what is it like?

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 Writing and cooking – June 15th – 20th 2015 – Sicily

Ask anyone who has ever sat in the courtyard at Case Vecchie at dusk with a drink in one hand and a hot panella in the other, what Case Vecchie is like, and you could well be met with silence. Ask them about the valley that arches behind the house, that first crush of wild fennel, chamomile and mint underfoot, the feel of ancient twisted vines warm from the sun, or how Filippo stirs the vat of brilliant white ricotta. Ask them too about the table at the far end of the cobbled courtyard, and the food eaten at it. In fact ask them, demand even, that they tell you more about Sicilian food: fresh ricotta, sharp pecorino, dishes scented with mint and wild fennel, Fabrizia and Giovanna’s orange marmalade, artichokes, anchovies, lemons, capers, il timballo, freshly fried panelle, the majestic cassata. Now watch the stirring of memories and wait until – eventually –  the words and descriptions tumble out.

I’d encountered the silence, and then the words, many times over the years, from friends, from cooks and writers I admired. Everyone – it seemed to my envious ears –  had visited a cooking school in a valley in Sicily. So great and deep was the praise, that I wondered if it really could be so extraordinary, so beautiful, so enchanting. Then last year, I was to discover it was just as the silences and words had promised, and more. It is not simply another cooking school, but a place of edible education, a home to many, a farm that smells as it should, so of earth, sweat and damn hard labour, a historic winery, a place where Sicilian traditions are protected with fierce pride, it is both elegant and as comfortable as slippers, it is quite simply wonderful.

I can’t think of anywhere better to hold a food writing and food blogging workshop with my friend and fellow food writer Luisa Weiss ,and the inimitable owner of the school Fabrizia Lanza. For five days, immersed in life at Casa Vecchie, we will immerse ourselves in the language of food. There will be discussions, readings, lessons, advice and time to write. We will be cooking with Fabrizia and Giovanna, exploring, visiting Filippo the man who makes ricotta, and Agrigento’s ancient “Valley of the Temples” where we will write and picnic under the blossoming citrus groves. We are going to eat and drink and make merry until late each night. Of course there is no pressure to get up too early – this is a holiday after all –  but you will I promise, so you can see the sunrise over the valley and then take your coffee or tea into the garden, a haze of beauty, before you have breakfast.

I am now – in Rome on a Saturday morning in Feb – thinking about breakfast at the large square table at the end of the kitchen, the lip staining mulberry jam, the freshly made bread, yogurt and cake. I am thinking about flying to Palermo in June, meeting you all and taking our first hot gulps of Sicilian air before we drive, through breathtaking sicilian country side, to the school. I am imagining how you will feel when you first see Case Vecchie crested on the hill, when you walk through the blue gates into the cobbled courtyard, when you take the first sip of wine and taste of panelle at dusk, when you first bend down to smell the tangle of wild fennel and mint. It is going to be a good week.

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 The Language of Food.

Before the course, participants will receive six pieces of writing that we will be discussing, each one highlighting a various aspect of food writing. Three pieces have Sicilian roots—Gabrielle Hamilton’s piece about coming to Sicily to learn about wine, an excerpt from On Persephone’s Island by Mary Taylor – Simeti, and a selection by Simonetta Agnello Hornby—while the final three writers (MK Fisher, Molly Wizenberg, and Laurie Colwin) have their roots in other places.

The itinerary

Day 1: Monday, June 15
Arrive in late afternoon or early evening, for  a welcome dinner and introductory discussion over Sicilian aperitifs at Case Vecchie.

Day 2: Tuesday, June 16
Morning writing lesson followed by lunch at Case Vecchie

In the afternoon we will visit local shepherd and cheesemaker Filippo Privitera, where we will watch traditional ricotta production and sample both freshly produced cheeses and the family’s aged cheeses.

Cook together for dinner at Case Vecchie. • Post-dinner gathering and reading.

Day 3: Wednesday, June 17
A morning trip to Agrigento’s ancient “Valley of the Temples” where we will write and picnic under the blossoming citrus groves.

Afternoon writing lesson and free time for writing, resting, or exploring around Case Vecchie, followed by cooking lesson and dinner.

Day 4: Thursday, June 18
Morning writing lesson and communal lunch at Case Vecchie.

Afternoon free time for resting, writing, and exploring the vineyards.

Evening visit to the Case Grandi winery for a tasting workshop, where we will sample a variety of Tasca d’Almerita wines and learn a little about the language of wine. Dinner at Case Grandi.

Day 5: Friday, June 19
Morning writing lesson and communal lunch at Case Vecchie.

