Do you think of lasagna as a sublime gourmet sensation or a stodgy, school food staple?
In Tuscany I’ve tasted exquisite layers of meltingly tender, fresh pasta fusing into a poem with creamy béchamel and a sparing distribution of rich ragù. This traditional meat sauce of central and northern Italy is made with finely minced beef and chicken livers or pancetta and simmered gently for hours until the flavours mellow. In spring the delicate pasta sheets have been layered with tender artichoke hearts, béchamel and ham, a marriage of delicate flavours to delight the most gourmet palate.
Lasagna (having replaced its plural e with a singular a) is however a dish that has left home and travelled the world. It has made it into the mainstream of microwave meals, supermarket suppers and been massacred in the process. Thick, stodgy sheets of pasta sandwich oozing quantities of sauce and bear little resemblance to their Italian forbears.
To taste the real Italian lasagne that I’m describing, you must take a gourmet trip to Italy, visit the hills of Tuscany or Emilia Romagna with its rich, butter-based cuisine and multitude of fine restaurants. In Ferrara, Bologna or Parma or any other of its beautiful cities, you will be able to appreciate the delicacy of flavour, the melting texture with which genuine Italian lasagne can delight the palate.
Here the lasagne is only a part of a leisurely meal. In autumn you might have started with an antipasto of Parma ham and ripe figs, tasted some fettuccini with truffles, then sampled the lasagne, leaving enough room for your main course of a bistecca ai funghi porcini, steak with fresh porcini mushrooms harvested from the wooded hills around you.
Lasagne is a dish designed for feasting – to make it properly is time consuming: rolling out your own freshly made pasta to make sheets that are thin enough not to be stodgy, boiling it briefly a few sheets at a time; making fresh meat sauce and allowing it three or four hours to simmer unhurriedly; stirring a béchamel sauce carefully so it doesn’t burn; lastly assembling all the different components and layering them, judiciously spreading just the right amount of sauce for the pasta to absorb and have a bit left over; adding in freshly grated parmesan to get the balance of flavours just so; baking it all in the oven for just the right amount of time for the flavours to meld into a divine whole. It is a labour of love made at home for special occasions or ordered in a restaurant where you know they do it well.
If you want to try your hand at making an authentic lasagna from Emilia Romagna, seek guidance from Marcella Hazan. Her cook books are the best I know to help you reproduce the flavours of Northern Italy at home. I confess to not having the patience for making my own fresh pasta and so do without lasagne altogether at home. I’m just waiting for an opportunity to get back to Italy so that I can indulge in a gourmet holiday, feasting on lasagna, porcini mushrooms and truffles!