Category Archives: Testaccio

progress and polpette

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It has been nearly two years since the market moved. Two years since the stall holders shifted to the luminous and angular new market on the other side of Testaccio, and the weary iron and glass structure that housed the atmospheric old market was pulled to the ground. Two years that piazza Testaccio, retired from the responsibility of being a market square, has remained in a sort of building site purgatory, netted-off on all four sides while work didn’t take place inside. “Che fanno là dentro?” “What are they doing in there?” a little girl asked her mum, words tugging in much the same way that she tugged at her sleeve. “Niente di niente” “Nothing of nothing” replied the mum tugging the little girl away from the hole in the net.

Then three months ago, in a moment that reminded me of Charlie and the Chocolate factory when after a long silence the factory chimneys start pumping smoke and mysterious figures are seen at the windows, work on the piazza began again. Not oompa loompas, but men in white protective clothing that looked rather like bee keeping suits, bringing first pieces of La Fontana delle Anfore, The Fountain of Amphorae, back to the place for which it was intended: the center of piazza Testaccio.

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Testaccio may be a quarter in the heart of a big city, but living here is like living in a village: a small, involved, mostly reassuring but occasionally claustrophobic village. The lack of work and now work  has – quite rightly – been the subject of opinionated discussion conducted in the piazza, over small cups of strong coffee in the local bars and in front of the school gates I now stand at each day at 4. “Would it ever be finished?” “Was such a laborious and expensive project realistic for a city whose finances were ruinous?” “How many benches would there be?”

Our flat is right next to the piazza, and I am the mum of a little boy who finds both holes and diggers irresistible, so each day for the last three months we have chosen a hole ripped in the thick, green netting and watched the reconstruction of the fountain. For weeks the dozens of carefully numbered pieces were laid-out as you would a jigsaw when you are starting out: with splattered logic. The splattered pieces made sense though: the fountain is familiar, having spent the last 80 years a couple of hundred meters away just near the river. It is an elegant and functional fountain consisting of four bowls at the base which rise into a column like cluster of slender travertine amphorae. It was designed by Pietro Lombardi,  inaugurated in piazza Testaccio in 1927, but then moved in 1935.

The motif of an amphora, Testaccio’s symbol, reminds us this part of Rome was the ancient Roman port. It was here amphorae, vast terra-cotta containers filled with olive oil, wine and grain were docked, unloaded and the goods decanted into smaller containers. Once emptied the amphorae that had contained oil couldn’t be used again, so were smashed and piled nearby in quite an extraordinary way. Two thousand years later this 35 meter high, kilometer round mound of shards (cocci) known as Monte die cocci  (Hill of shards) gave this relatively recently constructed part of the city its name: Testaccio. The mound still rises nonchalantly in the heart of Testaccio just seconds from our flat, into its broad base burrowed some of the cities most famous and infamous trattorie and nightclubs. Ancient and modern coexisting in the most brilliantly ordinary way.

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Yesterday morning, as December sun flooded via Mastro Giorgio and the piazza, we found our hole in the net. We were joined by Antonio the owner of the bar opposite and two ladies from our building. We all stood like linesmen observing the significant progress. “I remember when the fountain was moved from here” said one of the ladies in thick Roman. “I was 7 years old.”  There was a minute of silence as some of us did the maths. The fountain was moved in 1935, so 79 years ago, plus 7: the lady smoking a cigarette next to us was 86. “E’ giusto che la fontana stia qua, verrà proprio una bella piazza” “It’s right that the fountain is coming back here, we’re going to have a beautiful piazza.” said Antonio as a crane lifted a piece of fountain into position.

Antonio is right, it is going to be beautiful. It is also beautiful to see something being re-constructed so meticulously in a city that so often feels neglected, corrupted and as if it’s falling apart. It does look as if it might to be finished in time for Christmas, an elegant and functional heart for a handsome tree-lined piazza. Suddenly the older woman turned to me. “Ma tu sei straniera?“”But are you a foreigner?” she asked in a way I am familiar with: a question that feels like an accusation. “Yes” I replied. “My son Luca was born here though, and his dad is Roman” At which her face changed completely. “Ecco un  piccolo testaccino!” (Here’s a little testaccio boy) She then turned to Luca and asked him if he would like to play in the piazza as she did 79 years ago. He replied with suspicious narrow eyes and go away which made me feel like a crap mother. Not that the signora seemed bothered, she simply sent a curl of smoke into the cold sunny sky. We watched a while longer before saying goodbye to the Signora and the digger then walking from the old to the new market to get the ingredients for lunch.

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Which brings us to today’s ingredients and recipe, for polpette, or meatballs, again. Again, because since observing in my last recipe that when you ask an Italian about meatballs one thing is (almost always) certain; that their mother, their grandmother or their aunt made the best polpette, I have been (happily) inundated with polpette advice. Most advice concerned meatballs in tomato sauce. However this recipe, from my friend and excellent cook Eleonora is distinct and to put it bluntly: bloody marvelous. Over the last two-weeks I have followed this recipe in much the same way they we have been following progress of the fountain: often and with dedication.