That afternoon, we’ll drive to the beautiful hillside village of Polizzi Generosa, with a chance to write in the scenic piazza, sample the local specialties, and visit one of the most ancient pottery producers in the area, before returning through the twilight hills for a farewell dinner at Case Vecchie, followed by a chance to share our work and reflect on the week.

Day 6: Saturday, June 20
• Departure after breakfast.

But we hope the conversation from our special writing community will continue through online discussion and continued feedback loops!

The cost

All-inclusive: 2,500 euros per person for single-occupancy, 2,300 euros per person for double occupancy.

Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be ace I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do.

And because I don’t want to write a post without a recipe, here is one from Fabrizia’s book, for lemon knot biscuits, which are just delicious – R

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Lemon knot biscuits with lemon glaze - Taralli

  • 2 cups / 250 g all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup 100 g granulated sugar
  • 100 g lard or butter, diced
  • 1 heaped teaspoon cream of tartar
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 125 ml lukewarm milk
  • 1.5 cups /200 g icing sugar

Sift the flour into a large bowl.  Add the diced lard or butter and using your fingertips rub it into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs. Add the granulated sugar, cream of tartar, zest of both lemons and salt. In a small bowl beat together the egg and the lukewarm milk and then add them, bit by bit, to the flour mixture until the mixture comes together into a soft dough. Knead the dough vigorously until it is soft and smoothish but just a little bit tacky (but not sticky).

Preheat the oven to 350° /180F. Prepare two baking trays lined with baking parchment.

Working on a lightly floured board, pull away lumps of dough and roll them into 1/2 inch thick rope and then cut into 5 inch lengths . Shape each length into a looped knot and transfer to the baking tray. Bake the biscuits until they are golden brown which will take about 20 mins,

Make a glaze by adding lemon juice slowly to the icing sugar until you have a consistency thick enough to coat but not clot. Dip the top of each biscuit in the glaze and then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

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all the orange

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I get by, is probably the best way to describe my Italian. Occasionally I might think I get by very well, but then I trip over a word or tense and see the confusion in the other persons eyes, or someone flips the conversation into English, which always feels like defeat. ‘Da quanto tempo stai qua?‘ How long have you been here? came up in the middle of an awkward conversation the other day. It crossed my mind to lie, but I didn’t, and said nearly 10 years, to which the persons eyebrows seemed to reply oh dear. I responded to the eyebrows with a long, complicated sentence that gave me a headache, but meant I redeemed myself. ‘Dai, parli abbastanza bene italiano!’ I was told. Which means something like, go on you speak pretty good Italian.

Luca is not so convinced. When I asked for ‘Due kili di arance‘ at the market last week my three-year old half English, half Italian son, who I am watching juggle two languages with admiration and envy, looked up at me and pinched his fingers like an Italian. ‘No mum, arance’. ‘Arance‘ I repeated. ‘No, arance’ he said slowly opening his mouth so wide I could see he needs a filling. Shit I thought, but said arance, agitated about the dental neglect and having my pronunciation challenged by a three-year old. We bounced the word back and forth like a ball, half playful, half deadly serious until Luca held his little palm taut’. Mum, just say orange’.

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Oranges had been good this year, especially the tarocco from Sicily, heavy things for their size with shiny leaves and dusty-orange skins some of which are flushed slightly with ruddy pink. Not that this flush is a guarantee of the flesh inside. Even though they are blood oranges, they might not be bloody. Each orange is a surprise, anything from yellowy-orange to bleeding scarlet. I like the surprise. I also like the way the natural oil in the zest sprays as you tear the peel –  if you bring a flame close it crackles like a sparkler –  and the flesh, firm and sweet.

A good year and the steady steam of illness Luca has been bringing back from school along with drawings and other children’s toys, means we have been eating a lot of oranges. There is juice every morning, so a permanently sticky counter and floor. We’ve been eating orange and fennel salad, sliced oranges with mint and dates and the lentil and orange salad I wrote about the other week. On a roll, I opened Jane Grigson’s Fruit book in search of new ideas and recipes. Damn, her writing make me happy, the way she weaves together history, etymology, geography, poetry and humour is simply extraordinary. I particularly enjoyed reading her description of the migration of oranges from China through India to Persia before they were brought to europe along with spices, silk and sugar by Arab traders at the end of the Roman empire. The evolution of the name it just as engaging, from the Dravidian indian, narayam, which means perfume within, to the Persian narandj, Spanish naranja, Portuguese laranja, which the Italians softened to arancia and the French and English, orange. Luca slips effortlessly between orange and arancia depending on who he is talking too. To me he says orange.

