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Taking good food slowly
IL TIMBALLO is a legendary dish; a dish first made for the Sicilian aristocracy - and one that had a starring role in the film Big Night Out.

Different types of par-boiled pasta are tossed in three rich sauces then multi-layered with various cheeses, cured meats and types of sausage, the whole encased in a dome of pastry, then baked.

So time consuming and complex is the preparation, the dish has become an endangered species.

Making five of them kept Filippo Volpe in his kitchen for three whole days, so this is clearly the definitive dish for the man who founded Hertfordshire branch of the Slow Food movement nine months ago!

"It really is an amazing thing, quite fantastic," says Filippo, though he does admit that the gargantuan task of producing enough to feed 40 members at a Sicilian feast he gave on December 28 quite over shadowed his Christmas.

Actually, it is not called a branch but a 'convivium', perfect word to describe a convivial group who like nothing better than to converse whilst consuming fabulous food and fine wine.

They are members of a movement which began in Italy in 1989 as a reaction to the fast food culture "which degrades and standardises flavour". They support the sort of artisan producers who take the time and finest ingredients to create superb products, preserving regional specialities.

So on December 28 Filippo also served pane nero, a black bread made in Castelvetrano, the village where he was born.

"I ordered it and it arrived seven days later, then I froze it, de-frosted it for the supper, and on January 3 it was still nice and soft. It is made with fermented dough worked by hand for a very long time using a quite extraordinary flour," he said.

The olives he served were of a single variety, Nocellara del Belice, grown only in the valley of the river Belice, the caponata was produced from aubergines fried in virgin oil from these self same olives, its sauce made from proper, fresh ingredients, then left to stand for 24 hours, the sun-dried tomatoes ripened in the sun of the Eolian Islands...you get the picture.

Filippo is a biologist who came over from Sicily 11 years ago. As a lover of find food and good company, he decided to launch the Herts convivium as a hobby which has also helped his family make friends in the village of Rushden where they live.

"There are now 65,000 members of Slow Food worldwide, and about 1,000 in this country, with between 70 and 80 in Herts," he said.

They also like to encourage children to appreciate food that is not mass-produced burgers. Ten joined his own young son and daughter as a gnocchi making session in his kitchen.

Over the past few months he has held a blind tasting of pasta where diners had a chance to taste the difference between mass produced pasta, and pasta Filippo made himself, tastings of British farmhouse cheeses and smoked fish from a craft producer in Lowestoft.

In August he gave a slow dinner starting with freshly made spaghetti with cured mullet roe followed by salt crusted wild sea bass then home-made ice cream. He also imports Sicilian wines including the gorgeous pale gold sparkling Moscato Saracco he gave me to taste.

More info on Slow Food is on their website www.slowfood.com, and on the Hertfordshire convivium from Filippo at or .

3:57pmWednesday13thMarch2002

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