sip and sauce

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A story that isn’t about sauce.

Last night a new friend invited me over for dinner. She had also invited another mutual friend who now lives in the US so I’d taken a bottle of sparkling wine chosen from the scant selection in the fridge in my local wine shop before grabbing a taxi. Not a bottle I would have usually picked, but I hoped it would be good. My friend’s husband opened the bottle as we stood on their balcony on a sultry and still July evening in Rome, he poured, we raised glasses and drank.

The wine was odd, not terrible, just odd, sort of sour! Or was it the fact I had cleaned my teeth not long before? I took another sip hoping it would taste different, which it didn’t. I tried combining it with a toasted almond, then tasted again.

As I said, they are new friends with whom I feel comfortable, but not enough to say ‘I think this is a bit odd, lets ditch it and open another bottle.‘ I took another sip, hoping my persistence would improve things (it didn’t) by which point it felt too late to comment as everyone else was drinking so to do so would question their taste buds. Or where they merely drinking politely thinking this is odd and wondering why the person who brought the bottle isn’t saying anything? Then again maybe it was the particularly minty toothpaste?  In short, in the shortest time I completed a half marathon of anxiety and ate almost the entire bowl of almonds.

We sat down and my anxiety and the taste of the sparking wine ebbed away with each sip of nice red in easy company. The smell of dinner was as enticing as you’d hope, ‘It’s beef braised in red wine’ said my friend. ‘Made with meat from a new butcher’ so she hoped it was good. It was, especially with the pilaf of rice and mushroom and slender green beans. My friend however, picking up the anxiety baton I had dropped, was disappointed. ‘It was tough‘. Everyone was too busy eating to reply. ‘It’s tough‘ she said again, this time posed as a question. ‘It was firm’ was the answer.’ ‘But extremely tasty.‘ Plates were handed back for seconds but even that didn’t convince the cook who was quiet until eventually conversation and wine drew her back in. Salad, pudding, coffee, amaro and more conversation followed. It was a good night and I left late liking my new friend even more than when I’d arrived.

This morning as I waited for the coffee to gurgle out of the moka, my phone beeped with a message asking me about the name of book I’d mentioned and apologizing for the beef again. First I drank my coffee, each sip chipping away at my not unpleasant amaro head, then I wrote back to tell her the beef was firm but damn tasty and that the name of the book – a favorite – was Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking.

Possibly the ideal book given the circumstances and our short relay of anxiety the night before. ‘Home Cooking’ is the antidote to most food writing malarkey that tells us things should be perfect and effortless and the hostesses unflappable, a funny and wise collection of kitchen essays that touch on the human, therefore imperfect, nature of home cooking. It is a book about ordinary delights, but also fiascos and disappointments; ingredients that don’t behave, dishes that don’t turn out as they should, dinners we cook for friends that we wish were different, the sour and the tough if you like, which others might not have thought was sour or tough at all.

As I tapped the old grounds out of the coffee pot into the bin and watched most of them fall on the floor, refilled the pot and put it back on the stove, I had another wave of anxiety about the wine (I hold onto anxiety in the way some people hold grudges: I still cringe about the homemade humus with a hair in it I took to a dinner in about 1998). There was only one thing for it; have a gin and tonic! Unfortunateley it was nine in the morning! So I did the next best thing, I planted my son in front of a video, poured my third coffee and sat on the sofa to read Laurie Colwin.

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The sauce that has nothing to do with the story.

A summer sauce for when good flavoursome tomatoes are plentiful and cheap (ish). Peeling the tomatoes might sound a bit of a faff, which it is, but only for a few minutes and it is undoubtedly worth it. Having peeled and roughly chopped the tomatoes you cook them in lots of garlic scented olive oil until any extra water has evaporated away and you have rich, sauce that clings insistently to the pasta and your child’s face. It is one of my hands down favorite things to eat.

Fresh tomato sauce for with spaghetti or penne

Peel a kilogram of flavoursome tomatoes by plunging them into boiling water for a minute, then cold water for another 30 seconds at which point the skins should slip away easily. Cut away any hard-core or hard white flesh, then chop the tomatoes into rough pieces, ideally over a plate to catch any juices.

In a large frying pan, warm 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and a peeled squashed garlic clove over a modest flame until the smell of the garlic rises up from the pan (do not let it burn). Add the tomatoes and a big pinch of salt and stir. Let sauce simmer for 10 – 20 minutes or until – with some of the water evaporated – the sauce is thick and saucy. Add a few torn basil leaves, stir and then remove from the heat.