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Jane Grigson not only makes me want to read-on and on (the chapters on pears, plums and quince are superb) she makes me want to cook. From the orange chapter I’ve made her Maltese mayonnaise, which is simply mayonnaise sharpened with orange instead of lemon, and her carrot and orange soup, both surprising and excellent. Although not her recipe, it was her description of cheerful marmalade eaten in France that sent me on my marmalade-making way last week and her description of orange in cakes that made me pull Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food from the shelf.

Do you know the recipe? The one where you take two oranges, boil them whole, pulp them, mix the pulp with eggs, ground almonds, sugar and baking powder and then bake the batter until it sets into a cake. CR describes it as somewhere between a cake and a pudding, which is the perfect description. The use of the whole orange, meaning all of it: skin, zest,  pith, flesh, feels nothing short of brilliant. Once boiled (for a long time which makes the kitchen smell gorgeous) and pulped, you have an extraordinary mixture: sharp, sweet, bitter and deeply flavored. It is then tempered by the sugar, almonds and eggs but the opinionated flavor remains distinct – as do the flecks of bright orange – giving the cake a musky, almost spicy flavour. It is such a good cake/pud, especially when eaten with a dollop of thick cream. I also like it with espresso.

Claudia Roden, another favorite writer, explains how this cake has Sephardic Jewish origins, as it was one of the dishes brought to the middle east by the Spanish Jews who fled the inquisition in the 14th and 15th century. This and Jane Grigson’s enchanting orange introduction had me wishing I’d been told about the migration of citrus and cakes at school, it would have been much more helpful that the dreary things we were taught in geography and history lessons. The cake also had me wishing for another land of blazing oranges and almonds, Sicily, and the house of Vincenzo’s grandparents that is sitting empty, waiting to be visited, lived in for a while even. But we can’t think about that yet. For now we will make do with cake made with sicilian oranges or arance (depending on who you are talking too).

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Claudia Roden’s Orange and Almond cake

From Claudia Roden’s Book of Middle Eastern food.

A loose-bottomed cake tin make things a whole lot easier. I use one of those John Lewis Anodised satin tins I pinched from my mum, it is 18 cm across, deep and works really well.

  • 1 large orange weighing approximately 350 g (or 2 smaller ones)
  • 6 free range eggs
  • 250 g ground almonds
  • 250 g granulated sugar
  • 1 heaped tsp baking powder
  • butter and flour/breadcrumbs or matzo meal for the tin

Wash the orange(s), put it in a pan, cover with cold water, bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer for an hour and a half or until it is extremely soft when picked with a fork. Remove the orange from the pan, let it cool, then cut it open and remove any pips. Turn the orange into a pulp by pressing it through a sieve, mouli or by using a blender – I use my faithful stick immersion blender.

Prepare a cake tin – ideally with a loose base – by rubbing it with butter and then dusting it with flour. Set the oven to 190° / 370F.

Beat the eggs in a large bowl, add the pulped orange, beat again, then add the almonds, sugar and baking powder and beat again until you have a thick, even batter. Pour the battle into the tin and bake for between 40 – 60 minutes. Have  a look at the cake after 40 minutes it should be golden and set firm, I find testing with a strand of spaghetti helps, it should come out almost clean (almost, this is a moist cake), as opposed to very sticky. If the cake does need another 10 mins I tend to drape some tin foil over to prevent it from getting too brown. Let it cool in the tin before turning it onto a plate.

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We might not be thinking of going to the family house in Sicily quite yet, but I will be in Sicily from the 15 – 20th June with Fabrizia Lanza and Luisa Weiss for a week of food writing and cooking at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking school and we would love you to come too. Now of course it is in my interests to convince you to come, and I know it is a big commitment (that said rates of exchange are in our favour and flights too) but it is going to be extraordinary, beautiful, delicious and perspective changing week, I promise. The details are on The Anna Tanza Lanza web site, you can read my post about Sicily, also Melissa’s and Bea’s with her stunning pictures. If you would like to e-mail to ask me anything about the week, pls do. – R

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Filed under almonds, bitter oranges, cakes and baking, Fabrizia Lanza, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Sicily

a bittersweet and brillig tale

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It must have been 1996 when I first tried to make Seville orange marmalade. I was still at Drama school and living at the far end of Camden Town (which meant it was really Mornington Crescent) in a flat so near the railway line it seemed to lean slightly with every passing train. Other than the intrusion by the 5 32 from Euston (then the 6 02, the 6 32…) it was a great flat, small but well-formed, the top floor of a townhouse renovated by a young architect called Glynn. It was intended to be home, but then his new girlfriend refused to get used to the trains, or the stairs, or the backside of Camden, so they went to live at her flat. He didn’t want to rent it out properly, so the flat was sitting empty. Glynn worked with my best friend Joanna, and I just happened to pass by at the office at right moment. No contract, a promise I would move out if things changed and a gesture of a rent: the flat was mine.

