In January last year, two important things happened. Firstly I discovered I was pregnant and secondly, I began spending my Sundays with Mona.
I’d first met Mona a couple of years before. My friend and marvelous ice cream maker Kitty was doing an internship at the American Academy where Mona, guided by Alice Waters, had established the Rome Sustainable Food Project, a program dedicated to slow food principles and to providing local, organic and sustainable meals for the community at the Academy. Kitty invited me for dinner and I, of course, accepted.
That first meal at the Academy made striking and lasting impression. Firstly because of the place, The Academy itself, whose arresting buildings with their courtyards, fountains and gracefully maintained gardens sit proudly atop the Janiculum Hill. Buildings and gardens I had passed curiously every week on my way to teach at the elementary school. Then there were the people, Academy fellows, scholars, artists and other clever looking folk with their families and guests all sitting round communal tables in the dining room. At first glance it appeared one of the more intimidating gatherings of my life – the kind in which I usually transform into walking social gaffe, develop a speech impediment, facial rash and fall over – but in reality it was one of the nicest. And then of course their was the food. We ate Spaghetti with fennel, pine nuts and breadcrumbs, roast pork with carrots and turnips, a green salad, and for dessert, panna cotta with a ruby colored grape syrup and little biscuits. Food inspired by la cucina romana, Chez Panisse, and the collective experience of the cooks and interns in the Academy kitchen, it was – as the project intended – seasonal, simple, elegant, delicious, and nourishing.
Kitty’s tales of life at the Academy, the RSFP project and the extraordinary Mona had already engaged me. By end of the dinner, deliciously sated and both blithe and bold from the copious red wine and a very nice herby Amaro at the Academy bar, I was convinced: I would apply for a 3 month internship. My speech impediment and facial rash threatened to flare as I thanked and made rather clumsy compliments to Mona before jumping on my bike and careering down Via Garibaldi contemplating roast pork, panna cotta, cooking and arriving home in record red wine speed
Talking of bikes, over the next couple of years I’d often see Mona flying fearlessly, joyously and perilously around the narrow cobbled streets of Trastevere on her black bike. On each occasion I’d try, and fail, to flag her down and then I’d renew my vows to apply for the internship. It took a return visit from Kitty to put an end to my procrastination and convince me to get in touch with Mona. Which I did. We met at one of the long tables set in the courtyard of the Academy and we talked about Rome, food, our mutual love of cicoria, Elizabeth David and writing. We talked about the RSFP and she promised she’d keep me in mind.
True to her word, she did, and a month or so later Mona sent me an E mail telling me that she was about to start work on the second book of recipes (the first is Biscotti) from The Academy kitchen. This one was to be about soup. She asked if I might be interested in helping her – an internship of sorts – with the initial stages of the book, assisting her while she tested recipes, started to put into words 50 of the RSFP soups and complied a comprehensive glossary. I, of course accepted.
Every Sunday morning I’d walk – and as the months passed waddle – up the winding Ginaicolo hill to the Academy, crunch my way across the gravel courtyard and enter the backdoor of the Academy kitchen. Mona was usually tapping quietly away at her laptop which she’d set up in front of the window overlooking the bass garden over when I arrived, already deep in soup thought and planning the days recipes. Some stock might be bubbling in anticipation on the stove, there were often bowls of beans or chickpeas that had been soaking patiently all night, and there were always crates of Bernabei’s glorious, vital vegetables waiting for attention. First we’d have coffee, maybe some moreishly good granola, then I’d take Mona’s place in front of the computer and she would begin making soup.
‘Let’s start with the Minestra di pomodoro e riso’ she would call across the kitchen.
‘Make a note of the ingredients, three medium yellow onions, two stalks of celery. Cut the onions and celery into small dice. Oh and maybe we should make a note for the glossary about soffritto.’
Then the sound of Mona’s neat rhythmic chopping and my rather less rhythmic, two-fingered, cack-handed typing. And so we worked, Mona cooking, me typing and sending recipes off to Mary-Pat or Lizzie for testing, stopping every now and then to watch closer, peer into a pan, pod peas or wash spinach. And then of course there was the tasting, for which we were often joined by an intern or Academy fellow irresistably called to the kitchen, the heart of the Academy. And so we’d sit, side by side, knees tucked under the work bench, looking out of the window, tasting, pondering, criticizing, praising bowl after bowl of soup.
