Pasta making is a family affair in Italy. Secret recipes, sauces, fillings for raviolis are passed down from nonnas (much loved grandmothers) to future generations of home cooks. And for one Italian family in one of the busiest shops in Menton, France this is happening right now. The star of the show is a deliciously light and zesty lemon pasta; a ravioli known locally as ‘Ravioli Citronnés’.
Menton is a picturesque coastal town on the French Riviera, close to the Italian border and just an hour on the train east of Nice. It’s also the centre of spritzy annual Fête du Citron celebrations of the Menton lemon. And it’s here that Turin, Italy-born Luisa Delpiano Inversi and her family moved to make some of the tastiest pasta in the region; working in a busy kitchen and shop in the centre of the old town.
I met Luisa and her son Riccardo during the annual Fête du Citron this February, during the two weeks of mayhem that sees the town celebrate the lemons and oranges grown in the hills around the town. The region benefits from a unique micro-climate in which citrus fruits thrive. Sadly, this year’s event has seen unusual amounts of snow and lots of rain, although that didn’t stop the parades, displays and busy cafes and restaurants from celebrating the mighty lemon.
Riccardo is probably in his mid-20s, and has already racked up several years of pasta making experience.
Early each morning, Riccardo and his team fire up the stoves of Pasta Piemonte to make the morning’s batch of ravioli citronnés, much of it crafted in a small, artisan kitchen just around the corner from the shop. The recipe for the lemon filling includes soft ricotta cheese, hard Grana Padano and both lemon juice and zest. Luisa says finds this sweeter lemon juice less likely to curdle the cheese.
A hot butter (noisette) and sage sauce is ideal for this pasta with perhaps a squeeze of lemon and a dash of pasta water. The earthy notes of the sage warmed by the butter calms the tart filling and deliciously coats the ravioli.
Pasta is prepared, cooked and loved around the world, with shapes, designs and ingredients varying depending on how the cook wants to use it: to hold a filling in a ravioli envelope, fill in the nooks and crevices of a trofie pasta or fill the tubes of tubetti rigati.
Ravioli itself comes in many shapes and sizes. Fillings are packed into crescent, heart and triangle pasta covers as well as the traditional square and rectangle shapes. The shape sauce fillings make in the pasta depends on mould used and are either tondi (round) or squarish.
Pasta Piemonte is a crowd puller. The second time I visited, this time mid-morning at the opening of the Fête du Citron, the shop had sold out of its iconic Pasta Limone. Customers were a mix of locals buying for lunch or dinner that day, and visitors to the town who’d read reviews such as this on Trip Advisor; “We went it and were immediately impressed with the owner’s friendliness … She recommended that we try her lemon pasta; although it sounded somewhat strange to our unaccustomed ears, we tried it and came back four more times in the next 10 days, both for the lemon pasta and other wonderful pasta and sauces!”
With a micro-climate ideal for growing citrus, the countryside around Menton has an extended season with lemons grown for several months after the traditional southern European season end around March /April. The lemon itself is sweeter and less bitter than other more widely grown varieties. After a well-supported campaign, in which Luisa played a key role, the Menton lemon was awarded IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) status, distinguishing the fruit as being closely linked to its place of origin. Lemon groves for this particular variety are particularly found around the picturesque villages of Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, Castellar, Gorbio, Saint-Agnès and Menton.
RAVIOLIS AU CITRON
(For six people)
Luisa and Riccardo kindly shared their recipe for the filling, although unless you have the freshest lemon zest from a Menton lemon and have cooked and enjoyed it in a Riviera kitchen, it’ll be more of a hint of a flavour that you’ll get from Pasta Piemonte.
This is a recipe for the lemon filling; I suggest you use your favourite ravioli pasta dough recipe for the cases.
400 g ricotta cheese
50g Grana Padano cheese
2 lemons (large Menton lemons, if possible) juice and zest
10 g salt
Pinch of pepper
Mix all ingredients in a large bowl, including seasoning.
The stuffing is ready when it does not stick to the hands.
If the filling becomes too wet, add finely grated breadcrumbs.
On a floured work surface, cut the dough in half and spread it into two thin sheets of the same size.
MAKING RAVIOLI SHAPES
To make the ravioli, place stuffing in small piles spaced 2-3 cm on a first sheet of dough.
Brush edges with water and put on the second dough rectangle. Gently seal each ravioli pocket, taking care to remove as much air as possible.
Cut out each parcel, or use a ravioli mould.
Add to boiling water, very lightly salted if you wish and allow a maximum 3 to 4 minutes of cooking time.
If, like most of us, you are not lucky enough to live in Menton or the Côte d’Azur and those deliciously juicy lemons aren’t sold in your local farmer’s market or greengrocer then seek out the freshest and, if possible, unwaxed lemons you can. Luisa suggests Grand Padano cheese as it’s made in the hills in the Piedmont, although you can substitute it for Parmesan.
Serve with a butter and sage sauce.
Planning a visit to Menton, then pop into Pasta Piemonte, 34 Rue Partouneaux, Menton.
The Fête du Citron runs over two weeks every February and takes a different them each year. This year’s Festival the town swayed to the rhythm Bollywood, with amazing sculptures, parades, bands and parties celebrating the colourful, dynamic cinematic art of the India. For more about the festival click here. 2018’s celebration runs from Sunday, February 17 until Sunday, March 4.