what remains

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One morning at about 9 it crossed my mind that I might actually live at the noisiest point on one of the noisiest streets in Rome. A queue of morning traffic, engines low but persistent, crawled along via Galvani, horns sounding indignantly at roadworks, traffic lights and i motorini who seemed to taunt the crawl with their cheeky weaving. A fire engine, siren waling, burst from the station on the corner, split traffic and sped past our window, while a pair of road-sweeping-rubbish-crunching vehicles went about their daily business slowly and loudly. Inside, my son, incensed that he wasn’t allowed smarties for breakfast, lay on the floor howling.

Dressed hurriedly and still shuddering with the last gasping sobs, we joined the fray on Via Galvani, which now included some argy-bargy over double parking, blasphemous insults being thrown back and forth like a ball. We bought two squares of hot pizza bianca from Guerrini and then walked past the fire station, down via Marmorata and into the cemetery to visit a poet and count cats.

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In a crook of the ancient city wall, The Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery is an easy place to overlook. Which you might consider a good thing. But then you would miss the epitome of a secret garden just minutes from the chaos, a serene sanctuary of grass, gravel paths and graves, some of which rest under marbled-feathered angel wings. It’s a place that manages to be both bright and shady, overhung with umbrella pines and cypresses and heavy with the tangled scent of jasmine, oleander and plumbago.

Forbidden by catholic laws, protestants and other non-catholics have been buried on this site for hundreds of years. However the cemetery was only formally defined by the Holy See in 1821. It was also in 1821 that the young English poet John Keats, after three months in Rome seeking a better climate for his worsening tuberculosis, died and was buried in the cemetery. Two years later the reckless Percy Bysshe Shelley, having drowned at sea, was also buried in the cemetery, as was the son of Goethe;  the Russian painter Karl Brullov and Antonio Gramsci, the founder of the Italian Communist Party. Here are the graves of protestants, orthodox christians, jews, muslims, atheists and agnostics, the graves of writers, painters, sculptors, historians, archaeologists, diplomats, scientists, architects and poets whose tomb inscriptions are engraved in more than fifteen languages.

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Sitting on a bench, counting cats in the sweet calm and unlikely November sun, I realised it was the 2nd of November, All Souls’ Day, The Day of the Dead and I was in a cemetery. An egalitarian cemetery in which the most eclectic and creative, often young, sometimes reckless, occasionally revolutionary group of people are buried, many of them non-Italian’s (and often English) who made their home in Italy. We went to visit Keats where I managed four lines of Ode to Autumn, then Shelly, where I managed three of Ozymandias, before realising my son was attempting to climb on top of a tomb. We said goodbye to as many souls as we could, crunched through the gravel – which is hilarious if you are two – and left the calm for the noise – which had subsided – once more.

Later the same day baking fave dolci or sweet beans, felt appropriate too, after all, the ritual of offering fave (broad beans) as solace for visiting souls on the 2nd of November dates back to pre-christian times. Over time the fave offered evolved into sweet biscuits called fave dolci or fave dei morti. Which aren’t actually fave at all, but crisp almond biscuits, aromatised with citrus or cinnamon and dusted with icing sugar to look like fave, or little bones, hence the other name ossi di morti. A sweet treat for visiting souls and a reminder of family joy and sorrow.

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They are simple to make. Having pound almonds and fine sugar into dusty crumbs, you add butter, an egg, the zest of a lemon and just enough flour to bring everything together into a sticky dough. Very sticky, don’t worry! Then with well-floured hands you temper a spoonful of the dough first into a ball and then – on a well-floured board – a log. You then cut the log into short lengths, move them onto a lined baking tray and then press each piece gently in the center, ostensibly making it look like a fave. Once the fave dolci are baked, you dust them with icing sugar.

Fave dolci are crisp but with the soft, round flavour of toasted almond and the distinct note of citrus, from the, um, citrus zest. They are a little heavier than amaretti – which is the small quantity of flour – but are still light, brittle enough to shatter between your teeth and then melt in your mouth. They are good with an espresso and please – if not all – most souls on most days.

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Fave dolci (almond beans)

Adapted from The Brilliant Food of Rome and Lazio by Oretta Zanini De Vita

  • 100 g almonds
  • 100g fine sugar
  • 80 g plain flour plus more for dusting
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • 25 g butter (at room temperature)
  • 1 medium egg

Using a pestle and mortar or blender, crush or pulse the sugar and almond into a fine flour. Transfer to a bowl and then add the flour, butter, zest and eggs and using a spoon bring the mixture together into a sticky dough. Do not be tempted to add more flour at this point, the mixture should be sticky.

