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.
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.
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.
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.
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.