Homegrown brands we love: Cacio e Pepe

How a trip to Italy led to the birth of Mumbai’s first artisanal pasta brand, Cacio e Pepe.
There's something sublime about handmade pasta. Image: shutterstock.
There’s something sublime about handmade pasta. Image: Shutterstock.

Often, we find ourselves questioning the cogency of the work culture we humans have created for ourselves. The structured occupational construct that we live in, can sometimes lead to feelings of creative lassitude and a lack of self-efficacy for many. Apeksha Agarwal, a former filmmaker and producer, also succumbed to work-triggered ennui in 2017, when she found herself questioning her professional choices. “I had started my own production company, but I wasn’t very happy with what I was doing. It was an in-between phase, where I felt the need for something new, but I was not quite sure what it should be.” Hence Agarwal, eager for change, decided to indulge in an activity familiar to her — travel. She embarked on an impromptu trip to Italy for six weeks. The following year her home-grown brand, Cacio e Pepe, was born.

Cacio e Pepe, Mumbai’s first artisanal pasta brand, was launched in February 2018, at a time when nobody else was offering fresh handmade pasta for take away or home delivery in the city, just yet. Located in Bandra West, the brand offers a wide gamut of fresh handmade pasta shapes, pasta sauces, Italian breads and the occasional dolce.

Touring the land of pasta

Cacio e Pepe was born out of Apeksha’s love for making pasta, which she discovered in Italy. She had the advantage of learning the inner details of Italian cuisine as she was taught by locals themselves, often in their very own homes. As Apeksha traipsed across the land of pasta, her culinary fervour only grew with each experience.

Her first stop was Tuscany. “I signed up for some cooking sessions at an experiential cooking school, which was located at a vineyard. It wasn’t a professional cooking school, but it was sort of a five-day long retreat in Tuscany, with food, wine and cooking classes every day.” Agarwal stayed with a family friend for around two weeks whilst in Tuscany. Here, she got a taste of Italian lifestyle, for the first time. “I felt completely at home with Italian culture, lifestyle and food, and especially, how they celebrate with food. I learned about how Italians are particular about where their produce comes from. They also prefer simplicity in their food. For them, the focus is on using seasonal ingredients, and what gets grown in each month of the year is very specific and well defined”.

Apeksha was greeted by serendipity down the pathways of the many Italian places she stayed in, including Tuscany, Florence, Cinque Terre (Liguria), Bologna, Modena, Parma, Naples, Rome, Puglia, Palermo (Sicily), Venice, Milan and Trieste, a port city.  She did not visit the country with the intent of returning with a business idea. Instead, the idea came to her organically and continued to grow on her as she spent a prolonged period of time revelling in Italy’s culinary scene.

The use of hands to combine flour, water and sometimes egg, to make fresh pasta, as well as the direct interaction with ingredients and food, became therapeutic for Apeksha. “We’ve gotten used to the idea of convenience food and buying whatever is out there. In Italy, I was reintroduced to the concept of actually using fresh produce and intentional eating. Using my hands, almost like a child, was a blissful experience. It reminded me of how we grow pickles in India seasonally, which is a very hands-on activity too. There was so much to learn in Italy, especially since the cuisine varies in different parts of the country.”

Interacting with Nonnas in Italy

Apeksha had many chances to interact with nonnas (grandmothers) in Italy, who are known to hold the secrets and traditional techniques to making the perfect pasta. “My friends in Bologna and Tuscany introduced me to Italian nonnas. In Puglia, I took a class with a nonna, who taught me how to make Orecchiette, a hand-made ear-shaped pasta. It is made from an eggless semolina-based dough, and they make the shape using just a knife. It is made of pure hand-kneaded dough and no machines are involved. Orecchiette is served in a simple manner with a local sauce and seasonal vegetables, essentially.”

Puglia is also the region where Bari focaccia bread comes from. Back at home, Apeksha incorporated focaccia bread on the Cacio e Pepe menu, in the form of a unique sourdough bread, which is a thicker version of the classic Genovese focaccia and the Romano pizza combined. Cacio e Pepe’s hybrid version, which is made sans any yeast, is embedded with cloves of garlic and makes for a good accompaniment for their pastas, especially when dunked in a rich tomato soup or the like.

Why is the brand called Cacio e Pepe?

The brand shares its name with one of Italy’s most ancient Roman pasta dishes, believed to date back centuries. “The first time I tasted this dish was in Rome and I was blown away because it was just cheese, pepper and pasta. And it was so incredible!” The flawless amalgam of merely three ingredients that were used to make Cacio e Pepe stayed with Apeksha long after. For her, it was one specific ingredient that did the trick. “It was of course, the Pecorino Romano cheese. It was just so unique, apart from the chef’s preparation and the technique involved, which also played an important part in making the pasta delicious. Of course, you could add five more ingredients and it might become a really tasty dish. But I prefer to have distinct flavours in each of my pasta dishes so that I get to taste every little thing.” This minimalistic philosophy is what Apeksha tries to incorporate into her own pasta sauces as well.