These are small walnut sized polpette made from a mixture of twice ground beef and pork, fine breadcrumbs, chopped parsley, grated parmesan, two eggs, salt and pepper. Having kneaded the ingredients together vigorously, formed and rolled, you then roll the polpette in fine breadcrumbs. These are polpette in bianco, which means meatballs in white as opposed to red (meaning tomato). They are fried first in olive oil scented with garlic and then sizzled with white wine. Being small they don’t take long to cook: a few minutes in olive oil and then about 5 -7 more with the wine, which sends the most delicious savory scent swirling up and around the kitchen. There is a moment of stove alchemy when the escaped breadcrumbs, meat juices, wine and olive oil come together into a thickish gravy that clings to the tiny meatballs. Served just so on a wide platter, the gravy poured over the top, possibly a handful of parsley, they make for an immensely pleasing dish.

The day Eleonora came round and taught me how to make them, we ate our Polpette with leafy broccoletti dressed with salt, olive oil and lemon and topped with ruby-red pomegranate seeds that matched Eleonora’s dress and flaked almonds – another dish I have been making repeatedly. It was such a good lunch.

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Eleonora’s Polpette – serves 4 

Here is a taste of Eleonora’s childhood and summers spent in Puglia where her grandmother would pile platters high with these polpette. The recipe was a family one, until she shared with me, then in this lovely post on her blog. As she suggested, I have tried the recipe several times and made it my own, which is what I suggest you do too. A few notes – if possible, mince the meat twice. The breadcrumbs need to be fine, dry ones. Eleonora suggests removing the meatballs from the pan after frying them, blotting away excess oil and then returning them to the pan after adding the wine. I found it easier not to do this as there didn’t seem to be too much oil and it was so tasty, but you might like to.

  • 250 g ground beef
  • 350 g ground pork
  • 75 g fine, dry breadcrumbs plus more for rolling
  • 75 g finely grated parmesan
  • a heaped tablespoon of finely chopped parsley
  • 2 eggs
  • salt and black pepper
  • 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 200 ml white wine – you may need a little more.

Knead together the meat, breadcrumbs, parmesan, parsley, eggs, a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Work the mixture, kneading and then squeezing the ingredients together into a soft, consistent mass.

Pour more breadcrumbs on a plate. Take walnut sized balls of meat mixture and then roll them firmly between your palms into a small, neat balls. Roll the balls in breadcrumbs and sit them on a clean wooden board.

Warm the olive oil in a large, deep frying pan. Add the peeled, gently crushed but still intact garlic to the pan and fry gently until  it is golden and fragrant which should take a minute or so. Remove the garlic and then add the meatballs. Fry the meatballs, increasing the heat a little, moving them with a fork and spoon until they are brown on all sides. This will take about 6 minutes.

Add the wine – which will sizzle vigorously – and a good pinch of salt. Continue to cook the meatballs, nudging them around with a wooden spoon. As the wine reduces into a thickish gravy, scape it down from the sides of the pan and keep the meatballs moving so they cook evenly. You may need to add more wine, After about 5 mins taste a meatball to see how it is cooking. You may need to cook a little longer, you may not. Adjust seasoning if necessary and stir again.

Once cooked, turn the meatballs onto a warm platter, scrape over the gravy from the pan and sprinkle over a little more finely chopped parsley. Serve just so, with greens, salad, rice or mashed potato and a glass of wine.

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Filed under beef, food, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, Testaccio, wine, winter recipes

best shown

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Three pairs of tights and two books. I can remember exactly what I bought, because I then left the whole lot under the seat on the train I took from Kings Cross station to Harpenden. Two penguin novels and three pairs of Wolford tights that cost an arm and a leg. I realized my hands felt empty as, standing on the platform, I watched the tail of the train disappear into the dark distance on its way to the next station. I stood for quite some time on the cold platform, my breath white, feeling bereft and furious with myself. Of course the ticket office was closed and anyone who could help long gone. Back at my parents, a recorded message informed me that the lost property office was closed until nine o clock on monday, by which time I would be back in Rome, without any Wolfords. I just hoped whoever found the bag appreciated they had found sixty flipping pounds worth of tights that, if washed by hand, would retain their shape and make legs look good for years to come.

I’d bought both books and tights from Selfridges on Oxford street. It must have been late 2006 because I’d been living in Rome about a year and a half and was just about able to distinguish the roman intonation of the assistant helping me choose between matt opaque and silky effect. In between discussions about investing in good quality tights and stomach support, we talked about her home town and my new home, Rome. Quickly the discussion turned to food, or rather the assistants longing for a suppli and plate of cacio e pepe from Felice on via Mastro Giorgio in Testaccio. Via Mastro Giorgio was where I lived I told her, three buildings up from Felice. By the time we reached the cash desk, the helpful but initially cool assistant almost had her arm around me, a gesture which seemed to sum up so much about Romans and their relationship with Roman food. As she put the tights in the bag, she asked me to eat a plate of cacio e pepe from Felice for her.