For four people, cook 500 g of spaghetti in fast boiling well-salted water until al dente, drain and mix with the sauce (which you can warm gently if a significant amount of time has passed since you made it) and serve immediately.

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I am, as many of you know, writing a book, which is why I am here so intermittently. We are about to start the editing process and work on design, by October I should be back each week. Meanwhile I am posting on Instagram and continue to miss you more than you miss me. Rachel.

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on red and white in Sicily

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There is a photograph in one of the rooms at Case Vecchie that I keep thinking about. It is of the late Anna Tasca Lanza making estratto di pomodoro, tomato extract, using her hands to spread the bright red sauce onto a door-sized wooden board that will then sit in the August sun until it dries and reduces into a concentrated paste. There are countless other pictures of Anna around the house, some with her family, others of her giving cooking demonstrations or lessons, always elegant and aristocratic, her hair swept into a flawless bun. It is the estratto picture however that lingers in my mind, the one in which she is captured wearing a yellow and orange dress, straw hat and deep easy smile, her hands stained with tomato.

Fabrizia, Anna’s only daughter, used some of last years estratto in the braised rabbit she cooked for supper on our second night at Regaleali. We tasted the dark-red concentrate straight from the jar, deeply flavored with an almost sunburnt sweetness it was truly the essence of tomatoes grown in fertile soil and then dried under the Sicilian sun, you could say the essence of Sicily itself. Then while the Rabbit simmered and with the taste of the estratto still discernible, I crossed the courtyard to look at the picture of Anna again.

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Like many before me, I fell in love with Sicily the first time I visited nearly ten years ago. In Rome I fell in love with a Sicilian called Vincenzo who laughed at my romanticism and idealism about the Island much of his family had left 25 years before, but at the same time understood and promised we would return one day. In the meantime we visit, usually because Vincenzo and his band are playing a concert or for a family celebration. Or on this occasion because of serendipity, a conversation struck up at an airport with a young woman called Lena who was working with Fabrizia who in turn invited me to spend four days at her house and cooking school at Regaleali near Vallelunga about 90 minutes from Palermo.

Once you leave the autostrada, the uneven road that leads to Regaleali curves through landscape that grabs your breath – golden fields of wheat, hillsides of gnarled vines, olive trees and pasture dotted with sheep, all fringed with a tangle of wild flowers, herbs and fennel. At times the landscape seems soft and tamed, at others impenetrable and utterly wild; it is clear even to naive eyes like mine this beautiful, fertile land is not easy land. The house and cooking school are in Case Vecchie one of the most handsome stone buildings on the estate that sits on a hill. The blue gates were open when we arrived allowing us the first glimpse of the cobbled courtyard the cracks of which are filled with matted camomile and wild herbs. Over the next few days we would spend hours in the courtyard  choosing our spot according to the position of the sun, our morning coffee finished at the table in the right hand corner, aperitivi at the table in the cove, dinner at a table in another corner. My Luca, the youngest and noisiest member of our group, ran tirelessly across the cobbles shouting then tangling himself in the aprons Giovanna had hung on the corner washing line. Wherever you sat the smell of camomile curled from the ground and the scent of mint lingered in the air.

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When we weren’t in the courtyard we were mostly in the kitchen, either around the stove watching or helping Fabrizia cook or sitting at the square table that dominated the end of the room. When not in the courtyard or kitchen, I was in the garden started by Anna and now continued with all-consuming passion by Fabrizia. It is an enchanting place, a scented maze of flowers, particularly roses, clouds of white blossom, great deep clumps of lavender, mint and sage, fruit trees and an extensive vegetable patch. The garden, like the surrounding land, is both soft and hard, tender flowers growing in formidable soil which Fabrizia uses to her advantage cultivating particular plants and most notably a variety of tomatoes that are never watered forcing their roots to work hard at getting water from the deep. Enormous cactus-like fico d’india with their prickles and orange-red fruit juxtapose roses grown from English seeds the packets of which are pinned to a notice board in the shed. Butterflies flutter from plant to herb. One morning Luca and I went onto the garden at 6 30 and lay in the hammock listening to the cockerel and eating strawberries while reading the same story book about a lazy ant 12 times.

