I wasn’t someone who fantasised about upping sticks and starting a new life somewhere else. Far from it in fact: there were dozens of things I wanted to change, but London wasn’t one of them. It suited me, I fit I’d think as I pounded its pavements, parks and up the left hand side of the escalator in Camden Town station, as I worshipped in its temples of art, books, music, theatre and beer. I grumbled of course, but then I grumble everywhere, only never for very long. There were bouts of wanderlust too. Nothing serious though and nothing that couldn’t be remedied by a nice, long holiday. From which I was always glad to get back, my faith and fancy for London renewed.
Then I upped sticks and started a new life in Rome. A long-short story I’ve told before and will probably tell again – more concisely – another time. Why I mention this today, is not to unravel anything, but because yesterday morning as I walked back home down Via Galvani, the market to my left, a two thousand-year old mound of broken terracotta pots to my right, bags cutting into the crook of my arm, the September sun searing my unmediterranean skin, unable to find the words in Italian to reprimand the man parking his car across the zebra crossing, I realised that Rome suits me, I fit.
Which is surprising considering my reluctance at the start, the fact that Rome has made me acutely aware of other, outside and feel more English – which I can only describe as feeling straight only wonky – than I ever did in England, that I have struggled so inelegantly with language, culture and pasta cooking water. Or maybe it isn’t surprising, after all, there is love and work.
Love of Rome itself, glorious and grimy, particularly my wedge-shaped quarter Testaccio and the people in it. Of Roman food: bold, brash, genuine, simple, redolent of herbs, pulses, grains, pork, lamb, ricotta, olive oil, vegetables. A love for Luca – which I would have anywhere I know – that feels inextricably knotted with the city he was born in. Yesterday he swaggered along beside me, maritozzo (a sweet yeasted bun) in hand and cream on his face, looking as Roman as his papà, treading the pavement as if he owned it, which in a way he does. He is two this week. I am 41 next week, a number which seems to fit me too, in a comfortable, slightly crumpled way.
Then there is work, work I really like, as an English and theatre teacher, singing children’s books to life with my Brazilian guitar playing sidekick for a captive audience of five years olds. ‘Don’t get your knickers in a twist said Jack, let’s have a look in the patchwork sack? My former actress self would have shuddered, which says it all really, she was always getting her knickers in a twist. And now there is work that is muddled with love: writing a book with a British publishing house called Saltyard Books and a US one called Grand Central Publishing, a project so good and fitting it makes me want to open a bottle of wine, drink it all, dance on a table and then fall off.
I have a nearly year to write the book, which is called Five Quarters, Recipes from a Roman kitchen. First and foremost it will be a recipe book, a distinctly Roman one, but one in which the recipes are woven together by stories, seasons, daily life, people, pictures and other pieces. In short it will be rather like my blog, only neater, with more rhyme and reason and edited by those who know how to use semicolons correctly and recognise when 800 words should be 400.
I plan to talk about the book here, not too much, but enough to make sense of what is happening in my life and more importantly in my kitchen. Keeping notes about the book here is also a way to include you all, after all you are as much a part of this book as the market, my butcher, my baker or my family. It is thanks to you all reading and cooking along that I am where I am now. I feel full of appreciation, thank you.
And so the recipe, panzanella, or bread salad, a Tuscan dish, but one also found on Roman tables, a dish it had taken me a while to understand. Which is slightly ridiculous considering how simple it is to make. My panzanella hesitation arose from my reluctance to acknowledge that panzanella is made from old bread dampened back to life with water. It was the dampening you see, the idea of wetting bread until soft and soggy then squeezing, it just seemed odd.
As so often the case I needed to watch someone else, something I am doing rather a lot these days. When I arrived at Jo’s house there were three or four hunks of old bread (excellent quality coarse country bread) sitting in a bowl of water, wallowing really. Once they were soft and soaked, she ripped the bread into rough pieces and then got me to squeeze away the excess water and then break the bread into soft crumbs in a large bowl.
Traditionally panzanella was little more than dampened bread, salt, oil, vinegar and fantasy, a dish born out of necessity and resourcefulness, something Romans were (and to a certain extent still are) very good at. If they were available, chopped tomatoes and their juices, ripped basil, cucumber, onion, olives or anchovy might be added to the unchanging foundation of damp bread, olive oil, salt and a sharpening douse of vinegar.
Like Jo, I added chopped tomatoes, cucumber, mild red onion and lots of ripped basil. I was generous with the olive oil and careful with the red wine vinegar (just enough to sharpen, not too much as to shock, which is obviously a matter of taste.) I let the panzanella sit for an hour before serving, so the crumbs could soak up the flavours and then settle down again.
If like me you are used to rather more modern interpretations of panzanella, of bowls of toasted cubes, of garlic rubbed chunks, of pretty things with peaches, soft greens, and heirloom tomatoes, this might come as a bit of a surprise, being is it is a soft, sodden tumble, a damp salad more reminiscent of cous cous than bread, even though it is unmistakably bread.
However panzanella made this way makes more sense, it is also good, tasty, full and fitting for these last days of summer. Bread, love, fantasy, work, and lunch, what more could I want. A drink of course, make mine a prosecco.
Panzanella Bread salad
serves 4 as lunch (with a chop or two) or six as part of an antipasti.
- 6 thick slices of old (good quality) country bread. Sourdough works.
- cold water
- 6 ripe, flavoursome tomatoes
- a small red onion
- a small cucumber
- a handful of fresh basil leaves
- extra virgin olive oil as required
- red wine vinegar
Put the slices of bread in a bowl, sprinkle generously with cold water and leave for 20 minutes.
Wash and small dice the tomatoes making sure to catch any juices. Peel and finely slice the red onion. Peel and dice the cucumber (cutting away the central seeds of you feel they are bitter.) Rip the basil leaves into small spices.
Using your hands tear and crumble the damp bread into rough crumbs and rags, squeezing it over the sink if it feel too damp. Put the bread back in the bowl. Add the chopped vegetables (and juices) to the bread. Sprinkle generously with salt, douse with olive oil and sprinkle with a little red wine vinegar. Use your hands to mix and turn the salad. Allow to sit for 30 minutes. Mix again and serve.
Good bread is fundamental, coarse country bread or sourdough works well, bad bread will collapse into a gluey mess. It should be at least two days old, so firm, hard even. The way you wet the bread depends on how hard it is! Day old bread might only need a sprinkle – Vincenzo’s Nonna waved the slices under the tap, back and forth. Some people pour an inch of water into the bowl and then lay the slices in the water, like my child in a puddle. Really hard bread, might need a proper bath-like soak and then a blooming good squeeze, after all the salad should be damp but not wet. It is up to you if you rip the bread into rags or break it into crumbs. If you find the flavour of raw red onion too strong, soak the slices in a half water/half vinegar solution for 20 minutes before adding them to the salad, this will take away the onion punch but leave the savory- sweetness.
Another note - I apologise if you are seeing an advert here, I had no idea, it is very annoying but the price you pay for an otherwise brilliant wordpress blog. I am getting them removed.