Monthly Archives: February 2013

Glazed over

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Did I mention we have a school in our courtyard? It’s a very small school, a large room with appendages really, in the middle of our vast courtyard. A vast, cavernous courtyard onto which more than 100 apartments peer. We also have palm trees, seven of them, a dozen blooming oleander and a gangly pine which tempts sparrows and the occasional exultation of larks. There are also two pizzeria in our midst, the back of them at least, in the far left and far right hand corners, which means all sorts of hullabaloo, wood oven girding, pizzaiolo hollering, chair scraping, cutlery clinking and general rowdiness. But only after seven pm, so long after the school bell has rung. Long after 24 five-year olds have scattered like excited marbles across gravel and into arms and Luca and I have finished making our lunch or – rather uncharacteristically – our cake.

Cake making wasn’t on the agenda. Actually nothing was on the agenda, what with no lessons, both of us being out of sorts and me still reeling from the fact that the evening before, raw and ragged discussions were had and I managed to say things that have needed saying for far too long, A day in, on and around the bed recuperating with Quentin Blake, Bruno Munari and orange jelly was the plan. Then at about ten thirty, as the moka rattled to a climax for the second time, the sun poured, children squealed and my son’s kitchen pan drumming confirmed considerable recovery, I decided both a walk and a cake was in order.

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We walked the other way along the river. Meaning instead of imperial arches, lofty columns and clusters of cupolas we pounded through another Rome. Gasworks, a slaughter-house, a defunct port and derelict storage silos were our cityscape, harsh monuments all, but eerily beautiful ones and witnesses to a slow, stealthy regeneration trying to pervade this part of the Eternal city. As we walked back  I made mental notes of buildings that might suit us and realised, rather surprisingly, that the thought of a new flat near but not actually in Testaccio was not only manageable but comfortable.

I’d made a list: oranges, fine polenta, ground almonds and cardamom pods. First the oranges, from the market, two kilo’s of perky leaved, dusty orange orbs, not a wisp of wax in sight. We ate two immediately! Which wasn’t a particularly prudent idea for an over excited, sling-suspended 17 month old and his ill prepared mother who was wearing her nicest jacket. Orange scented, sticky fingered and stained we visited Laura at Emporio delle spezie, an indispensable cubby hole of a shop, selling every conceivable herb, spice and condiment. A kilo of fine polenta, 500 g of ground almonds, a bag of cardoman pods and we were all set.

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Now I’ve think we’ve established that as much as I like cake – unfussy, damp, scented and absolutely no frosting please even on my birthday – I don’t make them very often. Cakeless weeks fly by and then, mighty boosh, I’m cakestruck and tins are greased, and eggs cracked. For a long time plain madeira was my weakness, but over the last few years I’ve been seduced by cakes made with almond flour and scented with citrus. Dense, fragrant and sticky rounds, as much puddings as cakes. I tried and tested various recipes before settling on a lemon and almond cake and a clementine take on Claudia Roden’s marvelous orange and almond cake. I was content. Then this.

This being my friend Dan‘s cake, A cake based on Nigel Slater’s recipe in the Observer some years back that Dan – an excellent and generous baker and caker – made for a lunch a couple of Sundays ago. Forget everything I’ve said before, this is my cake. An almond, polenta, orange and cardamom cake that’s drenched, soaked and sodden with orange, lemon and honey syrup. It is, as you can see, unprepossessing and possibly the wrong side of burnished for many. But please don’t let this dissuade you, it’s ridiculously good: a dense, damp, deeply aromatic and heady affair.

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Pretty standard practice, cream the butter and sugar, add wet ingredients: orange and eggs, and then dry ones: polenta, ground almonds and a teaspoon of baking powder. Last but not least you add the crushed seeds of 12 dusty green cardamom pods. As you grind the tiny black seeds you might well be transported somewhere else. For me that somewhere else is the medicine cabinet, as cardamom has something of Vick’s nasal spray about it. Then, as medicinal eucalyptus gives way to sultry floral citrus, I’m transported –  rather more romantically – to Mysore in Southern India some 13 years ago and a bowl of cardamom scented rice pudding eaten on a crowded roof top!  I’ve never talked about India have I? Which is extraordinary considering how much I love to harp on about it!  Another time!

The cake needs 30 minutes at 180° and then another 25 or so at 160°. It will be deeply burnished. Then – and this is the particularly nice bit – you bubble up a syrup of orange, lemon juice and honey to spoon over the still warm cake you have prudently picked all over with a strand of spaghetti. The cake: beautifully absorbent and pricked, obediently and obligingly soaks up the syrup in much the same way that I soak up my first drink of the day – sip, sip, woosh. Now you wait, a few hours if you can, wriggle the cake out of the tin, slice and eat.