I live with a Sicilian and have spent enough time in Sicily to understand a little about its food, this however was scant preparation for the ingredients we were to touch, smell and eat, most of them grown on the estate, others sourced from all over the island. It began in the morning with the 8 or so jams made with fruit from the garden, lemon, Tarocco orange, grapefruit – each one more delicious and opinionated than the last. There was also fig and lip staining mulberry jam that we stirred into fresh yogurt. Around the kitchen were bowls of just picked lemons, cherries and apricots, bottles of olive oil, jars of estratto, the fattest anchovies I have ever seen, onions, garlic, capers and caper berries, bunches of mint and oregano, each thing seemingly more intensely flavored than the next, ingredients that tasted so brashly and boldly as they should it was unnerving. One afternoon Fabrizia, Lauren, Lou, David and Gabriella stood chopping onion, garlic and mint and grating orange zest while I,  too stupidly shy to join such confident hands, just let the scent rush at me in the same way Luca does, pure and uninhibited. On another occasion the same group were rolling pastry, slicing peaches and crumbling purple tinged pistachio nuts for tarts, words and movements moving across the work surface.

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As intense as the flavors were the colours: burnt red, fleshy pink, sunflower yellow, inky purple, every conceivable shade of green and the purest white in the form of ricotta di pecora. Ricotta which meant I finally understood what Vincenzo is imagining when he talks about the ricotta or cavagna they would collect from the local shepherd when he was a boy in southern Sicily, curds so soft and gentle they could almost be drunk.

Filippo Privitera milks his 400 sheep by hand twice a day in order to make pecorino cheese. The by-product of his cheese making is cloudy white whey which is then re-heated with rennet until it curdles and coagulates into ricotta. We stood in a white tiled room for about an hour, the steam rising from the pot heated by burning olive stones, Filippo stirring with such ordinary calm it was hypnotic. It was of course part show for us, but a genuine one that takes place every single day. Filippo’s five-year old son insisted on staying and as the soft, ethereal ricotta wobbled on the plate he opened his mouth like a cheeky little bird and his mother spooned some in. In that moment I saw Vincenzo aged 5 on his grandparents farm, then as I tasted the milky curds, ambrosial yet ordinary goodness I understood what he imagined when he spoke about the ricotta of his childhood.

We brought ricotta back for lunch along with beans with anchovies and breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, salami, and warm potato salad with mint. That night we sat in the courtyard and ate another sicilian specialty panelle, fritters make from chickpea flour thickened into a paste, smeared onto a plate to set into a pliable disc, sliced into wedges and deep-fried. After there was rabbit braised with wine, estratto and finished with grape must syrup, beside it hand rolled cuscus scented with mint. We finished with caramel and pine nut ice-cream made by David, a ricotta and lemon cake by Pille and sweet wine.

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Something was up though. Amongst all the cooking and the talking there was a rumble. A rumble of activity and a calm rush as members of the family and locals who work on the estate crisscrossed the courtyard with sacks, piles, poles and great rolls of thick fabric. occasionally we would catch a sound from the fields behind the house dig, thud, grind?  Soon the kitchen joined in too and huge pans of rice, lentils and chickpeas steamed the windows, chicken was roasted and rolled, ricotta whipped, all preparations for the lunch.

On saturday at 1 after panelle and wine in the courtyard we walked through the farm to a single table with a white cloth laid for 160 that cut through a field of vines and vegetables. At about 1:30 we ate a lunch to celebrate 25 years of the cooking school, the work sourcing ingredients Anna began and Fabrizia continues and the collaboration between the different parts of the Tasca family. The heat broke at one point and it rained for a few minutes, puttering on the fabric canopy above our heads. At the same time the light faded sharpening colours, textures and the edges of the hills surrounding us making them darkly beautiful until the sun reappeared as bright as ever. On such big occasions you focus on the detail: the handmade plate we could take home, the fact the table was flanked by a row of fantastic cabbages, the hum and clink made by 160 people, the hair of the man across the table, Fabrizia’s green dress, the fact the wine tasted like wild asparagus, the sweetest tomatoes, chestnut like lentils, plump rice and almond pudding, the fact Luca managed to eat three cannoli.

Back in Rome I have been telling Vincenzo about the red and the white, about the swordfish baked with mint and garlic, pasta with sage, the baked pasta with aubergine, the majestic cassata Fabrizia made that I know he would have liked so much. In turn he talked about his grandfather’s farm in southern Sicily, a very different world, harder and poorer but a world that shares the same riches: fertile earth, sun, flavors, essence, traditions, rot, cracks, sweat and the bleeding red estratto and pure white ricotta I had tasted over the four days. I told him we were going to live in Sicily, ‘Which Sicily’ he asked, then laughed and agreed.

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And so back to the picture of Anna making the estratto, the picture of a woman from an aristocratic family who was only expected to be beautiful, marry well, have children and certainly not work. A picture of a woman who in her fifties surprised her family by creating a cooking school that celebrated traditional Sicilian cooking, traveled the world, planted a garden, wrote books about wild flowers and herbs and joyfully smeared estratto on a wooden table.