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Cacio e pepe, cheese and pepper, is one of Rome’s iconic primi piatti, a pasta dish that sums up the simple, thrifty brilliance of the city’s traditional cooking. Pasta tossed vigorously with grated pecorino romano cheese, black pepper, pasta cooking water and possibly olive oil until the ingredients come together into a pale creamy sauce flecked with black that clings seductively to the pasta. Simple yet disconcertingly difficult to get right – there is a fine line between clump and cream – but utterly delicious when you do.

Like most Roman dishes, opinions and about how to make cacio e pepe are strongly held, the addition of olive oil being a particularly contentious point. There is also a very good chance whoever you are talking to, their mother, their grandmother, or their brother makes the definitive cacio e pepe. Feelings are just as strongly held about where good cacio e pepe is served. The girl who helped me choose tights and my wise friend Laura think trattoria Felice makes a fine plateful. My neighbours don’t agree. Their favorite, after their own, is to be found at the trattoria with frosted glass windows on via Marmorata, Perilli. ‘Perilli oh no‘ howled another friend in disagreement! ‘Go to Flavio Al Velavevodetto for cacio e pepe‘.

Cacio e pepe advice has been particularly plentiful for us, living as we do, in the heart of opinionated Testaccio just three doors down from Felice, a corner away from Perilli, 200 metres from Flavio, two corners from Agustarello and three from La Torricella. In short, bang in the middle of a cluster of historic Roman trattorie all serving up opinion stirring cacio e pepe with opinion stirring service. We tried them all, and slowly I began to get a sense of cacio e pepe. Over time I realised I favour long pasta coated with enough creamy sauce to allow the strands to twirl easily around the fork and tongue, just enough freshly cracked pepper to catch the back of your throat and extra pecorino dusted on top. These days I tend to avoid Felice, the cacio e pepe may be good, the service less so. I have soft spot for the cacio e pepe at Flavio and Agustarello (even though Sandro can be a tricky.) Leaving the confines of my cheese shaped quarter I also really like cacio e pepe (and the service that accompanies it) at Cesare al Casaletto and Armando al Pantheon.

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Eating out is all very well, however most of the time we eat in, so I wanted to make my own cacio e pepe, which proved much harder than I imagined. You need a teacher Vincenzo said, a good one.

So a week last Tuesday, I stood in my small kitchen with my roman friend Paola, who happens to be a chef, and she showed me how she makes cacio e pepe. First she laid out the equipment: a large bowl, a metal fork , a ladle, a small frying pan, pestle and mortar and a large pan for cooking the pasta. Next the ingredients. ‘The black pepper is vital‘ Paola said holding out a handful of Sarawak black peppercorns bought from the Emporio delle spezie almost underneath my flat. ‘Eat one‘ she urged. So I did, a whole peppercorn popped in my mouth like a sweet. Once bitten it was softly fragrant and almost tea-like until the spicy heat hit the back of the mouth and a fragment got caught in a molar. For pasta, Paola had chosen a long dried pasta made in a small independent pastificio (dried pasta maker) called Lagano here in Rome. Last but not least, there was the pecorino romano from Antica Caciara in Trastevere, which was exactly how you hope it would be, creamy, muttony and a bit impertinent.

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I have always enjoyed watching other people cook, especially those who are confident but gentle about the way they do things. Paola toasted the peppercorns in an iron pan until their fragrance opened up and swirled into the kitchen. Then she crushed them into speckled powder by hand in my make shift bowl/rolling-pin pestle and mortar, which she noted worked extremely well.  While the Pasta cooked in well-salted fast-boiling water she grated the pecorino into a soft, pale mound that just begged to be pinched. Once the pasta was about half way there, she ladled a surprisingly generous amount of pasta cooking water, by now cloudy and slightly thick with starch, into the large bowl. To the water she added a golden glug of good olive oil and then whisked the two together quickly with the fork. ‘It needs to cool a little’ she noted. ‘Or it will make the cheese seize and clump.’ Once the pasta was ready, she lifted it into the water and oil mixture. Then came movement: with one hand Paola began a firm beating/swirling movement with the fork, with the other she added the cheese, handful by handful, followed by a generous amount of pepper. The vigorous beating continued for at least a minute, the strands of pasta, pasta cooking water, cheese and pepper swirling, around the bowl until they all came together, emulsified into a sauce. Plates, piles of pasta, a little more pepper, a tavola!

