Pilgrimage with a pasta machine


Pilgrimage with a pasta machine

The story of this recipe with spring vegetables and saffron cream stretches back to Italian prisoners of war in South Africa, writes EMILIA SMUTS.


THE past can be a heavy burden. Few people know where our largest prisoner-of-war camp was in World War 2. It was at Zonderwater outside Pretoria.

The camp housed about 90,000 Italian POWs. Around 10,000 illiterate prisoners were taught to read and write here and the conditions were so good that many of them applied to immigrate after the war. About 800 of them did, and they left their mark: Edoardo Villa became South Africa's most famous sculptor.

The POWs were also sent to other parts of the country. Among other things, they built the Du Toitskloof and Outeniqua passes.

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Some of them were placed with farmers to work as labourers. The farmers could apply for this. This is what my grandfather did, although my grandmother specified that she wasn't looking for riffraff — they had to be decent people. In that way my father met a group of them as a small boy on Doornkraal and forged friendships that would last a lifetime.

And when I was 11, he took his beautiful wife and his two oldest daughters to Europe to introduce them to the Italians. We visited Luigi Ravioli, Ilter Menoni, a retired opera singer, Luigi Ivaldi, a wine farmer, and Bruno, the manager of a parmesan cheese factory. What a joyful reunion it was!

The Italians received and entertained us like royalty and showed us around. We met close and other family, visited factories and farms, received presents everywhere. And ate. And ate and ate. My diary entries about this trip have two words as refrains: “delicious" and “ate", sometimes with an outline of the special dishes, sometimes with an indication of the duration of the meal. “Ate from one o'clock until half past five!" one entry reads. Another: “The wine glasses are as big as flower vases!"

In the end we greeted them as we would old family, our suitcases heavily loaded with bottles of special wine, a giant wedge of parmesan cheese and Parma ham — provisions for the rest of the pilgrimage through Europe.

With the wisdom of hindsight, I can imagine that my mother must have been a smash hit with the Italians: elegant, charming, and with those legendary blue eyes. And she received a piece of trousseau to take back: a real, shiny, Italian macchina per la pasta, an Imperia, which was specially chosen for her by the rotund, dark Italian aunts. Think shiny, with edges like a Cadillac's chrome finish and a separate little crank handle.

And think heavy. As heavy as a junior Lister engine. I know this because my mother — unlike my carefree father, who stuffed his wine bottles into socks and hoped for the best — was afraid her precious machine would be damaged if it was stored in a suitcase, because it was before the time of hard cases. Therefore, the machine had to be carried by hand in a bag. Guess who the designated macchina per la pasta bearers were?

Julia and I fought over who should carry the thing, we sweated, cried, pleaded at stations, struggled up and down stairs, and walked kilometre after kilometre with this wretched piece of iron. We would probably have fulfilled our task with greater stoic tolerance if we had known then how much enjoyment and pleasure we would derive over the years from the homemade pasta dishes Mother would prepare.

Pasta-making at home became a family affair: the older children handled the rolling out of the pasta; the little ones got a chance to set the position of the rollers, turn the crank handle and let the increasingly thinner and longer pasta ribbons slip through their fingers with fascination. Then the pasta was cut into lengths, hung up like laundry or laid out and later cooked in the blink of an eye and eaten with relish.   


And the sauces? My mother had a cookbook by Robert Carrier: Great Dishes of the World, a collection of articles that appeared in the British Sunday Times and Vogue and which she cleverly used to make dishes with strange names from local ingredients.

When I eventually had my own kitchen, I wanted to replicate my mother's favourites from Great Dishes, but by then the recipes were … well, just too soufflé-ish for my taste; and also usually above my skill level. Besides, it was one of those European books that assumes you have access to the smorgasbord of ingredients that is available there. And at five o' clock in the afternoon I didn't feel like thinking about local substitutes.

But we don't shake off the past so easily. We carry our memories with us like a pasta machine. I still think of our trip for fleeting moments when I catch a whiff of roasted chestnuts, or chocolate and burnt almonds, or incense in a church.

At the turn of the century I came across a copy of Carrier's follow-up book: New Great Dishes of the World. Pure nostalgia made me buy it. I flipped through and it appeared to be still very much Carrier, but more approachable and forgiving for unseasoned cooks. One of the dishes I like to make is pasta with spring vegetables and a saffron cream.

The use of spring vegetables is also a nod of thanks to the Italian POWs who introduced my father and his parents to eating young vegetables, cooked al dente. They certainly had a lion's share in my father's lifelong love affair with good food and wine. The variety of young vegetables that are now in season shine like green jewels in this dish.

Feel free to do like my mother did by trying other combinations of vegetables than those given here. 


Pasta with spring veggies & saffron cream

(Enough for 4 people)


  • 500g fresh or 400g dry tagliarini or tagliatelle
  • salt
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • freshly ground pepper
  • dry chilli flakes
  • freshly grated parmesan cheese

For the spring vegetables:

  • 1 bunch of fresh asparagus, prepared, cut lengthwise and blanched
  • 125g each sugar snap and mangetout, cut up
  • 100g shelled peas
  • 2 handfuls of broccoli florets, blanched
  • 2-4 smallish courgettes, cut in thin rings
  • 50g butter
  • 1 thin slice of ​​ham (or bacon, optional)
  • ½ vegetable stock cube, crumbled
  • ½ cup water

For the saffron cream:

  • 2 containers of crème fraîche of 250g each
  • pinch of saffron
  • ½ vegetable stock cube
  • 60-90ml pasta cooking water
  • dry chilli flakes


1. For the vegetables: Put all the vegetables in a large, deep pan, add the butter, slice of ​​ham, stock cube and water and quickly bring to the boil. Turn off the heat and simmer for a few minutes until the vegetables are warmed through and cooked, but still crisp. Remove the ham — it has served its purpose. Drain the vegetables and keep warm.

2. For the pasta: Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted water for 3 minutes for fresh pasta and time according to directions for dry pasta until just al dente. Make the saffron cream while the pasta is cooking. Drain the pasta when it is ready, but keep some of the pasta water aside.

3. For the saffron cream: Put the crème fraîche, saffron, stock cube and ¼ cup of the pasta cooking water in a saucepan and heat until the sauce is hot. Season with salt, pepper and chilli flakes and simmer over low heat until the sauce is thick and creamy.

4. Finishing and serving: Melt the butter in a large pan (in which the vegetables have cooked), add the pasta, season with salt, pepper and chilli flakes and heat if necessary, until the pasta is heated through (or do it in a microwave oven). Scoop out the pasta onto a pretty, warm serving dish, pour over the saffron cream and finally the vegetables. Serve immediately with the freshly grated parmesan cheese.

My mother's pasta machine has a place at the top of a kitchen cupboard. When I take it out, I realise — or rather my muscles realise — that the damn thing is still as heavy as ever. But when we sit down to a meal, I recall my diary entry once again: “Delicious!"

Thank you, all you wonderful Italians!


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