And then there was the talking. While the soup bubbled we talked and talked. We talked about soup, about living in Rome, about cicoria, ceci and cotiche, we talked about my growing concern. You see Mona was one of the first people I told and she endured more pregnancy ruminating than is healthy. She is still, to this day, the person knows more about the whole complicated, messy but joyous situation than the rest of my friends put together and the person who sustained me most with her quiet sane wisdom. She also fed me and my growing soup baby, not only on Sundays but for much of the following week by sending me clattering and clinking back down the hill with vast mason jars filled with soup, bundles of biscotti and hunks of lariano bread.
A copy of Zuppe arrived in the post month, and as I’d hoped it’s – as I’d expected from Mona, Annie, Niki and the RSFP – a brilliant and perfectly formed little book; inspiring and straightforward, a book of quiet good taste. 50 recipes for soup from the Academy kitchen, the soups that are served from the large glazed terracotta zupppiera each lunchtime, soups inspired by the bold Roman cuisine, Bernabei’s vegetables, the spirit of Chez Panisse and the Academy community. For me they are the best kind of recipes, inviting and approachable, neither technique driven or complicated, recipes as good, honest and tasty as a bowl of Pasta e ceci on a blowy Tuesday in January.
I have many favorite recipes from the book: Pasta e ceci and Pasta e fagioli of course, Favata (dried fava bean and proscuitto soup), Passato di sedano rape (celery root soup), Minestra di lenticche riso e cicoria (lentil, rice and chicory soup) , Minestra piccante di carote (spicy carrot soup), Ribollita (twice boiled Tuscan bread soup), Zuppa di piselli e patate novelle (pea and new potato soup). But in the spirit of the RSFP, where each morning the interns begin their day by taking a thorough inventory of the fridge which informs the days lunch, I took an inventory of my own fridge and discovered that it not only needed taking in hand and giving a bloody good clean but contained all the ingredients for another of my favourites, Zuppa di palate, cavolo verza and pancetta (potato, cabbage and bacon soup).
This was one of the soups Mona made on our first Soup Sunday. Even though I never doubted I would like it – a kind of soupy colcannon with possibly the worlds best flavoring; bacon – I remember being surprised at quite how delicious it was. It’s a simple and tasty soup, both savory and sweet from the onion and carrot, deeply flavored with bacon and bay leaves, given body by the collapsing potatoes and serious leafy depth from the limp and lovely cabbage. Given some nice bread and a lump of cheese I would happily eat this once a week for lunch.
It is – like most of the recipes in the book – simple to make. You soften carrot and onion in olive oil and then add the pancetta (bacon) and continue coking until it has rendered its tasty fat. Next you add potatoes, bay leaves and water and cook until the potatoes are tender, Finally you add what seems like a mountain of cabbage and simmer for another fifteen minutes or so, or until the is cabbage too is tender. You season and serve with a drizzle of good olive oil and black pepper. .
The soup has a slightly Dickensian pottage look to it, a frugal simplicity that you might be tempted to tart up by adding stock, blending or adding and swirling. Don’t, the soup is prefect as it is, tasting as it should of potato, cabbage and bacon. As always with such a simple soup, good ingredients that taste vitally as they should are fundamental.
Zuppa di patate, cavolo verza e pancetta
Potato, cabbage and bacon soup
Serves 4 – 6
- 2 large carrots
- 1 medium yellow onion
- 75g / 3 oz pancetta
- 30 ml / 1 fl oz olive oil
- 750 g / 1 1/2 lb starchy potatoes
- 2 bay leaves
- small white or savoy cabbage
- extra virgin olive oil and black pepper to serve
Peel and cut the carrots and onion into small dice. Cut the pancetta into 1 cm /1/2 inch tiles.
Sweat the vegetables and pancetta in olive oil over a medium-low heat in a 6 litre /6 quart pot. Add a pinch of salt and continue cooking until the vegetables are tender and the pancetta has rendered it’s fat.
Peel and dice the potatoes into 2 cm/1 inch cubes. Add the potatoes and bay leaves to the cooked vegetables and stir well, coating the potatoes with the rendered fat. Add 2 litres/ 2 quarts of cold water. Bring to a boil dn then reduce to simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove the outer leaves from the cabbage and then cut first in half and then into strips and finally 2 cm / 1 inch squares. Add the cabbage, a generous pinch off salt and another 0.5 litres / 0.5 quarts of water to he pot. Simmer for another 15 minutes or unit the cabbage is tender.
Remove the bay leaves, taste, re-season if necessary and serve with drizzle of olive oil and a grind of black pepper.