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Eat and be reminded of how well ground almonds work in lieu of flour: nutty, milky and of course oily which means the cake is almost rudely moist. Notice the polenta, it’s gritty, granular texture and how well that fits. The orange zest flecking the cake: warm, acerbic and aromatic, you’ll notice that too, as you will the tiny black specks of cardamom, at once eucalyptus, ginger and something sultry and unexplained. And then there is the glaze, a hot syrup of orange, lemon and runny honey that drenches the very heart of the round, soaking cake and crumb. This is my cake.

Of course a spoonful of very cold, very heavy cream, mascarpone, crème fraîche, vanilla ice-cream or Barbados cream (a lovely lactic concoction of greek yogurt, heavy cream and soft muscovado sugar) would all work beautifully here.

Cake, cake, range, range*, woof, woof.

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Almond, polenta, orange and cardamom cake with honey and citrus syrup

Adapted from Dan’s recipe which is in turn adapted from Nigel Slater‘s recipe in the Observer

  • 220 g butter
  • 220 g golden caster sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • zest and juice of a unwaxed orange
  • 300 g ground almonds
  • 150 g polenta
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 12 green cardamom pods
  • for the glaze: juice of two oranges, one lemon and 4 tablespoons of honey

Line the base of the cake tin with a piece of baking parchment. Set the oven at 180° / 350 F / Gas 4.

Cream the butter and sugar together till light and fluffy. You can do this by hand or in a mixer. Break the eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork, then stir into the mixture. Carefully grate the zest and then squeeze the juice from the orange. Add both the zest and the juice to the mixture. Mix the ground almonds, polenta and baking powder together, then fold into the mixture.

Crush the cardamom pods and extract the little black seeds, grinding them to a fine powder. Add the spice to the cake mixture.

Transfer the cake mixture to the lined tin and smooth the top-level. Bake for 30 minutes, turn down the heat to 160 C/ gas 3 for a further 25 -30 minutes or until the cake is firm.

To make the syrup, squeeze the lemon and orange juice into a stainless steel saucepan, bring to the boil and dissolve in the honey. Keep the liquid boiling until it has formed a thin syrup (4-5 minutes).

Spike holes into the top of the cake (still warm and in its tin) with a skewer then spoon over the hot citrus syrup. Leave to cool, then lift out of the tin.

* range is of course orange.

This is a picture of Dan’s cake.

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Filed under almonds, cakes and baking, food, Rachel's Diary, recipes

By eye not rule

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Since my late teens I’ve kept a kitchen notebook. It would be nice to tell you that these notebooks: a well-worn but pleasing collection of soft volumes sit cheek by jowl on my bookcase, that it’s a collection I treasure and refer to daily. They aren’t, they don’t and therefore I can’t. For apart from the five most recent notebooks and a green diary from 1997, my motley crew of dog-eared loose-leaf pads and leather effect WH Smith jotters have either been lost in migration or languish – damp and curling at the edges – in my parents garage. There are also six years worth of Italian notebooks getting dusty in a box at Vincenzo’s. So much unfinished business! But now’s not the time to talk about that.

I’ve mixed feelings about the 16 years worth of notebooks curling in England! Which is why, despite weary pleas from my parents and countless opportunities, they remain exactly where they are. For amongst the recipes written, sellotaped and glued to the pages, descriptions of meals eaten, brief notes about stove successes and long laments about kitchen failures, the to make lists and meticulous plans for suppers that may or may not have happened, is a painful (and tedious) account of my then life in food.

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Exuberantly documented periods of feast are all too often followed by tiresome accounts of restraint and abstinence. A pleasant seasonal list or carefully copied quote is probably followed by a raging diatribe about loathing food or myself for eating it. A fanfare to fruit cake is stifled by an ode to fasting. Twelve (very slim) notebooks dated from 2002 to 2004 chart – in painfully neat handwriting –  a joyless weighed and measured routine I’d rather forget. Notes about expansive meals are almost always followed by so much self-flagellation and malcontent it’s exhausting. Fad’s, fantastical allergies and fernickerty disordered eating is well documented.  Lost, forgotten, abandoned and curled. Quite right too.

Well almost. There were gems amongst the goulash of angst and self-flagellation. Real gems. Some of which I pulled, ripped and unstuck a couple of summers ago while sorting through the damp boxes. A series of recipes snipped from the Guardian in the late 90’s, handwritten recipes by Granny Alice and Grandma Phyllis, illustrated recipes for three almonds cakes from my Spanish neighbour, a pile of 1940’s pamphlets about herbs, three A4 pages of recipes from my time in India and the green notebook from 1997, they are all sitting here on my red table.