Now to a picture of Fabrizia in her garden checking her plants or better still in her garden shed amongst the seedings, the daughter who single-mindedly built a life far from Sicily as an art historian, but then realized she needed to return home 25 years later to work alongside her mother and eventually take over the school. An extraordinary woman who is embodying the values of her mother while bringing her own to a unique cooking school: her resourceful determination to protect and share Sicily’s reservoir of taste and traditions, a belief in deep edible education and to reinvest in the land and people, an ability to make cooking feel both poetic and practical and the above all the desire to bring people together at the table to eat, drink and talk.

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Which brings us to the recipe, my interpretation of the one of the puddings we ate on Saturday sitting at a long table cutting through a field; an apricot and pistachio nut tart made with apricots in light syrup from Leonforte and pistachio nuts from Bronte. The simplest sort of tart, sweet short crust, brushed generously with jam or marmalade, topped with apricots in syrup and chopped nuts. You could also use peaches and make small tarts in individual tins as Fabrizia did.

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Apricot or peach and pistachio tart 

  • 120 g plain flour
  • 60 g butter
  • 30 g fine sugar
  • a small egg
  • some peach or apricot jam or orange marmalade
  • 120 g tinned or jarred apricots or peaches in light syrup
  • a handful of pistachio nuts

Butter and flour a small tart tin. Set the oven to 180°

Make the pastry by rubbing together the flour and diced butter until they resemble fine bead crumbs. Add the sugar and the egg and then use your hands to bring the ingredients together into a consistent ball. Wrap the dough in cling film and put it in the fridge to chill for half an hour or so.

On a floured surface roll the dough into a circle a little larger than your tin. Lift the dough into the tin, press gently into the corners and then prick the base with a fork. Spread a little jam on the pastry, cut the apricots into quarters and arrange them on the jam, sprinkle with chopped pistachio and  put the tart on a baking tray and into the oven for about 25 minutes. Let the tart cool and the jam set firm again before serving.

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Thank you Fabrizia, Gianni, Costanza and the Tasca Family, Giovanna, Pompeo, Salvatores, Guiseppe, Lauren, Lou, Peggy and the women in the kitchen and men and women who work on the land. Thanks too to David, Pille, Johanna, Elizabeth and Domenico, Marrick and my mum who came to look after Luca so I could concentrate and he too could eat cannoli. The project archiving Sicilian food traditions is called The sacred flavors of sicily. The cooking school is called Anna Tasca Lanza and this is a magnolia.

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Filed under almonds, apricots, chickpea flour, In praise of, pies and tarts, Puddings, Rachel's Diary, recipes, ricotta, Sicily, supper dishes

an inch of purple

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There is always a chance it will explode‘  Gabriella said almost smiling, suggesting that this was all part of the process, that the possibility of cherries, wine and sugar seeping between the terra-cotta tiles and dripping from her roof was a risk she was prepared to take. We were in Abruzzo, sitting at Gabriella and Mario’s table after a very long, very good dinner at their agriturismo in the hills near Loreto Aprutino, the kind of dinner that renews your faith in food, before us a small glass of inky-purple liquid. ‘Sour cherries, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and sugar are macerated in a large, teardrop shaped glass bottle that sits on the roof in high summer for 40 days and 40 nights‘ Gabriella explained. As we tried not to slide under the table, she talked about the science or magic of the process, how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. Or at least it should, hence the possible, if extremely rare, explosion. It crossed my mind I should be concentrating more, taking notes even, but that thought slipped away as easily as the lip staining elixir slipped down my throat. The taste lingered, I wondered what Gabriella did with the cherries seeped in wine, how they got the bottle on the roof, how they got the cherries out of the bottle, if we could have another glass?

Nine months later in Rome the first of the cherries, some crimson, others deep purple, are splattering the market with colour. We have been eating them by the kilo, greedily, spitting stones into our fists and grabbing another handful in a sort of cherry race. Then on Sunday at the small but great farmers market in the old slaughterhouse I found the first of the sour cherries, paler than usual, sweet as much as sour, reminiscent of almonds and almost the wrong side of perfect ripeness. They spent the night in the colander while I changed my mind about what to do with them which meant by the following morning there was no time to think or waste. I put them in a pan along with a few sweet cherries too, bay leaves, big lazy curls of lemon peel, some sugar and then let it all bubble into a fragrant, syrupy, shirt staining stew.

