From Monday, we’ll be able to eat out in shivery cold pub gardens. Life as we’ve known it will cease and we’ll be allowed a modicum of freedom that will inevitably be cut short following the return to normal in late June, which may trigger a further wave of infections. But until then. . .
Restaurateurs across the UK have kept their businesses afloat during the most turbulent year on record by bringing their restaurants to our homes.
Some heat-at-home box dinners have been a triumph, others a tragedy.
But irrespective of quality, it’s worth remembering that they’ve kept employees in work.
From kitchen porters who wash the pans to head chefs who’ve worked on the flexible furlough scheme, were it not for the wave of heat-at-home boxes, a great many more people would have lost their jobs.
Already, many chefs are planning to send the cardboard back, cancel their contract with DHL and keep their fingers crossed that they’ll never again have to pack a box with recycled wool in the hope that their lemon posset doesn’t spill.
Competition for cardboard is at an end as those who’ve grasped the lifeline that’s been home delivery services are preparing to welcome people back for al fresco table service. Some will continue, however, and in the coming weeks we’ll review a mix of local takeaways, heat-at-home boxes and local restaurants offering spring dinners on the terrace.
I know, our hearts are made of gold and we are selfless to a fault.
For now, however, it’s the turn of The Little Pasta Company, a business that has thrived during lockdown by doing the basic things really, really well.
The trick to a great box is to keep things simple. Businesses who’ve tried to offer crispy-skinned chicken, barbecued lettuce (I know, we still can’t believe that one) or shards of beetroot crisp have invariably come unstuck.
Those who recognise that food needs to be neatly packed, be able to withstand the all-too-regular delivery mix-ups and who focus on clean, simple flavours have stayed ahead of the game. The Little Pasta Company does all of those things, offering a range of fresh, handmade pasta kits with a variety of extras to complete your restaurant-at-home experience.
They’re on a par with Pasta Evangelists, another brilliant delivery company that moved quickly to fill the void while restaurants were locked.
Dishes take about five minutes to cook and, as well as an ever-changing menu of pasta dishes, there’s also an offer of such delicious Italian goodies as flavoured oils, salads, cheeses and meat selections.
If you’re in a rush or just don’t enjoy cooking, you can content yourselves by whipping up a handmade pasta dish and three sides in under 10 minutes.
Orders are delivered from Tuesday to Friday and the quality of ingredients is good – you can order with confidence from an outfit that’s consolidated its reputation by providing consistently good quality in recent months.
My partner and I chose simply: a platter of charcuterie followed by a range of pasta dishes.
The charcuterie, made by the brilliant Cobble Lane, was delightful. A selection of Lomo, fennel and garlic salami and spicy Soppressata salami whetted our appetites as we enjoyed fabulously fragrant flavours from an award-winning producer that also supplies some of the best Michelin-starred restaurants in the UK.
If the best UK restaurants are ingredient-led, then so are the best box dinners and The Little Pasta Company was precisely that. Delicious salami with ample, flavoursome fat and flavours that danced like angels on our tongues made for a happy start to dinner.
What followed was even better.
We selected three small pasta dishes, all the better to share and to sample the range of The Little Pasta Company.
One of its best-sellers is tagliatelle with white truffle butter and Grana Padano Cheese.
The pasta was exquisite. Thick, silky ribbons of pasta were cooked lightly, remaining al dente – with a little bite – before being dressed in a foaming, melted white truffle butter.
The dish originates in the north of Italy, around Piedmont, and offered a taste of luxury as it celebrated quality ingredients and the true simplicity of Italian cooking.
Earthy flavours from the truffle, an umami hit from the Grana Padano and the wonderful, more-ish indulgence of the melted butter made it a naughty-but-nice dish.
Bucatini All’Amatriciana didn’t quite hit the spot. The pasta was once more magnificent, with long, wriggly worms of perfectly made flour and eggs that had plenty of bite.
The smokey diced guanciale – pork cheeks – made for more challenging eating. Some would disagree, but a cut of meat that’s delicious cured and contains plenty of fat becomes chewy and tough when mixed in a water-based, tomato sauce.
And so for all of the abundant flavour, the texture just felt wrong, like trying to gnaw through rope. The fat didn’t melt away particularly well and the depth of flavour we’d hoped for simply wasn’t there.
It’s a speciality in some parts of Italy, particularly Umbria and Lazio – perhaps a more skilful chef would have brought more from the ingredient than we were capable of.
A wonderful course of pappardelle with a beef and red wine ragu banished those memories and helped us to finish on a high.
Fresh egg pappardelle was mixed with slowly braised beef and an unctuous sauce rich with Italian tomatoes and red wine.
It was bold, daring and full of big-bodied flavours. Carrots, celery and garlic gave the sauce bags of flavour while pepper, rosemary, oregano and salt provided an additional hit of aromatic goodness. It was delicious.
The Little Homemade Pasta Company is among the most authentic purveyors of Italian food on the market.
And while some businesses may either fall by the wayside or concentrate more fully on table service on terraces, you’d imagine this is one that’s built to last.
Fairly priced, well-packaged, offering daring flavours, it made for restaurant-quality eating and a joyful dinner.