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And so the green notebook. The one I kept whilst living in Camden Town and going to drama school. An angst free notebook – I was, I note on more than one occasion, extremely happy – almost entirely given over to notes, thoughts and several comical accounts of making pasta. I wish I could remember what precipitated this rash of research, kneading and rolling? A dinner? A book? A friend?  It wasn’t a trip to Italy or a man. I wish I could remember from where I copied the most bizarre pasta making advice. I suppose it doesn’t matter. Whatever or wherever, in the spring of 1997, when living in the small but well proportioned North London flat, the sound of evening trains through Camden cutting, I became temporarily obsessed with making pasta. I remember nothing about eating this pasta. I clearly did though! On many occasions, all of which are duly noted: Needs work! Dry dry dry! Rather hard and slightly indigestable! Try another flour!

Sixteen years later, in a small but well proportioned flat in South Rome, the green notebook – although providing entertainment – has been absolutely no help whatsoever in my latest attempt to learn to make pasta. Well except for one note that is. A note I’ve been given more times than I care to remember during my cooking life, and not only regarding pasta – by eye not rule.

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By eye not rule. Of course there are rules, like using best semolina flour, working on a clean dry surface and adding a whole egg to the flour before adding the cold water when making cavatelli pasta. ‘It’s an unconventional egg‘ my teacher Daria noted while working the yellow yolk expertly into the equally yellow flour ‘As cavatelli pasta is traditionally made just semolina flour and water.’ An egg however – a trick taught to her by her mother – wether working with 200 g or a kilo of flour helps with manageability and elasticity.

Once you have worked the egg into the flour you can start adding the water, little by little, by eye not rule. Time of year, temperature of your kitchen, the flour, the size of your egg, your mood, your husband’s mood, these variables will all affect the quantity of water you use. Which bring us neatly to Daria’s second piece of advice.: practica (practice.) You can only learn and truly understand how much water is required to bring the ingredients together into a soft, putty-like-dough by practicing.

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Our lesson took place a few weeks ago. Cavatelli is a traditional curled pasta shape from Daria’s home town in Puglia,where it’s also known as capunti. Having made a dough from grano duro (semolina flour), the unconventional egg and enough water, Daria taught me to knead. Did I mention how much I like being taught these days, I’m not sure where proud I-don’t-need-lessons Rachel has disappeared to. The heel of your palm does most of the work: pushing the dough forward, folding it in half, turning and pressing again. You should knead for about 8 minutes – again eye not rule – until the dough is smooth and soft as putty.

Cutting and shaping the cavatelli is, despite appearances, pretty straightforward. You need to cut the dough into thick matchsticks. Daria did this by moulding the dough into a rough round, then cutting this round into first strips and then matchsticks. To shape the individual cavatelli  you place your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so the dough curls into a long arc with three in-dents. At every stage of the shaping, cutting and forming Daria launched a blizzard of semolina flour over proceedings to stop the dough sticking.

While I finished shaping the cavatelli, a deeply satisfying task once you master the press and flick required, Daria cooked some cauliflower until unfashionably soft. Having lifted the tender florets from their cooking water (which she left for the pasta) she then sautéed the cauliflower in an even more unfashionable quantity of olive oil before mashing it gently with the back of the wooden spoon until it surrendered into a soft, creamy sauce. A pinch of salt and a handful of chopped dusty-brown olives – surly and salty ones from Gaeta – finished the sauce off nicely.

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I’d just like to pause and note how delicious well-cooked cauliflower ripassata in extra virgin olive oil, well salted and studded with olives is. This has been our lunch – give or take a piece of bread and lump of cheese – once a week since my lesson. Noted? Good! But back to the cavatelli. Under supervision I cooked the pasta in the cloudy cauliflower water. It took just minutes, the indented curls bobbing excitedly to the surface. Once cooked, the cavatelli was slotted-spooned into the cauliflower pan – a little of the pasta cooking water still clinging to the curls – stirred and served.

Now as you may or may not have noticed, I am very fond of vegetables – broccoli, crema di rapa, zucchini, broccoletti - that are cooked until extremely soft, turned in olive oil and then stirred into pasta. Such dishes have become a cornerstone of my diet and the saviour of my purse strings. This dish Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive is my new favorite. The soft, somewhat shy sauce given courage by the feisty olives, collects in the curls and coats the tender pasta.