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I like cherries cooked in this way with plain yogurt or creme fraiche, something so sweet and aromatic needs a sharp and plain partner, otherwise it is all too cloying. Both Luca and Vincenzo turned their nose up at the offer of fruit for breakfast, which was a relief, more for me. Then last night, I spooned a few cherries and their syrup into my last inch of red wine, which happened to be Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and convinced Vincenzo to do the same. Then rather than continuing our argument disguised as a discussion we talked about Abruzzo and that small glass of inky elixir. Granted ours was hardly Gabriella’s cherry and wine alchemy, but it was reminiscent of it, the poached cherries and syrup mingling with the bold wine into some thing between a pudding and a liquer. It was a dark, sweet, boozy and fragrant finish a meal, the sort of finish I like best.

I am going to make these cherries the next time we have friends over for supper and then get people to put them in their wine‘ I said, at which Vincenzo rolled his eyes so intently they almost disappeared into his head. So we both had another inch of wine, another spoonful of cherries, decided to go back to Abruzzo this autumn, forget about the argument and any plans for supper guests until Luca isn’t a terrible toddler and I have finished the book, cleared up and went to fall asleep in front of the telly.

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Poached cherries with lemon and bay leaves (which you can put in wine if you like)

When I first wrote this post there was no recipe as it had all been so flippant and the nature of the recipe is one of tasting and judging by eye. However I have now added this, which is still imprecise, which I hope you will forgive me for. The amount of sugar here depends on the cherries and your taste. For a mixture of sweet and sour cherries I use about 150 – 200g of sugar. I suggest adding 100 g for every kg but then tasting and adding more if you feel it needs it. Cooking times depends: you want to fruit to be soft and the syrup full-bodied. You do not need to add more liquid as the cherries have enough of their own.

  • 1 kg cherries ideally a mixture of sour and sweet cherries but just sweet will do
  • 4 or 5 strips of lemon peel with as little white pith as possible
  • sugar to taste
  • 3 bay leaves

Pit the cherries and then put them in a pan with the rest of the ingredients and sit over a low flame, stir until the sugar has dissolved and the cherries released plentiful juice and then simmer for 5 – 8 minutes or so or until the cherries are soft and the syrup richly flavored – Taste after about 3 minutes and add more sugar if necessary. Some people then remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and then reduce the syrup until it is thick before uniting the two again in a jar. I don’t do this. Serve with plain thick yogurt, mascarpone, quark, over chocolate cake or into the end of your wine. Keep in a jar in the fridge.

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Filed under cherries, fruit, In praise of, jams and preserves, wine

on bread

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My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, loved bread and butter. She was also particular about how to unwrap and then re-wrap the foil or waxed paper, after all butter wrappers are not just for keeping butter safe, later they can be used for smearing the last bit of butter on a tin or pie plate. Alice would have tutted at the mess captured in the picture above. Actually I want to tut at the mess I made of the pack above. I even considered changing the picture, until I realized it was a good place to start because it is precisely this sort of banal, badly opened detail that can stir a thought or memory that then tumbles like a domino into more memories and suddenly bread and butter is so much more than just bread and butter.

After this picture was taken I called my Dad to ask something for my book and the conversation turned to bread and butter, of which my dad is very fond too. I told him the wrapper had made me think of Alice and he told me that when he was a boy there was a plate of buttered bread on the table at every meal. He also reminded me that on my Mum’s side of the family Alice’s sister May used to butter the end of the loaf before cutting the slice. As he spoke, a memory emerged of Auntie May, short and strong, in the kitchen in my Granny’s pub, buttering the end of a white loaf. This memory of May then rolled into one of uncle Colin in about 1980, so when he was 23, more or less the age he remains in our minds as he died not long after. In this memory Colin, still in his dressing gown his fringe hiding his eyes, strolls as if to music into the kitchen in search of strong tea and a bacon sandwich. There is Alice in the kitchen too, frying back bacon to be sandwiched between slices of bread, every now and then casting exasperated but adoring glances at her youngest son. While the bacon fries, Colin lights a cigarette and May chases him out of the kitchen with a pair of kitchen tongs, which we, his young nieces and nephew think hilarious. Colin always made us laugh. Now the memories are spreading like soft butter on bread, of Colin and the unbearably sad things to come, so I think about the bacon butties eaten in the kitchen of the Gardeners Arms pub and the taste of the bread that was put in the empty pan to soak up the bacon fat. I think about Colin putting another coin in the pub Juke box, Just take those old records off the shelf I sit and listen to ‘em by m’self. Fat memories.