The kitchen, which was in the corner of the living room, was small but extremely practical, as was a big table, that also functioned as a work surface. The table was surrounded by comfy but odd, ugly stacking chairs which looked like they would be more at home in a garden. ‘Bloody Hell, these are Birtoia chairs‘ said a friend’s older boyfriend one evening. He then went on to explain that the chair I was sitting on was one of the most recognized achievements of mid-century modern design. ‘Bloody beautiful‘ he said. I nodded in full agreement and served everyone more food, which was probably roasted vegetables with goats cheese –  from 95 – 99 I made a lot of roasted vegetables with goats cheese – the sound of trains cutting through the wrong end of Camden town..

I bought the 4 lb of Seville oranges from the market on Inverness street, a special order. ‘You know these aren’t eaters don’t you love? said the stall holder. I must have told him I was making marmalade, because he made me promise I would bring him a jar before he tipped the bright orange contents of the crate into two bags. I bought sugar from a shop nearby and then carried my 12 lb project back along Camden high street, past the tube, the Worlds End pub (which smelt like the world’s end), Woolworth’s, right into Mornington street so I could pass the coffee roasters and left into Mornington Terrace.

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My mum is a good and committed marmalade maker, principally because my dad is a good and committed marmalade eater. Of course she eats it too! But mostly she makes it for Dad. For as long as I can remember, at some point in January my mum processes enough Seville oranges for my dad to have a jar of marmalade a week plus more for us kids and guests. Growing up I watched and helped enough – stirring, testing, getting in the way, putting the waxy circle on each jar, sticking labels on the jars – to imagine the recipe would be absorbed as if by kitchen osmosis.

Alone in Camden town with 4 lbs of oranges and double the amount of sugar, it did cross my mind I should call mum. But these were the days before free minutes and Skype cook-alongs. I had no home phone and my heavy-weight Nokia was probably dead. I just bulldozed on, I don’t think I even had a proper recipe. The initial steps, came easily, like your fingers remembering all the scales even though it’s 18 years since you played the piano, or your lips the words to the first two verses of a poem you learned at junior school. ‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, Did gyre and gimble in the… Halve, squeeze, remove pith and pips but reserve in a piece of muslin (or old tights), chop the peel into moons. Then came the soaking. But was it with or without the sugar? And was it really necessary?

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Patience is something I often lack in the kitchen. When I decide to make something, cake, soup, marmalade, pickles, three-day cured beef, I want immediate satisfaction and ideally to be eating whatever I’ve made for the next meal. This is fine when it comes to cake or soup, less so when it comes to recipes that involve the words soak for 24 hours, or leave covered or three days without touching. Without my mum or a recipe reminding me that there was a very good reason for the soaking and waiting, I just continued bulldozing. I boiled and boiled the contents of the pan it until it looked like angry lava and the flat felt like a citrus steam room that smelt of toffee orange.

I didn’t have nearly enough jars for the several liters of amber syrup I boiled up, so some was flushed away immediately, along with my guilt. The rest was poured into jars without a funnel which meant much of it dribbling down the counters and across the table of my well-formed kitchen. The jars were put in the cupboard.  I might have managed to use up one jar, pouring it over buttered toast and then watching it flood the plate, tipping it over yogurt and pretending marmalade syrup might become a thing. The jars got pushed to the very back of the cupboard. The girlfriend didn’t change her mind about the trains. She did however change her mind about Glynn, or Glynn changed his mind about her. Either way, I had to give up the flat.  The day I left, the jars left sticky rings in the cupboard. I then left the jars and another dose of shame, in a skip next to the railway line.

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For years I had absolutely no desire to make marmalade. I’d happily eat it at my parents – my dad keeping a possessive eye on his pot as it was passed around the table – but I didn’t want anything to do with citrus pips and pans. Even when I moved to Rome ten years ago and citrus trees became everyday (although far from ordinary to my northern european eyes) and bitter orange windfalls, squashed like citrus road kill, marked the streets near my flat, I wasn’t tempted.

