Giuseppina Oliviero makes another of the big three lasagne I have tasted. | Andrew Valente


Minimalist playwright Samuel Becket (he of Waiting For Godot fame) said a story should have a beginning, a middle and an end — but not necessarily in that order. Most cooks have a game plan for a lasagna that takes in only three main items. But how those three components are made and arranged depends on each cook’s expertise and his (or her) imagination.The three principal elements included in most lasagne are plaques of thin pasta, a meaty sauce and a bechamel sauce. But how meaty is a meaty sauce? And what kind of meat is involved?

If you think there is but one recipe for a bechamel sauce as made in France or Italy then you couldn’t be more wrong. For starters, we do not know for sure that Louis de Béchamel, Marquis de Nointel, made the first béchamel sauce, although the French say that is one of his claims to fame. He was also a financier, patron of the arts and the butler in charge of the kitchen of King Louis XIV of France. In that role he made a white sauce for King Louis that was given the name béchamel.

In Italy they have a sauce called besciamella although as far as I know no one, not even the Italians, says an Italian invented it. But this is the sauce you’ll find in all kinds of Italian recipes, especially lasagna and cannelloni.

And so to get back to the beginning: the success of a really fine lasagna depends on the quality and thinness of your pasta plaques, the meaty tomato sauce and your white sauce, whether you are calling it bechamel, béchamel or besciamella.

I tasted my first lasagna when I was 13 and over several decades since then I have eaten some beauties. The best one I know of in Palma is at La Bottega in Calle Fábrica (Tel: 971-454892), but cook-owner Michele Caporale doesn’t have it on the menu. He does it when a regular customer phones and requests it. Michele makes enough for 20 portions and has it as one of that day’s blackboard specials. His is one of the best three lasagne I have known.

This portion of lasagna was a starter. Photos: Andrew Valente

Giuseppina Oliviero makes another of the big three lasagne I have tasted. But hers is different from every other one I have come across: she has a quite unique way of assembling it. Her lasagna has the essential elements you find in all of them but, as in Becket’s storyline that doesn’t necessarily have a beginning, a middle and an end in that order, she also breaks the rules.
Her recipe has four components: a tomato sauce (but without meat), minced sirloin steak (but without sauce), the usual white sauce (but not much of it) and the pasta plaques (but not necessarily fresh ones).

This is how she builds up her lasagna. Some fresh tomato sauce is spread over the base of the baking dish and a sprinkling of grated parmesan is added. A layer of pasta plaques comes next and then the meat is sprinkled over the top with another sprinkle of grated parmesan. This meat is sliced sirloin or rump steak that the butcher has put through the mincer once. The minced steak is sautéed with finely chopped onion, carrot and celery until the meat is cooked through and the veggies are softish. No wine, stock or any other liquid is added. The meat is left to cool to room temperature so it can be sprinkled between fingers and thumb over the surface of the pasta plaques.

Some of the tomato sauce is spooned over the meat, plus a sprinkle of cheese, with a little of the white sauce drizzled across the meat. Giuseppina goes lightly on the white sauce. She ends up with a generous topping of meat, tomato sauce, a good drizzle of white sauce and more grated cheese. The result is a huge burst of flavour, loads of succulence and a much lighter lasagna than usual.

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So having it as a starter instead of a mains, as I did for the first time, isn’t as unusual as it sounds. A lightweight lasagna like this one makes for a very nice starter. Giuseppina prefers to make her own pasta plaques because she finds those in shops and supermarkets are always too thick and create a stodgy lasagna, which is a big no-no. When she doesn’t have time to make her own fresh plaques she uses the dry kind that doesn’t have to be pre-boiled. That’s the one I had and the texture was superb.

Although Giuseppina is the only all-Italian member of my Scottish-Italian family, she has no qualms about taking shortcuts — if they are good ones.

The antipasto came from Italy via Lidl.

Lidil was having an Italian week and Giuseppina did an antipasto with only items from the German-owned supermarket group. The provolone cheese had the best taste and texture I’ve ever encountered. Textures of other provolones have been a bit on the plastic side and they have always been somewhat tasteless.

The artichoke quarters in jars were most definitely the best I know of. Navarra in the north of Spain grows marvellous artichokes but those that come in jars are always cooked to the nth degree. Even the most expensive ones. But Lidl’s Italian artichokes were done in a kind of semi-pickle, and were totally al dente. I’ve never had such a magnificent artichoke from a jar.

Limoncello, the lemon-flavoured Italian liqueur.

But there is something Giuseppina never buys: limoncello, the lemon-flavoured Italian liqueur. And neither will you if you learn her very simple and successful recipe. You’ll need six large lemons with thick skins, which you’ll always find at El Corte Inglés when they’re in season. The skins should be waxless, but if they’re not give them a good wash before paring them as thinly as possible.

Transfer the lemon skin slivers to an empty litre bottle and add a bottle of vodka (not an expensive premium brand) and leave it in a dark cupboard for two or three weeks, shaking from time to time. Strain it and you’ll have the lovely limoncello colour. Then you make a syrup with one and a half cups of water and and one and a quarter of sugar. When it’s cold add it to the yellow vodka.
This recipe gives a limoncello with an elegant lemony flavour that’s also smooth on the alcohol. It was the best one I’ve ever tasted.

Giuseppina was born in Puglia and emigrated to Canada with her family when she was two. To her eventual Canadian friends she became Josephine and then Jo. One of those friends was my nephew Alfie (Alfredo on his birth certificate) and they married some 27 years ago. They now live in Edmonton where it gets cold in the winter — -20C is a common and -40C isn’t rare.

But Alfie and Jo escape the worst of Edmonton’s Arctic temperatures by visiting family in the Shawlands area of Glasgow, as well as Jo’s relatives near Rome. In a couple of months’ time, however, they’ll be back in Edmonton because there’s little humidity there and that means low rainfall and extremely pleasant weather during the spring and summer.