Category Archives: wine

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

an inch of purple

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There is always a chance it will explode‘  Gabriella said almost smiling, suggesting that this was all part of the process, that the possibility of cherries, wine and sugar seeping between the terra-cotta tiles and dripping from her roof was a risk she was prepared to take. We were in Abruzzo, sitting at Gabriella and Mario’s table after a very long, very good dinner at their agriturismo in the hills near Loreto Aprutino, the kind of dinner that renews your faith in food, before us a small glass of inky-purple liquid. ‘Sour cherries, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine and sugar are macerated in a large, teardrop shaped glass bottle that sits on the roof in high summer for 40 days and 40 nights‘ Gabriella explained. As we tried not to slide under the table, she talked about the science or magic of the process, how the heat of high summer halts fermentation but precipitates maceration. Or at least it should, hence the possible, if extremely rare, explosion. It crossed my mind I should be concentrating more, taking notes even, but that thought slipped away as easily as the lip staining elixir slipped down my throat. The taste lingered, I wondered what Gabriella did with the cherries seeped in wine, how they got the bottle on the roof, how they got the cherries out of the bottle, if we could have another glass?

Nine months later in Rome the first of the cherries, some crimson, others deep purple, are splattering the market with colour. We have been eating them by the kilo, greedily, spitting stones into our fists and grabbing another handful in a sort of cherry race. Then on Sunday at the small but great farmers market in the old slaughterhouse I found the first of the sour cherries, paler than usual, sweet as much as sour, reminiscent of almonds and almost the wrong side of perfect ripeness. They spent the night in the colander while I changed my mind about what to do with them which meant by the following morning there was no time to think or waste. I put them in a pan along with a few sweet cherries too, bay leaves, big lazy curls of lemon peel, some sugar and then let it all bubble into a fragrant, syrupy, shirt staining stew.

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I like cherries cooked in this way with plain yogurt or creme fraiche, something so sweet and aromatic needs a sharp and plain partner, otherwise it is all too cloying. Both Luca and Vincenzo turned their nose up at the offer of fruit for breakfast, which was a relief, more for me. Then last night, I spooned a few cherries and their syrup into my last inch of red wine, which happened to be Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and convinced Vincenzo to do the same. Then rather than continuing our argument disguised as a discussion we talked about Abruzzo and that small glass of inky elixir. Granted ours was hardly Gabriella’s cherry and wine alchemy, but it was reminiscent of it, the poached cherries and syrup mingling with the bold wine into some thing between a pudding and a liquer. It was a dark, sweet, boozy and fragrant finish a meal, the sort of finish I like best.

I am going to make these cherries the next time we have friends over for supper and then get people to put them in their wine‘ I said, at which Vincenzo rolled his eyes so intently they almost disappeared into his head. So we both had another inch of wine, another spoonful of cherries, decided to go back to Abruzzo this autumn, forget about the argument and any plans for supper guests until Luca isn’t a terrible toddler and I have finished the book, cleared up and went to fall asleep in front of the telly.

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Poached cherries with lemon and bay leaves (which you can put in wine if you like)

When I first wrote this post there was no recipe as it had all been so flippant and the nature of the recipe is one of tasting and judging by eye. However I have now added this, which is still imprecise, which I hope you will forgive me for. The amount of sugar here depends on the cherries and your taste. For a mixture of sweet and sour cherries I use about 150 – 200g of sugar. I suggest adding 100 g for every kg but then tasting and adding more if you feel it needs it. Cooking times depends: you want to fruit to be soft and the syrup full-bodied. You do not need to add more liquid as the cherries have enough of their own.

  • 1 kg cherries ideally a mixture of sour and sweet cherries but just sweet will do
  • 4 or 5 strips of lemon peel with as little white pith as possible
  • sugar to taste
  • 3 bay leaves

Pit the cherries and then put them in a pan with the rest of the ingredients and sit over a low flame, stir until the sugar has dissolved and the cherries released plentiful juice and then simmer for 5 – 8 minutes or so or until the cherries are soft and the syrup richly flavored – Taste after about 3 minutes and add more sugar if necessary. Some people then remove the cherries with a slotted spoon and then reduce the syrup until it is thick before uniting the two again in a jar. I don’t do this. Serve with plain thick yogurt, mascarpone, quark, over chocolate cake or into the end of your wine. Keep in a jar in the fridge.

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Filed under cherries, fruit, In praise of, jams and preserves, wine

q.b.

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I was too confused and cross to appreciate anything. It was Monday at 6 o’clock and I was late and lost, fooled again by the exaggerated curves of the Tevere river, staggering with an oversized child in an undersized sling down another cobbled street, in the shadow of another cupola, past another ancient fountain. The man at the bus stop shook his head and made a gesture that confirmed I was – as suspected – a long way from where I wanted to be. No directions were forthcoming. Mad dog Englishwoman tourist his eyes seemed to snigger. ‘I’ve lived here for nearly nine years‘ I wanted to tell him, only every single word of Italian eluded me.

Relief at finding myself on Via del Corso was short-lived. In front of me was the bus stop from which I’d caught the first of two ill-advised buses an hour before. The sun beat down and Luca beat his hot little hands on my chest. So we walked some more, wading really, against a tide of shoppers and tourists. ‘You want the 116‘ said a kind woman at another bus stop. ‘I know, I’ve lived here for nine years, I take buses everyday.‘ I wanted to tell her, but grazie was all I could manage.