The sun streamed and the noise of the traffic and kids piling out of the nearby school crept through the window into my small kitchen as we sat at the kitchen table eating cacio e pepe. We talked about Rome and roman food and how with dishes like this it is all about practice, about trying, possibly failing and trying again in order to discover how much pasta cooking water, how much cheese and pepper, how vigorous is vigorous. In short, finding your way of doing things. Paola was keen to remind me this was her way of making cacio e pepe, that she toasts her peppercorns while others don’t, that she adds olive oil while others don’t, that she mixes in a bowl while others prefer a pan, that she likes dried pasta while others favour fresh. In short, Paola, like the seven generations of her Roman family before her, has found a way that works for her. It was absolutely delicious.

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Paola’s cacio e pepe

I needed to fail at making Cacio e pepe in order to succeed – seeing how the cheese can clump and harden into strings (which is usually because the pasta or cooking water is too hot) allowed me to find a smoother way. Since our lesson I have tried this recipe three times with fine results.  You really do need to beat and toss the cheese, pasta and pasta water together boldly – think of the movement as a combination of whisking egg and and tossing salad – for quite some time – it took a good minute the other day. Don’t be put off  if you see a clump: keep on, adding a little more pasta cooking water and cheese and mixing as if your life, or rather your supper depends on it. You can of course try without olive oil.

  • 100 g long dried or 130 g fresh egg pasta per person (Tonnarelli is a favorite in Rome)
  • 40 g finely and freshly grated pecorino romano cheese per person
  • 2 tablespoons good extra virgin olive oil (optional)
  • good quality, whole black peppercorns
  • coarse salt

a large pan, a large bowl, a grater (I like my microplane), a large fork, a ladle.

Bring a large pan of well-salted water (10 g of coarse/kosher salt for every litre) to the boil.

Meanwhile toast the peppercorn gently in a small frying pan until the fragrance and essential oils open up. Crush the toasted peppercorns in a pestle and mortar. Grate the cheese, finely, onto a plate.

Once the water is boiling, added the pasta and make sure it is submerged. Check the pasta cooking time and the clock. Once the pasta is half-cooked lift a ladleful of pasta cooking water into the bowl, add two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil and whisk the two together vigorously.

Once the pasta is a minute off its cooking time, lift it into the bowl, ideally using tongs or a sieve. Swirl the pasta in the water and oil. Now using one hand to beat the pasta with the fork, use the other to start adding the cheese, handful by handful. Keep beating and swirling the pasta with the cheese until you see a cream starting to form. Once the cheese is all added, add a teaspoon of the crushed pepper. Keep beating. Add a little more pasta cooking water if necessary. Divide between plates, top with another pinch of pepper, a dusting of cheese and eat.

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Filed under cheese, cucina romana, Da Cesare al Casaletto, Eating In Testaccio, food, fresh egg pasta, pasta and rice, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio

on washing and lentils

This article was originally written for Guardian Cook and published on Friday 24th October 2014.

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When I first moved to Rome nearly 10 years ago I lived in a third floor flat above a bread-shop and shared a courtyard with a trattoria. After a month or so, the smell of baking bread and the clatter of plates and pans had become the everyday soundtrack to my life.

Similarly familiar was the sight of laundry shunting past my window on lines strung across the communal courtyard – eeck, eeck, eeck – as they ran through rusty pullies. My neighbours at the time were two elderly sisters who’d lived all their lives in the building and had laundry hanging down to an art. The sequence began at about 7am when rugs were hung, thwacked and reeled back in. Cloths, clothes and sheets followed and, once a month, I was reminded that I’d never washed a seat cover in my life, as a set of them shuddered, like a surrealist photo, into the frame. I’m sure the sisters noticed my neglect. They certainly noticed I never polished my front door, because when I did, they said ‘Brava, finalmente’.

Washing done, the sisters would set about the daily task of making lunch and the smell of pancetta in a hot pan and greens or beans (Romans eat a lot of greens and beans) rolling around in boiling water would meet those swirling up from the trattoria below. In my own kitchen, door open onto the courtyard – an enthusiastic cliché – I did my best to join in.

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Ten years on, I no longer live in that building. I am close-by though and still visit the bread-shop on the first floor, friends on the second and the sisters on the third, usually with my 3 –year-old half-Roman son. Inevitably we pause on one of the narrow balconies above the communal courtyard; Luca to kick the railings, me hoping to catch a nostalgic sound or smell. Places and habits change: it has been a while since we ate at the trattoria whose kitchen windows open onto the communal courtyard. However I still feel affection for a place that provided the background clatter to my kitchen life for six years, the place in which I ate many traditional Roman dishes for the first time: carbonara, amatriciana, oxtail stew, braised artichokes and bitter greens were all eaten here, and then later, the minestre: thick, pulse-based soup-stews reinforced with pasta. I say later, because I noticed and ignored all of these dishes – now my staples – on plasticized menus and daily specials boards (which I thought ironic, as they sounded anything but) for quite some time. Too dense, too beige, I’d think before ordering the pasta with clams.

