It was a good and unmistakably Roman start to the meal: crisp, bitter curls of puntarelle (chicory) dressed with olive oil, garlic and anchovy, braised globe artichokes and slices of toasted bread zigzagged with olive oil and strewn with salt. The serving dishes were large, the table long and narrow and a lackadaisical mother allowing her child to crawl everywhere, so a fair amount of passing, negotiating and cooperation was required.
Just when it seemed we’d all helped ourselves to everything, and the dishes had found places between the bottles and the bread, Alessandro (sporting his signature chef bandana) brought an almost whole wheel of pecorino romano to the table. My friend Mauro grinned and made it clear where the cheese should be deposited by drumming his fingers on the table before him. He then took the stumpy cheese knife, impaled it, hewed off a lump of pecorino and began eating. We were in Agustarello obviously.
It took me a while to come around to pecorino romano, the ewes milk cheese so beloved of the Romans. It’s a distinctive and surly cheese: strong and with a semi-sharp almost muttony taste about it. If parmigiano reggiano is a smooth sophisticated type with a history of art degree and a flat in Kensington, then pecorino romano is a bit of a rogue with an accent as thick as treacle, superlative record collection and oodles of charm
Most pecorino romano is aged from 8 months to a year and then considered a grating cheese. Once grated, it’s launched liberally, lending its distinctive nature and a salty wink to some of Rome’s most prized dishes: pasta alla gricia, all’amatriciana, carbonara, angry arrabbiata, cacio e pepe and the aromatic trippa alla romana.
Some pecorino romano however, is eaten young, at around about five months – I believe semi-aged is the correct term - which means it’s less pungent, that it’s softer and milder mannered and makes a good table cheese. A very good table cheese, especially with first fave, the first tender broad beans of the spring.
It’s one of the nicest Roman rituals, one traditionally enjoyed during the symbolic trip to the countryside after winter. A big dish of broad beans still in their pods so that you may peel them yourself is served with a piece of young pecorino romano and a glass of local wine.
Of course fave demand attention! The long, fingerlike pods need to be split down the seam and then the tough opaque coats eased away from each bean before the bright green slivers, tasting somewhere between a buttered pea and asparagus can be eaten with a nub of cheese. Weather permitting we will enjoy this ritual on Monday – otherwise known as Pasquetta or little Easter – in Villa Celimontana. Come! Bring something for the picnic table, a bottle or two and suitable shoes for football. I won’t play football obviously, I’ll sit podding fave and drinking the wine you brought.
Or – but hush and don’t tell the farmer – you could eat your pecorino romano with pear. But I probably don’t need to tell you that! You know perfectly well what good partners hard cheese and pears make ? How nicely the sweet, buttery, vinous character of pear marries with a hunk of sharp, salty pecorino? The pear should be ripe, but not too ripe! An elusive moment I know, but one well worth waiting for. At least I think so.
This week all my pears, that is the bowlful above and a bag full sitting under the counter, reached that elusive moment simultaneously. Having been almost comically enthusiastic, my son promptly decided he didn’t like chair and shouted every time I presented him with a slice, chunk or puree. Determined the pears shouldn’t suffer the all too common fate in this flat, that is deterioration into a soft, sleepy mush that ends up (shamefully) in the bin, I took charge.
There was pear and pecorino romano just so. A salad of thinly sliced fennel, pear and pecorino was good (the faint liquorice nip of the fennel working well with the sweet and sharp) and a pear and prosciutto sandwich excellent. Then, at the eleventh hour, as the remaining pears appeared to give me the same look my son gives me when I’m typing on the computer: that is hopeful but mournful and resigned to my neglect, I made chutney.
Pear and date chutney. I’ve had this recipe in mind for weeks, ever since spying it on a new to me blog called Life in Abruzzo. I have a weakness for chutney, for rich, sweet and sharp concoctions to be smeared onto bread, spooned next to curry or nudged onto cheese, scotch egg, pressed potato or a fat wedge of potato frittata. This recipe is a good as it sounds: a dark, sticky muddle of pear (the chunks of which retain something of their shape and shine through the glass jar) and dates, with a nip of aniseed, a pinch of fragrant and feminine coriander and warm undertones from the teaspoon of pepperoncino. Yes please.
It’s pleasingly straightforward. You chop the pears and dates and then macerate them - or whatever the verb is – for an hour or so in cider vinegar and sugar. Seeds are fried in hot oil until they’re fragrant and your kitchen smells like somewhere else. Onion is added to the seeds and then once it’s soft and translucent you add the fruit et al, bring the chutney to the boil and then reduce it to a burping simmer for nearly an hour. You ladle your dark, sticky, spoon-coating chutney into scrupulously clean jars. I find boiling water and a warm oven does the trick but don’t tell the earnest canners that, they will have me up in front of the preserving judge before you can say not hermetically sealed. But really, around here chutney is kept in the fridge and eaten long before any unsavory types have time to even think about visiting, never mind moving in.
Pear and date chutney and pecorino romano, what a nice pair, and one that fits neatly into a Roman life with English undertones. Just perfect for a picnic (in the kitchen.) Have a good (and long) weekend.
Pear and date chutney
Adapted from Sammy Dunham’s recipe in Life in Abruzzo which was in turn adapted from Lucinda’s recipe. With advice (as is so often the case) from Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Did I mention how much I like Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David. Two practical notes. Firstly, stir and scrape attentively during the simmering, chutney can be terrible sticker if left to its own devices. Secondly this chutney – like most chutneys – is best when cooked to a moderate set: jammy and coating the back of the spoon, but still a little runny; if too thick and solid it will dry out. I halved the quantities suggested by Sammy. The recipe below makes three jars
- 750 g pears
- 250 g dates (ideally Medjool)
- 325 g demerara or soft brown sugar
- 250 ml cider or apple vinegar
- 1 teaspoon finely chopped pepperoncino or cayenne pepper
- 50 ml olive oil
- 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds
- 1 scarse teaspoon coriander seeds
- 1 large red or white onion (yielding about 300 g when diced)
- salt and black pepper
Wash, core and chop the pears into small chunks. remove the stones from the dates and chop them roughly. In a large bowl mix the pear, dates, sugar, vinegar, and pepperoncino and mix thoroughly (hands are best). Leave to sit for an hour or so, stirring every so often.
In a heavy based pan, heat the oil and then add the seeds and fry (vigorously but not aggressively) for 30 seconds or so or until the seeds are fragrant. Add the onion and a pinch of salt, lower the heat and then saute the onion until it is soft and translucent.
Add the pear mixture, a pinch of salt a several grinds of black pepper to the pan. Stir, bring chutney to the boil and then reduce to a bubbling simmer for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so scraping well round sides and bottom of pan.
The chutney is ready when it is dark, thickish, sticky and coating the back of the spoon.
Ladle the chutney into warm sterilized jars (I wash mine in boiling water and then sit them in a warm oven to dry.) Screw on lids and leave jars to cool. Store somewhere cool and dark. Ready to eat straight away, but better after a week and better still after three (according to Sammy.) Once opened, keeps in fridge for up to a month.