With well-floured hands break the dough into 6 pieces and then on a well floured board roll each piece into a 2 cm thick cylinder and then cut each cylinder into 2 cm long sections. Press each piece with the tip of your index finger so they look like fave and then arrange them on a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper.

Bake in a preheated oven at 180° / 350F for 20 minutes or until the biscuits are just pale golden. Allow to cool and dust with icing sugar.

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If you are coming to Rome, I highly recommend a visit to the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Try and get there as early as possible (it opens at nine) and you could well have the place all to yourself. Also if you understand Italian, Alesandro Rubinetti and Teatro Reale organise excellent and evocative walking tours of the cemetery.

49 Comments

Filed under almonds, biscuits and biscotti, cucina romana, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

49 responses to “what remains

  1. I bet they are delicious. I have prepared several times a very similar recipe of almond biscuits, but I didn’t know the this story behind them, so beautifully written.

    • rachel

      Thank miriam. Unlike the other almond biscuits I make these have some flour, only 80 g grams, but it’s enough to give them a proper biscuit texture: lovely though.They keep v.well.

  2. On my next trip to Rome I will have to take a walk in that cemetery… I have heard about it but never been there.

  3. Nadia

    Lovely write-up. I’ll be in Rome next summer so I must visit that cemetery! On Italian almond biscuits, when I was on holiday in Marche a few years ago I tried variants of soft chewy almond biscuits in various village bakeries and they were always delicious. I wish I knew where to get the recipes.

  4. Your description of the cemetery is so captivating that I -someone who generally eschews cemeteries at all costs- want to go there and sit on a little bench next to Keats and smell the oleander, jasmine and plumbago. One of these cookies might come in handy as well.

  5. Lauren

    So I’m not the one with a toddler who has tantrums over not being allowed chocolate for breakfast. Thank god for that! Lovely post, look forward to giving them a go.

    • rachel

      He screamed for an hour – how is that possible. Later that same day he lay on the floor of a shop howling because I wouldn’t buy him a family-sized cake. Ah the joy.

  6. Kate

    what a lovely read for my slightly weary head this morning. note to self: must come and visit you in the spring x

  7. greyfavorite

    Lovely post. FYI the link the Non-Catholic cemetery is keeping me on Rachel Eats and giving me a “not found” error.

  8. Sitting in New Hampshire in the woods and so enjoy your posts Rachel. Your writing really allows me to transport myself. I will make these biscuits this weekend. Thank you.

  9. What a beautiful post, from noise to calm in a few steps. I am impressed with your poetry recitation. I like the sound of these little almond biscuits very much.

  10. I visited Rome just twice, and yet the Protestant Cemetery is a place I must visit every time. I fills me with an inner peace I struggle to believe possible. I love that part of it where Keats is buried – always green whenever I visit, fall or summer. ‘ Cemetery Gates’ plays in my head. I sit there and let the feeling permeates me, and leave solaced and ready to tackle the crowds of Rome once again – maybe. I yet have to find such a Place in London. The closest to it being a hidden garden belonging to a villa-now-museum near Kensington Olympia. Unfortunately, opened only in the summer. If you know of any, I’d love to know.
    Fave. Famous also in Venice, but pink – as they are ‘tainted’ by Alchermes. Still tasty, though. But I am biased when it comes to anything made with almonds. Thank you for this lovely, peaceful piece of writing.

  11. These sound DELISH! Now if you can only teach me (all of us) how to make ricciarelli (not Roman at all) now that Christmas is coming, I will be content.