Now in Rome I’m playing a game of association Bread and butter, bread and flora margarine, bread and bacon fat, bread and drippingBread and olive oil‘ Vincenzo says with the knowing glint in his eye that drives me mad. ‘Yes yes, of course bread and olive oil is delicious but I am thinking about EnglandNow, where was I? Bread and bacon fat, bread and dripping from the sunday roast, bread and bone marrow’. Bone marrow, the creamy heart of  the bone that has been roasted just long enough to melt the marrow into a soft, opaque cream to be squashed on toast.

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I have hazy memories of sucking or poking bone marrow from the bones of a sunday Roast, but a clear one of the first time I ate bone marrow at a restaurant called St John in London. I was taken by my friend Jo, an architect, to the cavernous, whitewashed place on St John street that seemed to be full of other architects. The restaurant, I was told, served a kind of British cooking and lots of offal which was disconcerting then. We drank in the bar and then ordered from the bar menu chalked up on the blackboard. I would order from that menu countless times over following years and so my memories are a muddle of many visits repaid with brilliantly simple and delicious things to eat; Welsh rarebit, boiled eggs and celery salt, radishes, butter and salt, skate, chicory and anchovy, rabbit terrine, smoked eel with watercress and horseradish, crispy pigs tails and sorrel salad, soft roes on toast, cured beef with celeriac. A muddle except for that first dish on that first visit of Roast bone marrow with parsley salad.

Bone marrow isn’t, as I used to think, all fat – not that this presented me with a problem – it is also protein and a veritable collection of vitamins and good things. It is also delicious, quivering and rich and melts into the warm toast luxuriously. Like butter and olive oil, bone marrow on toast cries out for salt, ideally tiny shards of it, that catch the sides of your mouth. The pinch of parsley, caper and shallot salad: grassy, salty and sharp is a welcome addition contrasting with the marrow and bread. Simple, purposeful and delicious food. Food that I wouldn’t have remembered and then made were it not for a piece of bread and butter and a badly opened pack.

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Roasted bone marrow on toast with parsley salad

adapted from Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail eating.

Serves 2.

Roast six 3″pieces pieces of middle veal marrowbone on a baking tray in a hot oven until the marrow is soft and jelly -like but not melted away - this should take about 20 minutes. Meanwhile make a salad of some finely chopped flat-leaved parsley, a teaspoon of fine capers, 1 finely chopped shallot, lemon juice and olive oil.

Serve each person 3 bones, a pile of salad, a little pile of coarse salt and two pieces of sourdough toast. Using the other end of a teaspoon scoop the bone marrow onto the toast, crunch over a little salt, pinch over some salad and eat and repeat.

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shove and dish

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Some years back I smashed a pile of bowls. The bowls, seven or eight of them, were stacked biggest to smallest on a shelf in my kitchen in London until, one day, I decided to lean a large plate against the wall behind the pleasing pile. As I turned away I sensed a movement and spun back just in time to watch the plate, like a coin in a shove ha’penny machine, slide down and push the entire pile onto the floor. The bowls, mostly terracotta yogurt pots brought back wrapped in damp beach towels from trips to Greece and two bowls from Italy bought from Camden market, remained more or less in a pile only smashed into fierce segments. I remember staring at the pile, like a crude un-grouted mosaic, and then up at the smooth shelf wondering why on earth I balanced the plate before picking up the pieces and wrapping them in newspaper. It was only later that day, when I noticed the large plate that had slipped sitting flat on the shelf nonplussed, that I cried.

On Sunday I bought three dishes from Porta Portese market here in Rome; wide creamy-white bowls from Puglia with what look like tiny blue paw prints around the thick lip. I thought I’d struck a good deal, haggling him down from the initial 30 for the largest plate and 40 for the two smaller ones to 50 for the lot. Vincenzo took one look at the chipped edges and told me I’d been robbed and that never mind the trio, I could buy an entire orchestra of plates and dishes for the same price in Puglia. This didn’t dampen my clunking satisfaction at the three dishes, two of which were just like the bowls I’d lost, now wrapped in newspaper and in a blue plastic bag suspended across the push chair handles. Luca, usurped from his chair, chose a disturbingly realistic plastic crocodile from a bric-a-brac stall which he then swung at passers-by all the way home.

The bowls, the largest of which is almost as big as the kitchen table, have dominated all week. They have sat, one on top of the other just so, then in turn been filled with lemons with leaves, the first apricot-coloured nespole, oranges, strawberries (the strawberries have been superb this year), beans with tuna and hard-boiled eggs and green salad. Then on Thursday night, wanting to do little more that open a bottle of wine and boil something, I filled one of the bowls with fine green beans, ripped basil, loads of freshly grated parmesan cheese and olive oil for a supper so tasty I made it again for lunch the next day.

