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The Pasta Grannies show us how to cook like nonna – and prove why TV food show commissioners are missing a trick

The Pasta Grannies
Who better to learn the art of pasta from than someone who’s been making it for 80 years Credit: Emma Lee

Down an alleyway in London’s Marylebone, a kitchen has been transformed into an Italian cucina. But it isn’t so much the room – the gleaming minimalism of Cucina Caldesi – as the people. At the table, 85-year-old Maria Argnani is rolling a huge sheet of sunshine-yellow dough, while her friend Graziella holds the flour bag and the Cucina’s ­Sardinian head chef, Stefano Borella, hovers nearby.

Italian chatter fills the air as they debate over flour, eggs, cheese, technique, talking over each other in their enthusiasm. But they all defer to Nonna Maria; older women command respect in the kitchen in Italy.

Maria, however, is also an internet star, one of the Pasta Grannies – Italian home cooks, all over 65, whose skills at hand-making pasta have been documented on film by Vicky Bennison, who worked in international development before becoming a food writer.

Bennison, who lives part of the year in the Marche region of Italy, filmed her first video five years ago and posted it to YouTube. She explains to me as we watch Maria deftly cut the pasta sheet into squares for cappelletti, a filled pasta from Emilia Romagna, “Pasta skills are dying out in Italy, and I wanted to document it. It made sense to film it.” Bennison has a team of “granny finders” around Italy searching for locally renowned pasta makers, and as a result there are now more than 230 videos to watch.

The collection has been a huge success: Pasta Grannies on YouTube now has more than 400,000 subscribers, which is the measure of a successful channel. Now there is a book too, with the full recipes (including those featured here) as well as lots of useful tips. Dishes range from rich ham and spinach stuffed ­casoncelli – little sweetie-shaped ravioli from Lombardy – to vegetable ­cavati, a simple, pea-pod shaped pasta made in 
Sicily.

Back in the kitchen, the talk is all about flour. Maria flicks barely a pinch over the surface as she rolls a second sheet of dough. “At home I know the ingredients, so I won’t need to flour the board. I use pasta flour from the local mill, Spadoni, mixed with semolina flour.” With 80 years of experience, she should know.

Nonna Maria demonstrates how to roll out freshly made pasta Credit: Emma Marijewycz

At the age of five, living on the family farm just south of Faenza with her parents and three younger siblings, she pulled up a stool to the kitchen table so her grandmother could teach her how to make pasta. From then on she would get up at four to help take out the oxen – “you had to be careful, they were terrible for kicking” – to plough the fields, then start the brodo, a savoury broth of capon, beef and pork.

Pasta would be made before she set out for school, she tells me as she starts folding the dough squares over the filling, barely glancing down at her hands, deftly shaping them into little hats, or cappelletti. Intricate pasta was saved for Sundays.

Some of the Pasta Grannies featured in Bennison’s book Credit: Emma Lee

I join Maria at the table – who wouldn’t take the opportunity for a lesson from a pasta maestra? The dough is surprisingly soft and easily pliable, which is just as well since it needs stretching to cover the generous blobs of filling. I learn to pinch together two corners of the dough to make a triangle, then press the edges together ­before joining the corners over a finger tip. Maria looks at my effort, then shows me how to roll it so the edges furl up to make the cap shape. She nods at my next try, and adds it to the pile alongside hers. I can’t help but beam with pride.

There is, after all, nothing like learning from granny, agrees Bennison, but it’s an aspect sadly missing from modern television, with the exception of Mary Berry. “Everyone talks about how inspired they are by their mothers and grandmothers but we never see them. Why aren’t older women being celebrated?” The success of Pasta Grannies may be proof that the TV commissioners are missing a trick.

Finally I sit down for a dish of the cappelletti in brodo (meat stock). They are exquisite, with a creamy, parmesan-redolent filling, and a delicate, tender pasta, rich with egg, floating in the savoury stock. Just eggs, flour and cheese, points out Maria. Nothing else to overly complicate the flavours, just the care and attention she gives it.

When it comes to pasta, granny knows best.

Pasta Grannies: The Secrets of Italy’s Best Home Cooks, by Vicky Bennison, is published by Hardie Grant (£20). Order your copy from books.telegraph.co.uk