Pasta with walnut sauce

There are two walnut sauces referenced in Early One Morning, either of which would make a fabulous Christmas Eve meal or alternative to some of the other festive fare on offer at this time of year. 

The first is when Chiara is remembering a market in Piazza Montanara that she used to go to as a child in the 1920s  ‘where the peasants and small farmers brought their produce to sell off the back of carts.’ I was imagining the sauce her grandmother bought at that market to be something like the Genoese one I used to have when I lived in Genoa for a year as a student.  Pesto is the most famous Genoese pasta sauce and we ate it all the time – in the student refectory, in people’s houses and we used to buy it fresh-made from the grocer’s shop next door where they sold it in little tubs. But they also made and sold the most divine walnut sauce – salsa di noci.  Every Friday, pay-day, my flatmates and I would buy one or the other of these sauces to have on our pasta. 

The other walnut sauce mentioned is one that Chiara makes for a celebratory meal and is more like a version of the one described by Elizabeth David in Italian Food. They are quite different and so I give them both here. 

A picture of a cloth bag filled with walnuts in their shells

i) Salsa di Noce Genovese

3 glugs of good olive oil
1 clove of garlic peeled
1.5 cups of milk
80g shelled walnuts
a slice of nice white bread torn up and without the crust
30g of parmesan grated
Small handful of pinenuts (circa 20g)
A handful of marjoram or oregano  or parsley – or a combination. 

Soak the torn bread in the milk. Strain the bread through a sieve over a bowl, pushing on the soggy bread with the back of a spoon to drain off the excess milk. Keep the milk to one side.  Bash up together in a pestle and mortar (or in a liquidizer) the soft milky bread, walnuts, pinenuts, garlic, parmesan and herbs. Then add the bready milk and oil in turns to make the sauce creamy and thick. Season with salt and black pepper. When you’ve got a nice smooth paste, it’s ready to dollop on your pasta.  Nice with penne or orecchiette.   Some people put fresh cream in, but I’m not a fan.  

ii) Salsa di Noce e Mascarpone

75g shelled walnuts
2 heaped tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus extra to serve
 4 level tbsp mascarpone
Good olive oil

Keep a few walnuts back for decoration.  Bash up the rest with the mascarpone cheese, crushed garlic and parmesan. Season to taste. 

When the pasta is al dente (tagliatelle is good with this one), drain it but keep some of the cooking water, return the pasta to the pan, add a spoonful of the cooking water to loosen the pasta and then stir the walnut sauce, keeping the pan over a low heat to warm the sauce through. Decorate with the extra nuts. Serve with more parmesan. 

Elizabeth David, who uses butter not oil, says, ‘This is an exquisite dish when well prepared, but it is filling and rich, so a little goes a long way.’