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The key is good beans. I used fine fagiolini al burro, crackingly good, bright green things that cook, as their name suggests, into almost butter like tenderness. Key too, is putting the olive oil, grated cheese and ripped basil in the bowl first so the warmth and weight of the just cooked beans release the rich, spicy scent of the basil and encourage the cheese to mingle with the olive oil creating a granular dressing, a lazy pesto really, which you then bring up and over the beans. You finish off with more cheese, grated on the finest holes so it is dusty rather than stringy. If you are generous enough with the cheese and olive oil this is a much more substantial dish than you’d imagine and far too good to be sidelined. On Thursday we had it with bread, more parmesan in craggy chunks and lots of wine. On Friday we had it with burrata, which is best described as a bag or purse fashioned from mozzarella filled with rags of mozzarella in cream.

The bowls are now in a pile, on a low shelf, with nothing balanced behind.

Green beans with basil, olive oil and parmesan

serve 2

  • 5oo g fine green beans
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly grated parmesan
  • a handful of fresh basil leaves

Top and tail the beans and then boil them in lots of fast-boiling, well-salted water until they are tender but still with a little resistance.

While the beans are cooking pour a some olive oil into a shallow dish, grate over lots of parmesan and add the basil leaves ripped into smallish pieces.

Once the beans are ready drain them, wait a minute and then tip them into the bowl and toss everything together. Grate some more parmesan over the top and serve immediately.

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rags and rocket

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*note

I have just spent the last hour on my knees using every towel in the bathroom, my dressing gown and the entire pile of stracci to sop-up the many litres of washing machine water that erupted out of the sink while I was at the market buying Mr Musculo to unblock the U-bend. Of course a mop would have been more effective, but it was out on the balcony and Luca was already jumping in the puddle in the hall. I just grabbed the first things that came to hand, threw them on the wet floor and then shuffled around on my knees feeling punished but also amazed at the dust and objects that had been washed by the tide of grey water from under the furniture. Just when I thought I had sopped up every drop, water, coming from god knows where, filled the cracks in the tiles once again and I spent the next 10 minutes feeling as if I was playing a labyrinthian computer game in which the quicker you sop the faster and cleverer the water becomes. I eventually found the puddle, under the fridge and I killed it. An hour later, as I type, the sink is still blocked and the washing machine full of soaking clothes but the floor is cleaner than it has been for months.

I didn’t intend to write about sopping today, I wanted to talk about a keyhole and small park called the Giardino degli Aranci, the Orange Tree Garden, which is just minutes from our flat but feels like another world, especially in spring when you can smell the garden long before you see it. But damp knees and the smell of damp cloths are mocking thoughts of blossom and ironically stracci make a much more appropriate introduction than oranges for todays recipe .

Straccio which comes from the verb stracciare, to rip, was traditionally a rag cloth made from old clothes or sheets. I have inherited my granny’s and mum’s habit for rags: old  T-shirts for the windows, a silk shirt streaked with rioja for polishing, threadbare cotton sheets ripped into squares for everything else. Today the word straccio is also used for kitchen cloths, particularly the coarse cotton ones for the kitchen floor eight of which are dripping onto the balcony. Straccetti are little rags and so to make straccetti di manzo, you rip very thin pieces of lean beef into rag-like-pieces, rub them with olive oil and the cook them swiftly in a hot pan until they curl and shrink and look even more like old rags, but taste anything but, especially when eaten with rocket – surely the best name for a salad leaf – and curls of parmesan cheese.

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Pan-fried beef apart from being, um, beefy, has a salty, unami-ish quality, good parmesan does too, making them a charismatic pair. Lay rags of beef and curls of parmesan on a grass-green weave of peppery rocket leaves – the juices from the meat pan providing dressing – and you have the most ridiculously delicious plateful of food. I love the way the rocket begins like a teenager, offering resistance and kick, but then as the warmth of beef sets in and you muddle everything with your knife and fork, the leaves start co-operating enough to wrap themselves around the rags of beef catching warm curls of cheese as they go. By the time you reach the last few mouthfuls and you are torn in the same way as when reading the last pages of a good book: the greedy gallop to the finish or the rein-in to savour every last bit, the last few leaves should have collapsed into a pile to be scooped up with your fingers.

Ridiculously delicious food and real fast food too which makes it my favorite solo supper after sourdough toast, butter and anchovies. I am also happy to share, I made straccetti di manzo con rughetta e parmigiano for my mum and dad the evening of the day we’d walked up the orange garden. Rags and rocket.

