCaldesi