Yesterday it poured in Rome, rain and black smoke both, reminding us there was pontificating in progress. Then at about eight, the black smoke gave way to white and la fumata bianca poured from the copper chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel, meaning the scarlet clad cardinals had chosen their new pope. It never stopped raining. Unaccustomed as I am to either watching Italian TV or considering catholic concerns I did both. Even I was moved by the sea of jubilant humanity in piazza San Pietro and the roaring cheer as a pensive Papa Francesco uttered buona sera.
There’s been more than enough pontificating about conclaves, cardinals and commanding! I’m not about to do any more of it here. Well apart from noting that although we’re diametrically opposed on countless matters, I’m glad to hear Papa Francesco’s views on single mothers, papel footwear and taking the bus, and that I just hope he’s given the space and opportunity to exercise his reputed political canniness and reforming drive. Dog knows they need it.
Oranges and fennel however, there hasn’t been nearly enough pontificating about either around here! So if you don’t mind I’ll do some today. If I was quicker and sharper I’d have bought blood oranges, their scarlet juice – reminiscent of the cardinals cassocks and conviction – bleeding and staining the wooden work surface. I am neither quick, sharp or inclined to scrub so orange oranges it is.
Lately I’ve been buying my greens and citrus from the local farmers market that takes place every weekends in the Ex-Mattatoio. This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting my market: the recently relocated but still thriving Testaccio mercato! We still go there faithfully. What can I say, semi-maternity-leave and an excuse to eat warm brioche whilst admiring artichokes and listening to market banter spliced with profanities: we go six days a week. Then on Sunday, the day Testaccio market rests, we walk that little bit further, curving our way along the river to The Farmers Market occupying one of the buildings in the vast sprawling complex that is the Ex-Mattatoio.
I’ve talked about the Ex -Mattaotio before. Once the principle slaughter-house for the whole of Rome, it’s an expansive patchwork of buildings, enclosures, thoroughfares and vast open spaces where animals once roamed. A place all the more extraordinary for being in the middle of a city like Rome. Closed for butchery business since 1975 it’s now part modern art gallery, organic supermarket, social club, concert venue, music school, shelter for the (poor) horses that drag Rome’s carriages, gypsy camp, stark wasteland and at the weekend, farmers market.
You’d be advised to arrive early, especially on Sundays. Naturally leavened bread, salumi, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, nuts, eggs, pasta, beans and grains, mushrooms, organic meat and the nicest, freshest produce you could hope to find all direct from bona-fide local producers is gathered under the high-pitched roof of the atmospheric pavilion. The air is always slightly damp, bosky and full of gastronomic promise. On Sunday I bought a piece of aged pecorino, a slice of guanciale, a kilo of cicoria selvatica: a dark green tangle of wild leaves, four artichokes, two deeply curved bulbs of fennel and a dozen matt-skinned, bright leaved oranges.
Which brings us to todays recipe, an assembly really, one of my favorites, a wisp of Sicily: oranges, fennel and black olives. Now they may seem an unlikely trio, but fennel, orange and olives go together so well, the Ahmad Jamel Trio of insalata. The crisp, clean and sweet tasting bulb with its faintly anise perfume and liquorice nip seems to enhance the sweet/sharp juiciness of the citrus, it’s flesh: firm and creamy contrasting with the soft languorous segments. The dark, baked olives: bitter, meaty and leathery compliment and contrast both orange and fennel.
The key is to pare away every trace of peel and pith from the oranges before cutting then into slender rounds and slicing the fennel lengthways as thin as thin can be into almost transparent arcs. Once cut, you arrange your orange rounds and paper-thin slices of fennel on a plate or platter. You can fan artistically, interweave cunningly or simply scatter hopefully. To finish you punctuate your orange and white assembly with black olives – the coal-black slightly wrinkled oven baked ones work well – sprinkle with coarse salt and then dress with plenty of good extra virgin olive oil.
We had our salad of sorts with chickpeas – just cooked so still warm - dressed with coarse salt and an embarrassing amount of olive oil. There was bread too, obviously, how else would you mop up the puddle of olive oil and salty citrus, how else would you nudge the ill-behaved chickpeas onto your fork.
Look for sharply white, firm and bulbous sweet or Florentine fennel. Fennel with deep curves. Fat bottomed fennel. You may well come across flatter elongated bulbs, save them for braising or slow cooking. As for the oranges: sweet, really juicy naval are ideal. Pare away the peel carefully and set it aside for an appealing project.
The perfect antidote to downpours of rain or other bothersomeness. I also like this salad with grilled chicken or fish.
Orange, fennel and black olive salad.
- 2 large, very juicy oranges
- 1 large bulb of fennel
- a handful of black olives, ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones
- black pepper (optional)
- best extra virgin olive oil
Using a sharp knife, slice away the very top and bottom from the oranges so they sit flat. Then following the contours of the fruit carefully pare away the peel and pith. Using a serrated knife, slice the oranges crosswise into 1/4 rounds.
Cut away the stems, remove any damaged or particularly tough layers and trim the base of the fennel bulb. Reserve the feathery fronds. Halve fennel bulb lengthwise and then cut each half – again lengthways - into paper-thin slices .
Arrange the arcs of fennel and rounds of orange on a large plate. Dot the salad with either whole or slivers of black olives. Using scissors snip over the feathery fronds. Sprinkle with coarse salt (black pepper too if you so wish) and then dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.