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Straccetti di manzo con rughetta e parmigiano – sauteed beef with rocket and parmesan

Obviously there are lots of way to make this, some people dip the rags in flour, others add wine or herbs to the pan. I’ve eaten this dish specked with aged balsamic vinegar which was delicious but didn’t convert me from lemon. The steak needs to be sliced thinly enough to tear – so as thin as carpaccio – something Roman butchers do as a matter of course. If you are buying a thick steak, I have a friend who swears by putting the steak in the freezer and then slicing it when it is frozen to get the required thinness. I still have to try this.

serves 2

  • 300 – 400 g lean streak, very thinly sliced. I ask my butcher to do this.
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a bunch of rocket
  • parmesan cheese
  • wedges of lemon

Tear the steak into smallish pieces ‘rags’ and put them in a bowl. Pour over a couple of tablespoons olive oil, season with salt and pepper, toss well with your hands and leave to sit for 5 minutes. Wash and dry the rocket then divide between two plates.

Warm a tablespoon of olive oil in a frying pan over a medium/high flame, add the meat and the oily juices from the bowl into the pan and sauté briskly until just coloured but still a little pink in places. Divide the meat between the plates, spooning over any juices, then use a vegetable peeler to pare curls of parmesan over the meat and rocket. Pour over a little more olive oil if you think it need it and serve with a wedge of lemon.

*I pressed publish on this before a final spell check by me and, more importantly, Vincenzo for the Italian…..so sorry to those of you who linked from an E mail, the spelling was comical. I hope it is all sorted now. I need a proofreader. R

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Drowned in caffè

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It takes me a long time to leave the house. Keys, phone, purse, sunglasses are never where I left them and then a sort of departure tick means I need to do something just before I go out the door; round-up the shoes littering the hall, wipe the kitchen table, push the chairs in properly even though the rest of the house is chaos. The door needs to close before I realise I’ve forgotten something, usually the knotted bag of rubbish ready to go and weeping onto the kitchen counter. As I return to collect the rubbish I notice the dead flowers that really should be taken out too, which involves unknotting the bag. As I pick impatiently at the knot I decide the vase the flowers were in needs washing with bleach because it reeks, and so it goes on. When I finally slam the front door behind me, sending a shiver up and down the lift shaft, my landlord has requested I fuss with two keys one of which requires six clunking turns. It takes me a long time to leave the house. Unless we have run out of coffee.

Having flung on clothes and scooped-up things and Luca, we were out the door and blinking in the surprising brightness of Via Galvani in record time. We walked as we do every morning past the pet shop, the canestro, the tabac, the bank and then into Barberini, the bar I have visited most days for the last nine years. Despite familiarity I will always be a straniera, a foreigner, a term I don’t mind anymore, after all, I am. Luca however, is not, he has grown up here, this is his bar. He pummels his fists on the front of the glass counter for a maritozzo, a sticky, yeasted bun and then pummels on my leg so I lift him up on to the lip that runs around the sickle shaped bar. I have barely touched the 10 centesimi coin and the receipt on the counter and Paolo puts a cappuccino in front of me, it’s frothed milk schiuma thick and resting in promising folds. Luca is given an espresso cup of the same creamy folds which he eats with a teaspoon. Here it is, one of the best moments of the day and one of the things I love most about living in Italy; standing at the bar in a Bar with a coffee before me. I drink in the moment and the contents of the cup quickly while Luca offers the man next to us a bit of half- chewed bun. Caffeine seeps into my system. Four others; a young woman, two young men who’ve clearly been up all night and a tall man who looks like Christopher Lee are all deep in breakfast contemplation at different points around the bar, together but alone. Luca disturbs the calm with a chorus of goodbye and ciao which everyone, even almost Christopher Lee, reciprocates. Then it’s over and we are back on the street blinking in the sun and it is only 8 am, on Sunday.

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Needless to say several more espressos followed, the last of which which was made at home after lunch in my well-seasoned, well-loved Moka Pot. However instead of drinking it, I tipped it over a spoonful of fior di latte gelato for something Italians call affogato al caffè or drowned in coffee, a state I am familiar with. The effect of pale and dark, of hot meeting cold, of sweet and lactic meeting a full, tannic espresso is fantastic and one of my favorite ways to end a meal. Time is of the essence, you can’t waste time taking pictures or other such nonsense, you need to plunge your spoon in quick so as to appreciate the contrast between hot and cold and the still distinct flavors before the cream melts into the dark liquid and you are left with a toffee coloured inch to be drunk from the glass.

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By the way, I am now on Instagram, where you can see more repetitive overhead pictures of my lunch and a filtered view of life in Testaccio – R

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