Eat, learn, repeat

Apeksha’s journey across Italy was nothing short of a prolonged food trail, which led to new learnings every other day. “The cuisine is different in Northern Italy and in Southern Italy. Northern Italy is known to be the richer part of the country and a lot of the dishes in this region are meat based and egg based. Even the fresh pasta over there has egg in its dough and that’s how fresh pasta is served in most of Northern Italy, specifically Bologna, where pastas like Tagliatelle and Tortellini were born. It’s because they had plenty of plush farms and dairies, plus it was generally a more educated and rich part of the country. Hence, their food was also richer.”

Contrastingly, Southern Italy is known for its Cucina Povera dishes, or peasant cuisine. The rural cuisine was created by the poor Italian farmers who could not afford to cook elaborate meals. For instance, Tuscan dishes like Panzanella, which is essentially a stale bread salad, is a Cucina Povera dish. “Farmers would take a Panzanella to work. It was a filling meal because it was stale bread soaked in vinegar, with added fresh summer tomatoes. When they would go out to the farm, it would keep them full and bring down their body temperature, since it can get really hot in the summer.”

Puglia, which is in Southern Italy, also has a lot of Cucina Povera meals, one of the iconic ones being a pasta dough made out of grana arso, which is burnt wheat grain. “Once all the fields were burned, and before the new sowing season began, farmers would take some of the burnt crop home and mix it in fresh flour to create a dough made of burnt wheat.” This lent a distinct flavour to the palate, though it was first and foremost a way for the farmers to fill their bellies. “Puglia also uses lots of vegetables in its food. Most of southern Italian pasta has no egg either. They have lots of vegetarian food, a variety of fresh antipasti plates, lots of fresh cheese, but not so much meat. A vegetarian cannot go hungry in this country. However, they do have plenty of seafood because there’s a long coastline.”

What you may not know about Italian cuisine

Apeksha soon learned that the Italians follow certain rules for food that are not flouted under any circumstances. “A spinach ricotta ravioli is never served with a sauce. It just has butter, sage and Parmigiano cheese, so that you can taste every single ingredient. In Italy it’s all about being subtle and creating distinct flavours. If the dish is about tomatoes, then that’s what you should be able to taste.”

At Cacio e Pepe, Apeksha adheres to this minimalistic approach and offers no-nonsense sauces, from a Pesto Genovese to a basic Burro e Salvia, which is a mixture of unsalted butter and sage.

Apeksha also realised that there are many misconceptions people have about Italian food. “I grew up believing that Italian food was just heavy on onion and garlic and a lot of people think along these lines too. But it’s not the truth. Actually, they use garlic very sparingly. Some dishes, of course, are garlic centric, but not all the dishes. They don’t put garlic in everything and even when they use garlic, they usually use one clove just to infuse the flavour of the olive oil.” Apeksha feels garlic is an ingredient that can easily overpower a dish and hence, it is best used in a miserly fashion to keep the subtlety of the food intact. “I have grown to learn how to appreciate a cuisine in its raw form, and to respect it. Nothing tells you the story of a dish more than that.”

Pairing pastas with the correct sauce is also a much-overlooked aspect, which Apeksha admits she learned via sheer experience. The more she ate local Italian pasta, the more she understood how to pair it correctly with a sauce.

For instance, she grasped that in Liguria’s Pesto Genovese, pepper cannot be used. “It’s such a small ingredient, but the Italians are quite strict about it. Some things point to tradition and are best left unquestioned!” Similarly, cheese is seldom paired with seafood dishes. “There are a few, but it’s rare. Chicken and pasta is also rare. It’s mostly home-bred meat that’s used, including a lot of beef and pork.” Ultimately, the dish uses local ingredients found in the area itself, which makes it easier to prepare and offers an element of freshness to the food.

Some other aspects of Italian cuisine that not many may be aware of, includes the sparse use of sauce in their pasta dishes. “Their dishes are not heavily sauced. They use just enough sauce to coat the pasta. The dish is essentially pasta, with a bit of sauce and not vice-versa. Over-sauced pasta is considered a sin in Italy!” Overcooked pasta is another pet peeve for Italians. “A chef in Florence told me that pasta must be cooked Al dente, which means it is boiled to a certain point, before it is completely cooked. He explained that we are not infants and we have teeth to chew and when you bite into something, your brain registers that interaction of the teeth with the food. When you don’t have that bite, the brain does not register the food. It makes you think about what you eat.”

Pasta shapes offered by Cacio e Pepe

The home-grown business offers different types of pastas, some fresh and others dried. The menu changes on a weekly basis, yet a few classic ones are repeated often. Gnocchi, ravioli, Tagliatelle and Rigatoni are some of the more commonly known shapes that they offer. They also have a range of lesser-known pastas, such as Pansotti, Bucatini and Gigli. Seasonal ingredients are sometimes incorporated in their pasta dough, such as beetroot and spinach.

On the Cacio e Pepe website, customers are recommended to use certain sauces with specific pastas. For instance, they suggest pairing the Sugo di pomodoro, a slow cooked tomato-basil sauce, with rigatoni, bucatini or gnocchi. The website also lists instructions on how to cook or boil the pasta, and guides customers on how to store it once used.

For Apeksha, Cacio e Pepe is a labour of love, passion and first-hand experience. Her team is small and has been trained by her personally, and her family pitches in occasionally on busy weekends. Apeksha aims to start a small grocery shop or sorts one day, which will offer authentic Italian ingredients for people to buy for their home kitchens. “We want to give people the opportunity to cook a family meal together. It is an enjoyable experience and very much a part of Italian culture.”  

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