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The 116, a dwarf bus, bumped along Via del Babuino, women with expensive shoes and immaculate toe nails teetered on so I tucked my shabby ones under the seat. We stopped just after Piazza di Spagna and there it was, Europe’s broadest staircase and another mass of bodies, shopping bags and blinking cameras. ‘Get off here‘ said the kind woman. ‘But walk up the other staircase just behind. Which we did, and at last I appreciated something. That was the cool, quiet, stone steps and the fact that we, just meters away from busiest staircase in Europe, had our own private one. Not as marvelous obviously, but in that moment nearly. Villa Medici took me by surprise, looming grandly as it does over Viale Trinità dei Monti. As did the deep purple blossoms pouring over walls and then, as we walked a little further, the view.

Nearly nine years ago on a similar evening the view from the Pincio had made my heart swell and skin flush. It had also made me cry. It happened again yesterday. Which was partly the sense of relief that we were no longer lost, that I was no longer flipping furious. But mostly it was because the view across Rome from that particular point at that particular hour : a hazy patchwork of terracotta, brown and gold, of gleaming cupolas, uneven tiles, fading palazzi, hidden roof gardens and the distant plateau of Janiculum with its shadowed umbrella pines is so sublime.  ‘Mamma, mummy, mamma, look, look!‘ Luca insisted while tugging at my shirt, his eyes full of wonder. ‘Look mamma, dog!‘ A large dog, leg cocked, was relieving himself against the kerb. At which we turned and walked briskly – our Tupperware box of biscuits keeping time – across Villa Borghese to the picnic party.

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Fortunately Ciambelline al vino are hardy biscuits that happily withstand hours of inept traveling and a brisk jolt across the park. They are also particular – as only a biscuit made with olive oil with fennel seeds can be – and delicious – as only a biscuit made with wine intended to be dipped in wine can be. Last but not least, they are quintessentially Roman (which is my preoccupation these days) and a good recipe with which to mention q.b.

Q.b. means quantobasta which literally translated means how much is enough. Or as Vincenzo puts it: what you think is the right quantity. You find q.b. dotted liberally throughout Italian recipes, the older your book or more southern your travels the more you encounter it. It isn’t a question, but an assumption that you know how much whatever – salt, pepper, flour, oil, wine, sugar, fennel seeds, salt – is enough for the recipe concerned according to your particular taste. It’s an assumption that you have good taste, good instincts and/or that the recipe is good enough for you to make it again and again until q.b is second nature.

Unlike some recipes I’ve bookmarked in which every single ingredient is followed by q.b. at least today’s recipe has measurements of sorts. That is: a glass of wine (red, white or fortified), a glass of extra virgin olive oil and a glass of sugar. The size of the glass is – of course – the one you think is right. I used my trusty 100ml duralex. To your pool of sugar, wine and oil you add salt and fennel seeds. A pinch and a teaspoon seemed the right quantity to me. Then you add the flour q.b. , little by little, working it in with your hands until the dough has come together into a manageable mass that comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl. You will know.

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You let the dough rest – an hour or so – then you pull away walnut sized balls, roll them into a slim logs which you then curl into rings. A pinch helps seal the circle. You dip your rings in sugar before arranging them on a baking tray and sliding them into the oven until they are done. That is crisp and golden. In my oven (which of course is different to your oven) this took 25 minutes. I then took my friend Anna’s advice turned the oven off , opened the door a crack but left the Ciambelline al vino to harden in the cooling oven. All the better for dipping in wine she noted.

I am not going to try and convince you otherwise, if you don’t like the distinctive taste of fennel seeds you won’t like these Ciambelline. Of course you can leave the seeds out! But without the sweet, grassy, anise whiplash they are – in my opinion – as lost as I was on Monday at 6 o’clock. I’ve heard you can substitute wine with milk! But why would you want to do that?

Somewhere between utterly sweet and charming, and hard work and curious, ciambelline al vino are ring biscuits made with wine to dip in wine – I think this just about sums it up. Unsurprisingly I adore them. They keep brilliantly in a tin or box.

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Ciambelline al vino Ring biscuits with wine and fennel seeds

Adapted from various recipes but most notably one by the brilliant cucina di calycanthus

makes about 20 biscuits

  • 1 glass of sugar
  • 1 glass of wine (white, red or fortified wine such as Madeira)
  • 1 glass of extra virgin olive oil
  • salt q.b
  • fennel seeds q.b
  • plain flour q.b
  • sugar for finishing q.b

In a bowl mix together the sugar, olive oil and wine. Add the salt and fennel seeds and then flour q.b a little at a time, mixing with your hands, until you have a soft but manageable dough that comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl.

Move the dough onto a board dusted lightly with flour and then work until smooth. Cover and leave the dough to rest for an hour.

Pull walnut sized pieces from the dough and then on a floured board, with floured hands, roll the balls into slim logs that are roughly 8 – 10 cm long.  Curl each log into a round and pinch the ends so you have a ring. Invert and dip the top of each ring into a dish of sugar so it is well coated.

Arrange the rings on a baking tray lined with baking parchment. Bake at 180° for 25 – 30 minutes or until the rings are golden and crisp.  Allow to cool.

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Filed under biscuits and biscotti, cakes and baking, fennel seeds, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, wine