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I wish I could say I came round to the satisfying pleasure of minestre by myself, but I didn’t. It was my partner Vincenzo, who, like many Italians I know, is happily devoted to these unassuming dishes. He ordered, I tasted. My conversion was slow but sure; a taste of rosemary scented chickpea soup with ribbons of tagliatelle, another of fresh borlotti blushing with fresh tomatoes and quills of pasta, a spoonful, then two, of braised lentils, plainly good, dotted with tiny tubes of pasta called ditalini or little thimbles.

The first minestra I made at home was the beige-sounding but reliably delicious pasta and potatoes, finished with a blizzard of grated pecorino cheese. The next was pasta and lentils, for which I asked and received a disproportionate amount of advice, ranging from scant and impressionistic, to opinionated and precise instruction. I tried and tested until I found way that I liked, that worked for me and suited how I like to eat.

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True to Roman traditions, the way I like to eat these days is mostly simple, unfussy, nutritious food that tastes good. I value good value too. I also enjoy not cooking as much as I do cooking, so the prospect of a pan of food that provides two or three meals is very appealing. This is why a big pan of lentils, braised with a soffritto of extra virgin olive oil, onion, carrot, celery and garlic and is one of my most trusted things to make, half to be served with some pasta or rice, the rest the following day (when the lentils are even tastier) with grilled or pan-fried sausage or a frilly edged fried egg.

These days, with no shared courtyard and no sisters, there is no-one to notice the (in)frequency of my laundry. No sisters either to notice my annual door polishing or that I’ve mastered my weekly minestra. However, I am pretty sure that if they knew, they would approve.

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A pan of braised lentils to serve two ways

8 Servings

  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 rib of celery
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 500 g small brown lentils – Castelluccio lentils from Umbria are particularly good
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve –  250 – 400 g rice or pasta for the first meal then 4 pork sausage or 4 large free range eggs for the second meal.

Finely chop the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cover the base of a large heavy-based frying or sauté pan with olive oil over a medium-low heat, add the chopped vegetables and cook very gently until they are soft, but not coloured.

Pick over the lentils to check for gritty bits, then rinse thoroughly and add them to the pan along with the bay leaves, stirring for a minute or two until each lentil glistens with oil. Cover with 1.2 litres of water (the water should come about 2.5 cm above the lentils), bring to the boil and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook the lentils, stirring occasionally, adding a little more water if they seem a little dry, until they are tender but not squidgy – they should still have lentil integrity. Ideally not all the water should be absorbed and the lentils should be just a little soupy. This will take 25–50 minutes, depending on the lentils. Season them generously with salt and pepper.

First meal

Gently re-heat half the lentils. Cook the pasta or rice in plenty of well-salted, fast boiling water until al dente and then drain reserving some of the cooking water. Mix the lentils and the cooked pasta or rice, adding a little of the reserved water to loosen the consistency if you think fit. Serve with more extra virgin olive oil poured over the top and a bowl of grated parmesan cheese for those who wish.

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Second meal.

Gently re-heat the rest of the lentils, adding a handful of finely chopped parsley and a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil for shine. Divide between four bowls and top each one with a grilled or pan-fried sausage or fried egg.

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There is also an accompanying short film to this article made by Micheal Thomas Jones, Marissa Keating and Mina Holland you can see here.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cucina romana, recipes, soup, Testaccio, Uncategorized, winter recipes

well-dressed

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If you’d told me writing a book involved so much not-writing and staring blankly, I’m not sure I would have believed you. At least there is the cooking, lots of it, although not in the way I imagined. Which was rambling, recipe testing sessions during which friends dropped in and out, alternating with quiet radio four filled days of experimentation. The reality is (mostly) me with wild eyes, cooking and photographing two diametrically opposed dishes on a small stove, Vincenzo commenting on the pasta and Luca standing on a chair with no trousers and his socks at half-mast shouting ‘What doin? I help knife it mamma‘. Not that I would have it any other way.

Yesterday, having done more than enough not-writing, Luca and I went for a walk. Our usual route, along via Galvani,  through the market (buying soft, sweet, yeasted buns from Costanza and a head of broad, pale escarole from Mario) across the cobblestones and into the Ex-Mattatoio, where the big bambu, a 25 meter high sculpture made from thousands of bamboo poles ingeniously bound and jointed, is dressed as a christmas tree. I’m not sure who was more delighted. Back home, even though Luca stood on a chair brandishing a wooden spoon, I didn’t get wild-eyed, I made pasta with ricotta and lots of black pepper, thinning the cheese with a little pasta cooking water, and then this salad.

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The key to this salad of escarole, gorgonzola cheese, walnuts and pear, is making sure the foundations, the structural weave of leaves, are well dressed. The best way to do this is with your – scrupulously clean – hands, rubbing, almost massaging the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Over the glistening leaves, you break the cheese, crumble the nuts, slice the pear and then gently turn the salad again.