‘This is a good pasta for a complete beginner’ Daria noted. I felt myself bristle, the pride surge through my veins. ‘Well I’m not exactly a beginner.’ I was about to splutter.’ I’ve lived in Italy for 8 years now and I’ve been making pasta since 1997.’  Then I remembered. ‘Yes it is.’ I agreed while noting notes in my scruffy but almost angst free notebook. ‘It’s a perfect pasta for a beginner.’

Serve by eye not rule.

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Cavatelli con cavolfiore e olive  Cavatelli pasta with cauliflower and olives

Enough for 4

  • 400 g farina di garno duro (semola)
  • 1 medium egg
  • a pinch of salt
  • filtered water – enough
  • 1 medium-sized cauliflower
  • Extra virgin olive oil – plenty
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently squashed with the back of a knife
  • a handful of coarsely chopped black olives
  • salt – enough
  • black pepper – enough

Pour the flour into a mound on the work surface and scoop a deep hollow in the center. Sprinkle over a pinch of salt. Break  the egg into the hollow and then using your fingers beak the yolk and start working the egg into the flour. Now add a little water and continue working the liquid into the dough. Keep adding water until you have a smoothly integrated mixture.

Knead the dough, pushing it forward with the heel of your palm. Fold the dough in half, give it a half turn and press it hard against the heel of your palm again. Knead for a full eight minutes by which time the dough should be smooth and soft as putty.

Divide the dough into quarters. Roll, mould and pat one-quarter into a circle about 5 ml thick. Cut the square into strips about 3 cm wide. Cut the strip into match sticks about 3 mm wide. The end epic of the circle which are too small can be set aside and worked back into the rest of the dough.

Work on  a well floored board. Position your well-floured index, middle and ring finger against the far edge of the dough matchstick and then roll/flick your fingers towards you so he dough curls onto a long arc with three in-dents. Move the cavatelli curl onto a tray or sheet dusted with semolina flour.

Break the cauliflower into large florets. Bring a large pan of well salted water to a fast boil and the cook the florets for about 1o minutes or until they are soft and very tender.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the cauliflower out of the pan and into a colander to drain. In a saute pan warm the oil and then gently fry the garlic until it is golden and fragrant. Do not let it burn. Remove the garlic and then add the cauliflower and olives. Stir well so both are coated with oil and gently mash the cauliflower with the back of the wooden spoon until you have a soft, creamy mixture. Add more oil if necessary. Turn of the heat

Cook the pasta in the cauliflower water until al dente which will only take a few minutes. Drain the pasta – reserving some cooking water – and add it to the pan. Stir. Add a little cooking water to loosen and emulsify the dish if necessary. Serve immediately.

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Filed under food, pasta and rice, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, vegetables

Against the strain of modern life

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It’s time. Well almost. In late February one of the most beloved and revered varieties of Rome’s favorite vegetable: il carciofo romanesco* comes into her precocious, plump, perennial-thistle prime. Vincenzo, my fruttivendolo informed me as much – without unnecessary alliteration – while trimming with such dextrous speed I could barely discern what his hands or his knife were doing. Not that I needed to discern, I’ve had plenty of impromptu lessons in the art of artichoke trimming from Vincenzo over the last eight years. Plenty! For as in life, I’m enthusiastic but doubtful.

While Luca shouted ‘ball, ball, BALL‘ at anything round, which meant almost everything, we were, after all, standing beside a fruit and vegetable stall, and while Vincenzo trimmed ten artichokes for a stern signora in a fur coat, I chose my five from the crates stacked up against the side of the stall. There may well be a couple of weeks to go, but it’s hard to imagine more glorious globes: heavy in hand, intricate clusters of violet-stained leaves with coarse ribbed stems and silvery glaucous-green leaves. ‘Ball‘ Luca barked at the artichokes. Vincenzo chuckled, blasphemed and gave me an especially nice stem of mentuccia when I told him I was going to trim them myself.

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Vincenzo makes trimming artichokes of all varieties, shapes and sizes look elementary and effortless. Be it a long thorny spinoso, a tiny violet choke no larger than a walnut, a modest green globe or a princely romanesco he whittles away the tough inedible parts with artful and rapid skill. I, on the other hand, can claim no such art, skill or speed. I have however been taught well and practiced enthusiastically and can now trim an artichoke pleasantly enough.

That said, I am not about to proffer trimming advice here! Not yet at least. Rather I suggest you arm yourself with a short sharp knife, a lemon, five globes, a cooks perk (whatever that may be, mine’s a cooking sherry) and watch this. No whimsical folk music, wistful angles and aspirational seasoning in this video, just artichoke whittling advice from Nonna Adriana.

