‘When we first started cooking, dishes like lasagne and cannelloni were treated with suspicion. Few people knew what to expect. Thirty years ago these dishes were virtually unknown to the British population; only a few who had travelled to Italy had tried them. These dishes always had to be described in great detail before people would try them, but try them they did and came back again for more’. So wrote Ann Taruschio in her introduction to Leaves from the Walnut Tree, the first cookery book she wrote with husband, Chef Franco in 1993. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it, that we’ve travelled so far from a nation that was largely ignorant about that foreign muck to one of the most gastronomically promiscuous countries in the world; it is my firm belief that Ann and her husband, Chef Franco were amongst the very few to set us on our way. Inspired by her words, I made my way over to the craggy mountains of Abergavenny to have lunch at their restaurant to see what all the fuss was about (by now the inn was incredibly famous and widely revered). The food was certainly amazing but it was the ambience of The Walnut Tree that captured my heart. Ann and Franco themselves, they were utterly charming and eating with them was like eating in their family kitchen; the simplicity of their dining room was evidence of that. There was no pretence, their philosophy was simply to take beautiful ingredients, treat them with the respect they deserved and serve them up with a whole lot of love, Italian style. My favourite dish of all was ravioli di zucca con salsa di noce, ravioli with a pumpkin filling and walnut sauce. Before the Taruschios left in 2001, I went back for it again and again. That sauce – a combination of fresh walnuts, garlic, parsley, dried chilli flakes, extra-virgin olive oil and seasoning – is the inspiration for this delightful pesto. I whizz this up in late summer when Californian walnuts come into season but, as autumn approaches, I try to find wild walnuts from Umbria as they have a more robust taste. I think that Franco would approve.
60g fresh walnuts, halved and toasted
80g rocket leaves (or parsley, of course, but I haven’t tried this yet so bear with)
150ml extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 pinch of dried chilli flakes
50g Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
How I make it
Whizz everything but the cheese together in a food processor. Then stir in the cheese. Yes, that’s it, you’re done.
This freezes beautifully by the way; just leave it out to thaw at room temperature before stirring it through freshly cooked pasta; add a generous scattering of coarsely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and you’re good to go. This is exactly what I do to when I’m in need of a quick and satisfying supper after a long day at work.