I am generally wary of busy salads and however attractive and potentially tasty, feel disappointed, cheated even if they are called lunch. I felt neither wary nor cheated yesterday. While the pasta eaters ploughed, I ate two plates of bitter/sweet leaves in the folds and creases of which hid nubs of creamy, heady gorgonzola, milky, musty walnuts and arcs of sweet pear. Impertinent flavors and textures playing off against each other and then harmonizing cleverly. There was of course bread. I did feel a little cheated of my inch or two of wine (I am great believer in drinking – just a little – at lunchtime) but there was yellow bread making and non-writing to be done.

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Escarole, gorgonzola, walnut and pear salad

serves two

  • a small head of escarole
  • a ripe but firm pear
  • 100 g gorgonzola
  • a handful of walnuts or hazelnuts
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • salt
  • a few drops of good balsamic or sweet sherry vinegar (optional)

Wash and then dry the escarole before ripping it into approachable pieces. Peel and core the pear, rubbing the outside with a cut lemon as you work to stop it discoloring. Shell the walnuts and break them into small pieces. Using the point of a sharp knife and your hands break the cheese into smallish pieces.

Put the leaves in a bowl or serving dish, sprinkle over a little salt, pour over some olive oil and a few drops of balsamic vinegar if you are using it. Use your hands to rub, the oil, salt and vinegar into the leaves. Slice the pear over the leaves, add the cheese and nuts and again – gently – use your hands to toss the salad. Serve.

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Filed under cheese, Rachel's Diary, salads, Testaccio, Uncategorized

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.

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

sage advice

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There is something forgotten and faded about sage, its musty nature reminiscent of somewhere that’s been shut up for too long, its dusty-green hue like something dulled by too much sunlight. Musty and dusty, lemon and camphour tinged, soft as moleskin yet rugged as my removal man, sage is one of my favourite herbs.

It had only been shuttered up for three months, but our new flat had a sage-like feel to it before I flung open the wooden shutters and windows on Saturday. I wonder if that was the reason I bought the plant? An unconscious herbal response to our new home! It’s the first of many pots that will eventually line our long, narrow balcony, providing me with kitchen herbs and Luca plenty of leaf-tugging and pot-pulling temptation.

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Ignorning all advice, sage and otherwise, opting instead for the furious adrenaline fueled frenzy that spontaneously erupts when you leave everything to the last-minute, meant the move was unpleasant. I’m not sure I have ever felt quite so frazzled and frothing. Luca on the other hand thought all the boxes, heaving, open windows, bottles of toxic cleaner and flapping lift doors were hilarious.

Four days later and although far from organized and still besieged by homeless items, we are relieved and happy to be in our new flat. It feels pleasant and absolutely right. You might remember that Testaccio is shaped like a quarter or – rather more memorably – a large wedge of parmesan cheese. Our old flat was on one cut side. We are now on the other, the arc of the wedge being the river. Our balcony hangs over busy, plain-tree lined Via Galvani. Bearably busy though and punctuated  – much to Luca’s delight – by the intermittent clip-clop clatter of the horses pulling carriages back to their home in the Ex-Mattaotio.

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I’ve had it in mind to batter and deep-fry sage leaves for months now, ever since eating rather more than my fair share at an aperitivo. The moorishly delicious leaves and my social ineptitude are to blame in equal measure for my disproportionate consumption. In possession of a sage plant, an ancient cooker positioned next to a blowy balcony door and flat to be warmed – I fried.

I’m sure we all have strong, possibly uncompromising views on batter. Where flowers and herbs are concerned I like mine light and delicate. Having whisked together 200 ml of warm water, 100 g of plain flour, 2 tbsp of olive oil and a hefty pinch of salt, I leave my pale batter to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. Once it’s the spoon-clinging consistency of thick cream, I fold in a couple of eggs whites beaten so vigorously they stand to attention in peaks.

I drag the leaves through the batter, this side and that, before lowering them into very hot oil. It takes just seconds, a nudge and a flip, for the soft battered leaves to puff and seize into crisp golden cocoons. A slotted spoon is needed to lift the leaves from the oil onto first: a plate lined with brown paper or kitchen towel and then: another a clean plate over which I launch a shower of fine salt. The crisp, golden batter shatters and gives way to a warm, musky leaf. A few battered leaves, a cold beer (in a Nutella glass no less) on a sun-drenched balcony and all was well and good.

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Talking of strong, uncompromising views, I have encountered many on the subject of the delightfully named saltimbocca – which literally translated means jump-in the-mouth – a most glorious combination of veal, prosciutto, sage, butter and wine. ‘Slice upon slice with the sage leaf pinned like a brooch‘ some say. ‘The veal dipped in flour‘ others cry. ‘Sage leaf under prosciutto’. ‘Sage leaf over prosciutto.‘A sprinkling of parmesan.’ Wine!’ ‘No no Marsala!’ ‘3 minutes.’ ‘7 minutes.’ 

