Of course I thought Rome was glorious, but I didn’t want to stay. A month, three at most, then I’d take a train back to Sicily, finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted, before moving even further southwards-somewhere. Then about halfway through that first reluctant month, April 2005 to be precise, urged by my architect friend Joanna, we visited possibly the most Roman of Roman quarters: Testaccio
Approaching Testaccio for the first time as we did by bus, lurching from Lungotevere into via Marmorata then swinging sharply into Via G. Branca, I was caught off guard. Linear and grid-like, the blocks of undistinguished looking 19th-century buildings seemed hard, passionless even, after the delectable warren of terra-cotta hued medieval alleys, the exhilarating sprawl of imperial ruins and the curves, courtyards and staircases of Borromini we’d been lost in.
Disoriented, we stepped off the bus into broad and busy Via G. Branca. Joanna was already engaged, her eyes darting eagerly, words like ‘Public housing, elevations, detail, brickwork, internal courtyard, community, fascinating’ tumbling from her lips. We walked, wandered really – the best way and invariably a happy adventure in Rome – down tree-lined vie, past tenement blocks and clusters of chattering signore, peering into vast internal courtyards, sneaking up well ventilated stairwells, pressing our noses up against the frosted glass windows of local tratorrie, all the time Joanna mumbling and making notes.
The hard lines seemed to soften and the streets – although always neatly aligned – narrowed and relaxed as we moved into the heart of Testaccio. We watched a wicker basket being lowered from a fifth floor window, shopping deposited within, before the basket was hauled back up and swallowed by lace curtains. Just as our eyes were becoming accustomed to the distinguished late 19th century architecture, four arches of an ancient edifice, as if forlorn giants, loomed up before us. We gazed upwards at the sculpture of a winged god punching out an innocent bull atop the defunct slaughter-house and downwards at the expanse of cobble stones between which were wedged innumerable cigarette butts. We were jostled and elbowed, awkward tourists we, by the commotion and the rowdy market life of Testaccio. We sat at one of the small round tables outside Zia Elena and drank ill-timed cappuccini while Joanna confirmed what I was starting to suspect, Testaccio was charismatic and captivating, rudely real and remarkable, that I should find a flat here.
I’m still here of course. Once that English girl, now very much (and quite happily) that English woman, less idealistic and romantic but no less enamoured with my adopted home. My mum is visiting this week and at this very moment pushing my small boy, a half Testaccino, around the same streets Joanna and I pounded. Meanwhile I sit here at my red table looking out onto the cavernous courtyard of my building, which just happens to be the first building I noted as the bus swerved into Testaccio almost eight years ago to the day.
Lately I’ve been having nice conversations about why I came to Rome, why I stayed and why I cook and write in the way I do. My answer is almost invariably, Testaccio. I stayed in Rome even though I’d no intention of doing so because of Testaccio, a quarter with an identity and character stronger than anyone I know. Of course I’d cook wherever I was, but I cook in the way I do because I’m here and influenced by the very particular cooking of this very particular area, by the local market and the shops I visit every day. Before you roll your eyes at this, I should note that many of the shops and most certainly the market itself – which has recently moved – are a far cry from any rustic, whimsical or mediterranean idyll you might imagine, for although charming, they are straightforward, traditional, ordinary.
Straightforward, traditional, ordinary, such pleasing words and appropriate ones too when it comes to describing Roman food. Another thing that’s kept coming up in our conversations this week, is how aspects of Roman food have much in common with northern English food, the food my parents were raised on and an important part of my kitchen heritage. Both are straightforward, traditional, ordinary. I like ordinary. Homely cooking rooted in tradition. Cooking that makes good use of lesser cuts which require thought, resourcefulness and skill if they are to be transformed into something sustaining and satisfying. The enterprising use of the other parts of the animal, parts that would otherwise be wastefully and scornfully discarded: tripe, tails, feet, sweetbreads, liver, lungs (don’t squirm they are absolutely delicious if cooked well.) There is a nice symmetry for me that the iconic Roman dish: Coda alla vaccinara, braised ox tail with celery, bears an uncanny resemblance to a Lancastrian dish, a taste of my childhood and culinary heritage: ox tail stew.
I am waiting to make Coda alla vaccinara with Leonardo so that was out. We considered boiled beef, one of my favourites and another dish with which to observe this Roman / northern English connection – cooking for me is all about making connections. Do you know the recipe I have for Roman Lesso is almost identical to the recipe for boiled beef and carrots my northern family would make? Then the sun came out and the discussions turned to spring, Easter, and celebratory lunches in both Rome and Manchester. Not that it was Sunday. Mum reminisced and I ruminated while we walked from my flat in via Marmorata to the market. By the time we reached my butcher we had decided: roast lamb with potatoes on Wednesday it would be.
Alice would have roasted half a leg or half a shoulder, English lamb being older, bolder and larger. In Rome the lamb roasted with potatoes is – more often than not - abbacchio or suckling lamb. A small, slim leg with ribs and kidneys attached is perfumed with fresh rosemary and garlic, then cooked in slow oven with pieces of potato anointed with strutto (lard) or olive oil until the potatoes are golden and crisp, the meat tender and falling from the bone.
We English are mocked for our plate piling and tempestuous sea of gravy, especially on Sundays. My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, was not a fan of such plate chaos. She would have served her lamb as they do in Rome, a nice slice or two, beside it a couple of burnished potatoes, over it a spoonful of the juices from the bottom of the pan.
I’m almost certain you have your own recipe for roast lamb with potatoes, this post is nothing more than a long-winded reminder. Below is the way I cook lamb, that is: in a rather Roman manner with distinctly British sensibilities. On Easter Sunday we will start with fave e pecorino followed by a modest slice of lasagne ai carciofi and then, for secondo, this simply roasted lamb. We will then adopt somnolent postures on the nearest soft furnishing, cover our faces with the Observer and doze.
Abbachio al forno con le patate Roast lamb with potatoes
- 2 kg very young, lamb. Ideally leg with ribs and kidneys
- lard or extra virgin olive oil
- 3 cloves of garlic
- several sprigs of fresh rosemary
- freshly ground black pepper
- 1k g potatoes
In Rome they slash the leg of lamb deeply (but not cutting through entirely) creating thick slices.
Lay the lamb in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate it with the potatoes. Peel and slice the garlic and break the rosemary into small sprigs. Rub your hands with lard or olive oil and then massage the lamb inserting the slivers of garlic and sprigs into the slashes as you go. By the time you’ve finished the lamb should be glistening and scented with garlic and rosemary.
Smear a little lard or oil on the base of the tin and then lay the leg skin side down. Season with salt and black pepper leave to rest for 30 minutes or so.
Set the oven to 180° / 350F.
Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters, rub them with lard or olive oil (hands are best) and then arrange them around the lamb. Season the potatoes with a little salt.
Slide the lamb into the oven. Cook for about an hour – basting every so often and turning the leg twice – or until the meat is very tender when prodded with a fork. Very young lamb might need less, older lamb more. Some people like to pour a glass of white wine over the lamb half way through the cooking time, In this case I don’t
Allow the meat to rest, covered loosely with foil, for at least 10 minutes before serving in thick slices with a potato or two and a spoonful of the sticky juices from the bottom of the pan.