    Have you seen this:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/31/opinion/the-man-who-loved-cemeteries.html?_r=0

    And this (which is amazing):

    http://shelleygodwinarchive.org

    I don’t know. Smarties for breakfast sound almost as good as Rowntree Fruit Pastilles.

    xoxo

    • rachel

      Thank you for the wonderful links (I have just re-read the man who loved…)

      But not quite as good as smarties and fruit pastilles together – the power of the sweet.

      xx

  12. children and tantrums are such a drain, the cemetery seems the perfect place to recover.. these wee cookies look wonderful, and your images today are perfect, I bet your coffee, is strong and neat! Have a gorgeous if somewhat noisy day.. (sounds like bedlam outside your window but I would have chosen your apartment too, i have a deep and abiding horror or suburbs.. I am either right in the center or way out in the country).. c

    • rachel

      We agree – in the middle or way out….I too fear in-between. Normally I relish the noise of life but the other day was a horn-beep/ road-sweep to mush. Hope you are well xx

  13. laura

    Ciao, Rachel! VERY good to be back reading you; I did miss your prose, your photos and your recipes and am looking forward to poring over “the water going round and round the other quarter as you lose your marbles”. “Cheeky weaving” … well, imho, that whole first paragraph was worthy of the poets you visited.
    Here in Florence we also have an English/Protestant now Swiss-run Cemetery … managed by the amazing Julia Bolton Holloway who has written books of her own but deserves at least two or three herself. She has saved/is working hard to save an abandoned cemetery that manages to be a haven and a secret garden even though it is out in the open and actually serves as a roundabout. Outside the walls of the old city, just a short walk from the Duomo, it is a beautiful spot to visit and meditate in. It, too, was originally created for “the others”. You can read more about Julia Bolton Holloway’s efforts to save the cemetery and help the Romanian Roma who are helping her here:
    http://piazzaledonatello.blogspot.it/
    http://www.florin.ms/cemetery.htm
    http://www.florin.ms/florentine.html
    A presto.

  14. peppercornsinmypocket

    The recommendation comes beautifully timed. We’re starting the new year in Rome, so the non-catholic cemetery has been noted. Thanks :)
    Any trattoria in Testaccio we cannot not eat in?

    • rachel

      How wonderful. Lets just say, that Testaccio, although wonderful, is far from perfect (what is), I am pretty picky about where I eat. Agustarello for uncompromising Roman food. Flavio Valevodetto for a traditional supper (not lunch as it can have big groups). Volpetti pin for a functional but tasty, canteen lunch, La Toricella for a fish lunch if the weather is nice. All links on my sidebar. Also for Rome in general please look at Katie Parla – also linked.

      • Pia

        Thanks for that, Rachel. Browsed through the links (not with a little help from Google Translate), and their food sounds so very good. We just booked an apartment in Trastevere; ten days of traipsing and eating. Ah.
        Coincidence – Today, my daughter’s copy of ‘This is Rome’ by M. Sasek came in, and the cemetery, filled with poets, was in it.

      • rachel

        I love that book, the perfect guide for kids and adults alike. Cesare al casaletto and la gatta mangiona (also linked) are really worth a trip. have a lovely holiday and please let me know if you need any other advice x

  15. Lovely prose Rachel, as always- who needs Highgate when you have this on your doorstep! x

  16. leslie heuer

    We stumbled onto the cemetery when visiting the pyramid that is one with the wall on one side. Hoping to see the other side of the pyramid, we wandered around the back side and were pleasantly surprised by this wonderful cemetery! My young girls loved the cats and it has a metro stop, making it easy to get to.

  17. What a welcome blast from the past. In my corner of Northern Italy, we call these “favette” (“little fave”), and there would always be a box of them in my childhood home at around this time of the year. Thanks to your post, I feel a little closer to home – and quite tempted to make them, to reacquaint with a flavour I haven’t tasted in ages.

    • rachel

      I like the name favette (will I ever get used to then fact every dish, cake, biscuit and crumb has a different name in Italy.) Glad you make you feel a little closer to home, in turn you bring me closer to my other home Rx

  18. I loved your post…so descriptive that I felt I was listing and seeing all the sights with you.

  19. I know all too well the fits that ensue in response to not being able to have smarties (or cookies, etc.) for breakfast and climbing on top of a tomb! That had me smiling as well ;) The little fave dolci look delicious btw.

    • rachel

      We had it again this morning, I gave in, which was pathetic, smarties and cold potato for breakfast! they are nice biscuits, nice enough to occasionally distract a toddler from smarties x

  20. Only 25 g of butter? Well these are almost healthy then?! (Not that I care) ;-) They sound simple and delicious! I am also a huge fan of that cemetery, I especially love the tombstone with the female angel collapsed over it. So sweet and loving

  21. Pingback: Links: Apples, Cranberries with Hibiscus, and Winners | Food in Jars

  22. A really interesting post, plus these look delicious.

  23. Christina Bevilacqua

    At what temperature do I bake these?

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