Being, as I am, a saltimbocca novice, I was more than happy to let a friend who is staying take the lead. Alida learned from her father Adriano who in turn learned from his mother who in turn……. The veal must be best quality and thinly sliced. If it isn’t thin enough, a couple of rolls with a wooden pin should do the trick. There is no dusting in flour, no scattering of parmesan, simply a slice of veal, another of prosciutto, a single sage leaf, a flick of black pepper, a roll, a tuck and a strategic skewering with a toothpick

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As Alida cooked the saltimbocca: first warming butter and oil until smoking, then leaving the pale-pink rolls untouched in the hot fat until they formed a deep golden crust, she explained the reason for rolls as opposed to a flat, open saltimbocca. Rolled she noted, the veal retains an exquisite pink tenderness at its heart. There is also a sliver of sage, a musky note, in every bite. ‘Of course you could try the open saltimbocca or a sprinkling of flour or parmesan‘ she said as she lifted the edge of a roll with a fork. Her eyes however, lifted in much the same way as the corner of the veal roll suggested – in inimitable Italian style – otherwise.

Once the saltimbocca are cooked – which takes just a matter of minutes – you move them into a warm plate while you deglaze the pan. Alida did this by pouring some white wine into the pan and then using a wooden spoon to scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and golden crust from the bottom. Back over a lively the flame she added a generous nub of butter and allowed it to melt and thicken the dark and richly flavoured sauce before pouring it over the saltmibocca.

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For those of you with sage doubts, this is a dish that could well convince you otherwise. The domineering and bitter side of sage’s character is smothered, like gossip by silence, into something softer and more forgiving.

I rhapsodized over my meal – I had drunk rather a lot of wine – and finally understood others fervent devotion to this (near perfect) combination and timeless dish. Not so much a jump, more a languorous roll in the mouth. The combination of veal – golden and caramelized outside and tender within – fatty and salty prosciutto, darkly musty sage and a butter and wine sauce is a heady and purely pleasurable one. Unlike moving.

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Saltimbocca   Veal rolls with prosciutto and sage

Recipe from my friend Alida and her father Adriano Borgna

I haven’t given precise quantities for oil, butter and wine because it feels counter intuitive for dish like this. Taste, practice and a heavy hand with the butter and wine.

for 2 as a main course or 4 as small second dish.

  • 8 thin slices of veal
  • 8 slices of untrimmed prosciutto
  • 8 sage leaves
  • black pepper
  • salt
  • olive oil
  • butter
  • white wine

Over each slice of veal lay a slice of prosciutto and a sage leaf. Grind over a little black pepper and sprinkle over a little salt. Roll the veal into a neat log and then secure with a toothpick.

Warm a generous nub of butter and some olive oil in a good, heavy based pan. Once the fat is very hot and smoking add the rolls. Allow the rolls to sit untouched so a golden crust forms then turn them 90° and again allow a crust to form. Once the rolls are cooked and coloured evenly (this should take about 3 minutes) move them onto a warm plate.

Add some white wine to the pan and using and wooden spoon scrape and dislodge all the dark, sticky juices and crust from the base of the pan. Then back on the flame, add a generous nub of butter and allow it to melt and thicken the dark sauce which you then pour over your saltimbocca.

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Filed under antipasti, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, sage, supper dishes, Testaccio, veal

Pleasingly bitter

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Cicoria is bitter. Like spinach that’s lost a lawsuit. It’s also tangy, slightly metallic, wild and grassy tasting. The vegetable equivalent of a frolic in a field with a handsome heavy metal drummer who forages and writes poetry in his spare time. There’s also sweetness lurking in the serrated leaves and plump stem, some say spiciness too. But it’s the bitterness that prevails, and it’s for this reason I love cicoria. Which isn’t really surprising given how much I like bitter in my pint glass, my carmine coloured aperitivo, my amaro, my marmalade, my salad, my chocolate, my coffee, my life.

Unaccustomed and unqualified as I am, I going to try to put cicoria into some sort of biological and historical context!  I’ll keep it brief I promise. Then we can proceed as usual! You know the routine, I ramble on about running away to Italy and my tedious existential crisis, detail the Roman meal during which I first I ate cicoria and describe how I succumbed to the advances of the man at the next table – eat, pay, shove – before giving you a recipe.

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The cicoria I’m talking about, the dark-green, narrow-leaved shoot above, is a variety of the genus Cichorium intybus called Dentarella or –  for less tongue twisting – Italian dandelion or Cutting chicory. It looks, as you’ve probably noticed, a little like an oversized dandelion with its glossy, slightly serrated leaves. Other varieties of this genus you might be familiar with are puntarelle, deep-red radicchio or the milky white bulbs of witloof we British call chicory. Although related, cicoria is not to be confused with endive, curly endive (called chicory in the US), chicoreè frisèe or escarole. Baffled?  I know!  This is a topic beset by considerable confusion.