Then a few years back, I was tempted again, and encouraged by Vincenzo, a Sicilian for whom citrus is ordinary and essential, and who loves bitter orange marmalade as much as my dad. This time I did have a recipe, but from a sugar cautious friend, which meant the marmalade was more of a compote. There was a slight sense of déjà vu as I poured the amber mixture into the jars. It was fine, nice even and we ate most of it. Later there was lemon marmalade, another recipe from a friend, the quantities of which got lost in translation which meant it didn’t really set properly either. This was fine too and it was poured valiantly over everything, especially lemon cake, which was good and made it all feel worth while.

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Then this time last week I walked up to the Giardino Degli Aranci, a small park shaded by orange trees on the Aventine hill. It is just minutes from our flat in Testaccio, but feels like another world: calm, shady and with an ideal viewpoint from which to observe this extraordinarily beautiful city. Turning away from the view, I noticed the dark green trees and the grass below were blobbed with orange. Marmalade crossed my mind.

Actually the seed had been planted at christmas, when I spent a nice part of one afternoon looking at a new cookbook of  mum’s all about marmalade. One picture in particular struck me, a big pan of bright orange chopped peel, in it suspended the muslin bag of pith and seeds, a practical and beautiful picture. It caught mum’s eye too, a serious marmalade maker swayed by a picture and new recipe (it is pretty much what she does anyway, give or take a very good tip.) Back in Rome I asked my fruit and veg guys to get me some bitter oranges, but there was always a good reason why they forgot. Then I went up to the orange garden and saw the oranges. We passed by the garden again few days later on our way back from somewhere, Vincenzo waiting in the stick- gear panda in the carpark, me with a big canvas bag. As I said, they were windfalls.

Sarah Randell’s recipe begins with an excellent instruction – put the radio on. Which I did. I would like to expand this instruction to: put the radio on (quietly) make a cup of tea, sit at the table and read through the recipe, twice. This is not because it is particularly difficult or complicated recipe, but because there are quite a few steps, each filled with tips and details which make all the difference. The sort of tips and details you could well miss if – like me – you tend to bulldoze through and next thing you know your hands are sticky with orange – which is a lovely way to be –  and your glasses are steamy and you can’t get a proper look and the recipe page or screen on the other side of the kitchen meaning you miss the most important word. Once you have read twice, turn the radio up, finish your cup of tea and begin.

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I haven’t enjoyed making something so much for ages. Oranges are inherently joyful, simply taking one in your hand, scratching the flesh so the scent is liberated and your nail oily, is a tonic – unless you are a girl I was at school with, who found even the thought of the smile of orange they used to make us suck on during half-time of Netball matches so horrendous she hid in the changing room toilets. For most though, washing, squeezing, chopping , slicing and cooking a large quality of oranges is a messy, laborious, sticky jolt of orange joy. Go and make marmalade should be written at the bottom of doctors prescriptions as a cure of sorts: marmalade against the strain of modern life, conserving for health, citrus therapy or some such thing.

As I poured the marmalade into the jars  – I still didn’t have enough jars – I was transported back to Mornington Terrace, and that January afternoon in 1996 and my 23 year old self, insecure yet full of myself, trying to get the sticky marmalade syrup into the damn jars without a proper ladle and it running down the counter and across the table surrounded by important chairs. Things got sticky here in Rome too, but then I wiped the jars and was transported back to Kirkwick avenue and helping mum in the chaotic, loving, bickering and sticky atmosphere of our family kitchen. Memory stirring English style marmalade, made with Roman oranges, for a Sicilian:  it felt like a sort of coming together, which is something  I have been thinking a lot about lately. But much more important than my amateur philosophizing, is the marmalade, which set perfectly and is delicious, especially on hot buttered toast.

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Seville Orange marmalade

Adapted from a recipe by Sarah Randell from her beautiful book Marmalade: a bittersweet cookbook

  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 1 fat lemon
  • 2 kg sugar

You need a big pan and a  30cm/ 30cm square of gauze or muslin and 6 or 7 340 ml jars

Put the radio on. Make a cup of tea and sit at the table and read through the recipe so you know exactly what lies ahead.

Cut the oranges in half, flicking obvious pips into the gauze. Squeeze the oranges and then put the juice into a large bowl or the pan you are going to use. Put and flesh or pips from the squeezer into the gauze.

Cut the orange halves into quarters – scraping any membrane away and putting it into the gauze – then cut the peel into uniform shreds – thin or chunky depending on your preference. Put the peel into the pan with the juice. Gather the gauze into a money bag pouch and tie with string (leaving a long end that will tie the gauze to the pan handle during cooking).  Add 2.25 litres of water to the pan and the gauze pouch. Cover the pan with cling film and leave in a cool place overnight.

