Leo Gelsomino from Melbourne's Lello Pasta Bar is the only Australian chef to have been taught how to create the famous secret 'threads of God' pasta from Sardinia, off the west coast of mainland Italy.
For Leo Gelsomino, the head chef at Melbourne's Lello Pasta Bar, making pasta is not just a job. It's a spiritual experience, bestowed upon him as a child when his Calabrian grandmother, mother and aunties passed on the family's secret to sacredly mixing flour and water to form symbolic pasta shapes.
Over the years, Gelsomino entertained his pasta-making obsession by researching culinary techniques and travelling to Italy to learn the stories behind regional pasta varieties.
But for Gelsomino, there remained one elusive pasta technique: the famous su filindeu, a Sardinian pasta method kept secret by a bloodline of women for more than 300 years.
That is, until now. This month, Gelsomino flew to Sardinia to participate in a su filindeu masterclass in the town of Lula with four Italian chefs. The masterclass, held by La Cucina Delle Matriarche – an organisation charged with the responsibility of preserving culture - was offered to outsiders like Gelsomino to ensure the secret pasta tradition lives on.
"Getting accepted into the masterclass was a bit like getting a Willy Wonka golden ticket," says Gelsomino, the only Australian chef in the masterclass. "I was a bit anxious about whether I could learn the technique well. But I always told myself, if I can learn this, I can learn anything related to pasta."
Su filindeu, known locally as the 'threads of God', is a delicate pasta variety that's even thinner than angel hair pasta. It's made by hand into 256 perfectly even strands, which are stretched into needle-thin threads and woven into an intricate net.
"The pasta looks like fine threads of textural tapestry. There are five ladies who are the keepers of the recipe. One of these five women taught us how to make it. She didn't really give much instructions, she just said 'start' and 'follow me'. And that was pretty much it: we just watched her and copied what she did."
The traditional family recipe, which has been handed down over multiple generations of females in a single Sardinian family, has been argued to be the most difficult pasta in the world to conquer. The method had been a mystery that established chefs like Jamie Oliver and Barilla pasta makers have tried to discover but failed.
Yet Gelsomino insists there's no actual secret to making su filindeu.
The ingredients are basic: local, ancient semolina called Senatore Cappelli durum wheat, water and salt. The pasta is traditionally served steeped in a sheep's broth made from sheep bones and meat. A large helping of local, slightly acidic pecorino cheese is added just before the broth has finished cooking. And that's pretty much it.
While the recipe sounds simple enough, there is a trick. It seems that successful chefs must possess a rare intuition that enables them to "feel the pasta": a skill that the females in Gelsomino's family passed down to him in his youth.
"I've always been able to connect with making bread and pasta – it's almost spiritual, mixing water and flour. Learning this rare pasta technique is about sensing the dough. If you can read the dough and know when to stretch and pull it, then that you've uncovered the secret. And that comes with practice."
Tasting su filindeu is also one of the world's most rare experiences. Tradition dictates that religious pilgrims who have trekked 33 kilometres by foot or horseback from the city of Nuoro to the remote village of Lula for the Catholic feast of San Francesco should be among the only outsiders to be fed this pasta.
Gelsomino was also lucky enough to taste the dish that's near impossible to make during his masterclass.
"It was a really cold day that day and I got to eat this broth with the ancient pasta while sitting in front of this beautiful fireplace," he says. "The pasta texture was firm but silky and small. Because it got cooked in the broth it absorbed all the flavour. It was tasty and very healing."
The Melbourne chef has been practicing making su filindeu pasta since he returned to Australia. While he says his technique is not yet perfect, it's getting close and he won't stop until he masters it.
"I love pasta and I think it's very important for people in Australia to know how this kind of rare pasta tastes...Once I master it, I will have a special night at Lello to showcase it. It will be my honour to carry on the tradition of su filindeu."
As we were sailing into St Helens, a couple of scruffy fellas in a bashed-up tinnie, motored up alongside us and handed up a wet hessian sack before speeding off again. It was full of fresh Venerupis clams they had dived up that morning. That night, I cooked the boys this simple pasta dish. Thanks, scruffy fellas!