Cicoria is the cultivated relative of cicoria selvatica or wild chicorya food foraged and favored since Antiquity. Wild cicoria still thrives in parks, lay-bys and the undulating countryside surrounding the Eternal city. This interview with Sarah May makes for lovely listening for the cicoria curious amongst you.

In Rome it’s still not unheard-of to find a rogue market stall with an heap of foraged cicoria selvatica! Wild tangled greens: primitive, savage and reeking of another time. But these days you’re most likely to find cultivated cicoria, like the bagful at the top of this post, cicoria as bouncy, unruly and gloriously green as a classroom of five-year olds after a sugary snack and a lesson painting pictures of grass.

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Modern Romans, even tiny ones, covet and consume cicoria as passionately as their forefathers, growing, collecting, buying and eating it in enormous quantities. More often than not it’s blanched or boiled – which soothes the bitterness – drained scrupulously and then sautéed or ripassata in olive oil, garlic and possibly chilli: cicoria in padella. It’s then eaten as a contorno (vegetable side dish) or piled generously on warm pizza bianca.

And the meal?  It was nearly eight years ago at a small, idiosyncratic trattoria in Testaccio called Augustarello. A trattoria that has recently reclaimed its rightful position as my favorite place to eat in Rome. Sitting at one of the dozen or so tables in this tiny locale with its frosted windows (to keep prying eyes out) and its bold open kitchen (to allow prying eyes in,) I first ate a dish of cicoria in padella.

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There was no epiphany or foodquake, just a glistening tangle of dark-green cicoria: tangy, slightly metallic, wild, grassy and a beautifully bitter balance to the citrus tinged artichoke and tonnarelli cacio e pepe I’d just eaten and the sweet torta della nonna that was to follow. There was sour, salty, unami, bitter and sweet and Rachel was – unsurprisingly – sated and (extremely) replete. I was also cicoria convinced and converted.

Then later that summer in Apulia – the high heel of Italy’s boot – in the company of my love and his motley crew, I ate a plate of Fave e cicoria, an iconic, poor and simple combination bourne out of necessity and very good taste. The fave (broad beans) in question were peeled and dried fave, or fave secche, another food from antiquity, ivory coloured slivers of beans, like misshapen tiddlywinks.

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The fave had been soaked, drained and simmered idly until they’d collapsed into a soft, soupy mush, a pale puree reminiscent of chickpeas, chestnuts and white beans. Fave too have a discreet bitterness about them. It’s a pleasing bitterness though, which compliments their soft, floury and nutty nature and elevates it into something particular and delicious. The cicoria – sweeter and plumper than its Roman cousin – was simply boiled, drained and dressed with local  oil.

The plate, half fave-half cicoria, half ivory-half green, half-elemental humus-half bittersweet leaves anointed with golden extra virgin olive oil, seemed, on that hot and heavy night near Leece, a near perfect plate.

This is an extremely simple recipe, but one that requires good ingredients and practice, especially when it comes to getting the consistency of the fave right. They should be soupy really and eaten with a spoon. I for one, still need practice. Bread and wine are important here – aren’t they always – as is excellent olive oil.  Now about that frolic!

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Fave e cicoria

serves 4

Adapted from Le Ricette Regionale D’Italia,  Eleonora’s recipe, Elizabeth’s recipe and inspired by this

  • 500 g fave (dried broad beans)
  • 1 kg cicoria (or other bitter greens: cavolo nero, dandelion or leafy chicory)
  • olive oil
  • salt

Soak the fave in plenty of cold water for 8 hours or overnight.

Drain and rinse fave.  Put fave in a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Skim any white foam what rises to the surface. Lower the flame and simmer fave for about an hour or until they are very soft, tender and have collapsed into a thick mush. The consistency should be that of a very thick soup: dense and creamy but still fluid and spoonable. You may have to add a little more water. Season generously with salt.

While the fave are cooking soak the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves and trimming away any very thick, woody stalks. Put the cicoria in a large pan with nothing but the water that clings to its leaves, cover the pan and cook over a medium flame until it has collapsed and is tender. This should take about 5 – 8 minutes depending on the freshness and age of the cicoria.

Drain the cicoria and once it is cool enough, squeeze and press it gently with your hands to eliminate as much water as possible.  Warm some olive oil in a saute pan – with a clove of garlic if you wish – and add the cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir and turn the cicoria in the oil until each leaf is glistening.

Serve a pile of cicoria either beside or over a generous serving of fave with a little of your best extra virgin olive oil poured over the top. Serve with bread or toast and wine.

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Filed under Beans and pulses, cicoria, food, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, recipes, Roman food, Testaccio