The next day if you have used a bowl, tip everything into a pan. Tie the gauze pouch to the handle with the string so it hangs just submerged in the liquid. Bring everything to a simmer over a low – medium heat, then simmer until the pieces of orange is really soft – they should squash easily between two fingers – this should take about an hour and a half.

Once the peel is soft, remove the pouch, pressing it gently against the side of the pan first to extract as much juice as possible. Put the pouch into a bowl to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, squeeze the lemon juice into the pan, then add the sugar. Once the pouch is coolish, squeeze the last of the pectin rich juice from it and put it in the pan – you may need rubber gloves. You can now discard the pouch, it has done its job.

Preheat the oven to 140° put the – very clean – jars on a baking tray and then in the oven to sterilize for 20 minutes. Put a two saucers in the freezer.

Keep stirring the pan to help dissolve the sugar – this is an important stage, it will take about 15 mins. Once the sugar is dissolved bring the marmalade to a rolling boil and boil for 20 – 25 minutes or until it has reached the setting point for which you should use the wrinkle test. This means putting a blob of marmalade on a cold saucer, putting the saucer back in the freezer for a minute and then dragging your finger through the blob. The marmalade is ready when the blob wrinkles and remains pretty much split in two and doesn’t run back into a whole.

When the marmalade is ready, take the pan from the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes which will help the peel disperse more evenly. Use a measuring jug, ladle or funnel to transfer the marmalade into the warm jars. Seal the jars immediately and leave the to cool. Give the jars a final wipe before labeling. Keep the jars in a cool dry place, where it will keep for over a year.

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the zest of it

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It’s good to be home. At least it is now. The first couple of days were pretty grim, when the fall-out from a hasty pre-Christmas departure, now coated in three weeks of dust, met three suitcases full of dirty washing and a flock of christmas presents. For the first half hour I sat staring at the sink, wishing I had at least done the washing-up (impressive slovenliness, even by my standards) while Luca shook the dry-needles from the christmas tree into the rug.

I am still picking needles out of the rug and the underneath of my socks, but apart from that we have more less got back into a rhythm. I am back in a kitchen rhythm too, and order of sorts, which I find reassuring – my grandpa Roddy called it having your stall laid out. No resolutions or anything like that, just a comfortable rhythm, one that feels like good tights: supportive but not restrictive (and never too loose). I am back at the market most days too, my ordinarily beautiful market, which smells faintly of fish on one side, meat fat on the other and in the middle is January coloured: green, orange and the extraordinary greeny-violet of artichokes which are coming into season. On the first day back my and veg guys shouted Ahò and made the pinched fingers where the hell have you been gesture over the crowd. It was the sort of singling out I know they do for many, but it never fails to make me feel happy. A kilo of oranges, 8 artichokes, a massive bunch of kale that needed to be wrestled into a bag, some parsley and mint shoved in the top of the bag at no cost except loyalty: it is good to be home.

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As I said, no resolutions, but after a bloody delicious Christmas and New Year in England, where food came in thick, rich waves, we are craving green, bitter and sharp: kale, raddichio, broccoli, artichokes, lemons, oranges, pasta and lots of olive oil. ‘Mum, I like it when you stink of oranges‘ Luca told me the other day. I like stinking of oranges too, having the zest under my nails, my lip burning hot because I touched it with a zesting finger, the oily scent strong enough to help me forget the sink is still slightly blocked.

I have been cooking from Fabrizia Lanza’s book Coming Home to Sicily, which Vincenzo, my Sicilian, is extremely happy about. It is a beautiful book, but not intimidatingly so: the recipes are too lovely and down to earth for that. The first thing I made was lentils with orange zest and mint, a recipe which transported me back to the case vecchie kitchen last summer where Fabrizia, Giovanna, lauren, Lou, David and I stood chopping onion and mint, and zesting oranges, the combined scent almost seeming an exaggeration of itself. While I chopped in my small Roman kitchen Vincenzo came and sat at the table, noting it felt like a Sicilian bong. As I mixed the pile of mint, orange zest and parley with warm lentils another wave of good smells filled the kitchen.

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I also made zucca in Agrodolce or sweet and sour squash. I have been searching for a recipe like this ever since eating a dish of zucca alla scapace at a good local trattoria called Flavio al Velavevodetto just before christmas. Where Flavio’s Roman version used chunks of pumpkin cooked in olive oil, vinegar and sugar, Fabrizia suggests slices of butternut squash. The slices are griddled until tender and seared with dark lines, then dressed with red onions sautéed until soft and slightly caramelized in extra virgin olive oil, vinegar and sugar.