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Unsurprisingly Romans have countless ways of preparing and cooking their favourite vegetable. Inventive and imaginative ways evolved to bring out the best in every variety. When it comes to the prized carciofo romanesco – an almost rudely large but very tender globe that has no thorns or pesky, hairy choke in the center – two ways of cooking prevail. The first and my favourite is Carciofi alla giudia or artichokes Jewish style. A slightly less compact variety of romanesco is trimmed rigorously and then squashed so the leaves splay out in much the same way as a fully opened chrysanthemum. This splayed artichoke flower is then deep-fried until the leaves are deep golden brown, crisp, brittle and charred, the heart within soft and tender. Superb, just superb and best consumed with your fingers if not in prudish company.

The other way of cooking carciofo romanesco (and another large globe varieties) is alla romana, Roman style. Having carefully trimmed your chokes, you open up the central cavity with your thumbs and then fill this space with a mixture of very finely chopped mint, garlic and possibly parsley. The mint is fundamental, it pairs brilliantly with the soft, curiously metallic, elegant flavour of the artichoke. In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice. Once stuffed, the artichokes are arranged flower downwards/ stem upwards in a pan (along with the rest of the stems if your pan is too shallow) and some olive oil, wine and water. The pan is then covered with a damp cloth and tight-fitting lid before the artichokes are cooked slowly – braised and steamed really – over a medium flame under the liquid has all but evaporated and the artichokes are aromatic and meltingly tender.

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At this time of year great platters of carciofi alla romana are to be found in most trattoria, they are a welcome and delightful sight, like wind inverted umberellas, their long upended stems (the best and most delectable part) pointing skywards. They are served as an antipasti or contorno at room temperature with either a little of the cooking liquid or raw extra virgin olive oil poured over. Bread is recommended for mopping up. They really are one of the joys of Roman trattoria in spring. They are an equally joyful and surprisingly straightforward dish to make at home. Really! Despite my doubtful and idle nature and my painfully slow trimming technique, I’m now dedicated to whittling, stuffing and simmering artichokes at home. Home in Rome that is, where artichokes are unquestionably good. But I hear you can find pretty wonderful artichokes in the UK and US now! Thoughts? Opinions?

And the title of the post: Against the strain of modern life or ‘Contro il logorio della vita moderna.‘ It’s an advertising slogan for Cynar a weirdly delicious bitter aperitif based on artichokes that I absolutely adore. Contro il logorio della vita moderna indeed! An impressive claim. But an entirely plausible one if you consider the virtues of artichokes: folic acid, wealth of minerals, fibre, diuretic and laxative properties (now really lets not be shy, these things matter) and not forgetting artichokes are an aphrodisiac. I repeat, an aphrodisiac.  Against the strain of modern life! Well I for one am a believer. So it seems is my son.

You can of course use a knife and fork, but I agree with Marco, fingers are best. Pull away the leaves one by one, making sure you drag them idly though the pool of oil on the way to your mouth. The stem is good if consumed as you might an asparagus spear. The heart, of course, is eaten last.

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Carciofi alla romana Artichokes Roman style

Inspired by the carciofi alla romana I have eaten in various Roman Trattorie with advice from Gillian Riley, Marcella Hazan, Rosa D’Acona, Nonna Adriana and Jane Grigson.

  • 5 large globe artichokes
  • a lemon or bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon added
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped mint (ideally mentuccia)
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • glass of white wine

You will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid tall enough to accommodate the artichokes which are to go in standing

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using sing a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water

In a bowl mix together the chopped parsley, mint and garlic, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Using your thumbs open up the flower and then press 1/5 of the herb and garlic mixture into the hollow cavity.

Sit the artichokes, top downwards, stems upwards the pan. Add the olive oil, wine and enough water to come on third of the way up the leaves.

Cover the pot with a damp muslin or cotton cloth (or a piece of doubled over kitchen towel) and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the edges of the cloth back over the top of the pan. Put the pan over a medium/low flame for 40 minutes – the liquid in the pan should bubble and steam purposefully but not aggressively. The artichokes are done when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

When done, use a slotted spoon move the artichokes on to a serving plate – stems up. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour them over the artichokes just before serving. Eat.

* Artichokes are a seasonal crop. The variety I am talking about, il carciofo romanesco castellammare or mammola is cultivated in and around Cerveteri and Ladispoli. It is a winter crop and can be found from November until April. It’s at it’s best however – weather permitting – from the last week of February /first week of March up until the sagra di carciofi in early April. Most other varieties are found later in the spring.

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Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, spring recipes