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The combination of tender, velvety squash and the sweet, sharp onion is excellent. It can be eaten straight away, but is even better after a few hours when the flavors have really taken hold. The lentils, warm with citrus and mint, made a good partner for the squash, as did some ricotta di pecora. In between mouthfuls of lunch and sips of local red wine that reminded me of wild cherries, we agreed that we should visit Sicily in March – after all there is a family house there that is long neglected.

The next day the leftover Zucca in agrodolce was better still. We ate it with boiled potatoes and kale dressed with salt and olive oil. The remaining three half moons were chopped and became orange flecks amongst the leftover potato and kale I used as a filling for the bread crust torta rustica I am going to write about next week. So until next week.

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Grilled sweet and sour squash –  Zucca in agrodolce

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 1 kg winter squash, such a butternut
  • fine sea salt
  • 125 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a large red onion
  • black pepper
  • 60 ml red wine vinegar
  • 2 heaped teaspoons sugar

Cut the squash in half, pare away the skin and scoop out the seeds. Slice each half crosswise into 5 mm thick slices.  Heat up the grill-pan over a medium flame. Cook the squash slices in batches, over a medium heat, flipping them when deep grill marks appear. Once cooked, remove the slices onto a deep plate or shallow dish, season with salt and cover loosely to keep warm.

Meanwhile, peel and slice the red onion. In a small frying pan, over a medium/low heat, fry the onion on the olive oil until  it is soft, which will take about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir and then add the vinegar and sugar and continue cooking until slightly reduced and caramelized, which will take (roughly) another 5 minutes.

Pour the onion and its sticky juices over the grilled squash. leave to stand for about 15 minutes, carefully turning the pieces after about 6 minutes. Serve warm.

Leftovers keep beautifully and it could be argued, improve. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half an hour before eating.

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Lentil salad with mint and orange zest – Insalata di lenticchie con menta e scorzetta di arancia

adapted from Coming Home to Sicily by Fabrizia Lanza

  • 500 g small brown or green lentils (not Puy)
  • 5 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • the juice of half a lemon
  • a big handful of mint leaves and another of parsley
  • fine sea salt
  • finely grated zest of an unwaxed orange

In a medium pan, cover the lentils with a liter of cold water. Bring the lentils to the boil. then reduce to a simmer for 20 – 25 minutes, or until the lentils are tender. Drain the lentils and put them into a serving bowl.

Chop herbs and add to the bowl, add the olive oil, lemon juice, salt and finally grate over the zest. Stir, leave to sit 5 minutes before serving, stir again and serve (pouring over a little more olive oil for shine if you fancy).

Again, leftovers keep beautifully. Cover with cling film and keep in the fridge. Remember to pull the dish out of the fridge at least half and hour before eating.

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This June 15 – 20, Luisa Weiss and I are going to be leading a 5 day food writing workshop we have called the Language of food at The Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school in Sicily. The idea is that before we arrive we will share and collectively read six pieces of food writing including Gabriele Hamilton, Mary Taylor-Simetti, Laurie Colwin and Molly Wizenburg. These pieces will form the basis and starting point for our discussions before we begin to look at how we can develop our own writing voices. We will of course also be cooking with Fabrizia, walking, exploring the estate and Fabrizia’s garden, taking excursions and drinking campari and eating panelle in the camomile scented courtyard together. I think it is going to be a creative, thought provoking, inspiring, beautiful and delicious five days and I really hope some of you are able to come. – R

If you would like to know more, you might like to read the post I wrote last year having just come back from Sicily. Melissa also wrote beautifully about the school. The calendar and details are here.

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Filed under antipasti, butternut squash, Fabrizia Lanza, In praise of, lentils, Sicily, The Wednesday Chef, winter recipes, Workshops

soft penguins and mushrooms.

 

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We thought they would never move. Even though Dad has been going on about living near the sea for the last twenty-five years and they both felt the small town they lived in for 35 years had sharpened into somewhere they hardly recognized, it seemed my parents would reluctantly stay put. Then they moved. It was family friend Joanna, a keen-eyed architect, who spotted the house while they were all on holiday nearby in Devon. A few days later I got a call in Rome telling me that they had put in an offer on a house in a village in West Dorset. Then it was us three kids proving the reluctant ones. ‘Were they sure they wanted to make this big move at this point in their lives?‘ ‘At which point was that‘ asked both parents before exchanging on the house.

Here I am two years later in Dad’s study in the new house looking through the window at Dad shifting things around the garden. It isn’t just a lovely house, but a house that feels lovely, and as much a home as the faithful one that was a family home for 35 years. Renovations are pretty much finished, except the kitchen, which feels a bit like camping, the floor marked with masking tape suggestions Joanna has told my parents to live with, trying out if you like, before making any final decisions. It is comfortable camping though, warmed by an AGA, home to the big table surrounded by the wicker backed chairs the grandkids are picking at in just the same way we used to, and a proper pantry. In the left hand corner sits the piano on which all three of us thrashed out arpeggios more than 25 years ago. Next to the piano sits a small temporary bookcase filled with Mum’s cookbooks.

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To be honest – and this may seem odd for a person who has just written and photographed a cook book – I often find cook books a bit overwhelming. This is mostly because I insist on flicking through new ones at the breakneck speed in bookshops I haven’t given myself enough time to linger in, pictures and recipes slapping me round the face. My mum’s books though, many of which I have myself, are nothing but reassuring. Above sit the hardbacks, which don’t feel hard at all, Nigel Slater, Sophie Grigson, Ann and Franco Taruschio and the Silver Spoon, Below are the soft penguins and other paperbacks, which feel nice to hold. Books by Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden, Colin Spencer, Simon Hopkison and Joyce Molyneux their pages yellowed by time, their spines lined with wrinkles. These are books of good writing and good recipes that fall open into the splits at pages encrusted with specks of pastry, mincemeat and bread sauce. Most of the books have bookmark fringes, records of a time when supper was called a dinner party, years of kids teas, weekend lunches, meals celebrating, meals consoling.

We are all back for a week around New year along with our young kids and some of our friends too, which has meant the nicest sort of cooking: festive but functional. Tasty and accommodating food that pleases large groups, some of whom might roll up late. Food that will keep well enough if someone happens to need half an hour of breathing space before getting back stuck in. Jane Grigon has been consulted for braised beef, glazed ham, shepherds pie and mince pies, Elizabeth David for red cabbage, cod Portuguese and prunes in red wine, Nigel Slater for soup and biscuits, Josceline Dimbleby for herrings in soured cream (which we have made twice) and the AGA book for treacle tart. We have made Simon Hopkinson’s excellent Potato gratin and then today, from a book called Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross, Funghi alla casalinga.

Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen is a book I don’t have in Rome, and won’t be allowed to borrow until I return the pudding book and fish book I borrowed for a few months four years ago. It is a charming book written by an English woman who lived in Tuscany in the late 1800’s and who noted down her recipes which were inspired by her Tuscan home. It was re-published by her great, great-nephew in the 1970’s. It is, I imagine, the kind of book that could be pulled by pieces by purists questioning authenticity, whatever the heck authentic means. I find the simple recipes – which are mostly for vegetables –  and engaging descriptions utterly appealing. Mum suggested we make a recipe she used to make a lot as a starter in the 1980’s, mushrooms cooked in a mixture of butter and olive oil, seasoned with anchovy and chopped mint and then sharpened with lemon juice.

It is a particular sounding recipe I know, but a plainly delicious one. The anchovy far from being fishy, acts as gutsy seasoning and, like all well-behaved seasonings, doesn’t dominate but simply coaxes the mushrooms into being, more, um, mushroomy. Mint, musty and warm, works surprisingly well, as does the lemon, which sharpens everything up nicely. We piled the mushrooms and their buttery juices on brown toast, even though my mum thought it would have been better served alongside crusty white bread for mopping up. I think these mushrooms would also be good with rare steak, piled on a baked potato or on top of some proper polenta.

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Funghi alla casalinga – Mushrooms in butter with anchovy, mint and lemon.

Adapted from Leaves from our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross

  • 1kg mushrooms
  • 100 g butter
  • 1 tbps olive oil.
  • salt and coarsely ground black pepper
  • 4 chopped anchovies
  • 2 sprigs of chopped mint.
  • juice of half a lemon.
  • a tablespoon of chopped parsley

If necessary wipe the mushrooms clean, then cup them into slices. In a wide frying pan, warm the butter and the oil and then fry the mushrooms gently until they are soft – which will take about 5 minutes.

Add a good pinch of salt, some freshly ground black pepper, the chopped anchovy and mint and continue cooking for another minute or so.

Add the lemon juice, stir and cook for another 30 seconds or so. Serve immediately.

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Cheers and Happy New year to you all. The book is coming along in the most lovely and reassuring way thanks to the happy team I have the privilege to work with. This week I am back in London to collect second page proofs which I will then take back to Rome to look over. Publishing day is June 4th for the UK and then March 2016 for the US, which seems both near and far. Until then I look forward to writing here as much as I can. Thanks as always for reading along – R.

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Filed under antipasti, books, mushrooms, Rachel's Diary, vegetables, winter recipes

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