Bright bulb


Yesterday it poured in Rome, rain and black smoke both, reminding us there was pontificating in progress. Then at about eight, the black smoke gave way to white and la fumata bianca poured from the copper chimney on the roof of the Sistine chapel, meaning the scarlet clad cardinals had chosen their new pope. It never stopped raining. Unaccustomed as I am to either watching Italian TV or considering catholic concerns I did both. Even I was moved by the sea of jubilant humanity in piazza San Pietro and the roaring cheer as a pensive Papa Francesco uttered buona sera. 

There’s been more than enough pontificating about conclaves, cardinals and commanding! I’m not about to do any more of it here. Well apart from noting that although we’re diametrically opposed on countless matters, I’m glad to hear Papa Francesco’s views on single mothers, papel footwear and taking the bus, and that I just hope he’s given the space and opportunity to exercise his reputed political canniness and reforming drive. Dog knows they need it.


Oranges and fennel however, there hasn’t been nearly enough pontificating about either around here! So if you don’t mind I’ll do some today. If I was quicker and sharper I’d have bought blood oranges, their scarlet juice – reminiscent of the cardinals cassocks and conviction – bleeding and staining the wooden work surface. I am neither quick, sharp or inclined to scrub so orange oranges it is.

Lately I’ve been buying my greens and citrus from the local farmers market that takes place every weekends in the Ex-Mattatoio. This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting my market: the recently relocated but still thriving Testaccio mercato! We still go there faithfully. What can I say, semi-maternity-leave and an excuse to eat warm brioche whilst admiring artichokes and listening to market banter spliced with profanities: we go six days a week. Then on Sunday, the day Testaccio market rests, we walk that little bit further, curving our way along the river to The Farmers Market occupying one of the buildings in the vast sprawling complex that is the Ex-Mattatoio.


I’ve talked about the Ex -Mattaotio before. Once the principle slaughter-house for the whole of Rome, it’s an expansive patchwork of buildings, enclosures, thoroughfares and vast open spaces where animals once roamed. A place all the more extraordinary for being in the middle of a city like Rome. Closed for butchery business since 1975 it’s now part modern art gallery, organic supermarket, social club, concert venue, music school, shelter for the (poor) horses that drag Rome’s carriages, gypsy camp, stark wasteland and at the weekend, farmers market.

You’d be advised to arrive early, especially on Sundays. Naturally leavened bread, salumi, sheep’s milk cheese, olive oil, nuts, eggs, pasta, beans and grains, mushrooms, organic meat and the nicest, freshest produce you could hope to find all direct from bona-fide local producers is gathered under the high-pitched roof of the atmospheric pavilion. The air is always slightly damp, bosky and full of gastronomic promise. On Sunday I bought a piece of aged pecorino, a slice of guanciale, a kilo of cicoria selvatica: a dark green tangle of wild leaves, four artichokes, two deeply curved bulbs of fennel and a dozen matt-skinned, bright leaved oranges.


Which brings us to todays recipe, an assembly really, one of my favorites, a wisp of Sicily: oranges, fennel and black olives. Now they may seem an unlikely trio, but fennel, orange and olives go together so well, the Ahmad Jamel Trio of insalata. The crisp, clean and sweet tasting bulb with its faintly anise perfume and liquorice nip seems to enhance the sweet/sharp juiciness of the citrus, it’s flesh: firm and creamy contrasting with the soft languorous segments. The dark, baked olives: bitter, meaty and leathery compliment and contrast both orange and fennel.

The key is to pare away every trace of peel and pith from the oranges before cutting then into slender rounds and slicing the fennel lengthways as thin as thin can be into almost transparent arcs. Once cut, you arrange your orange rounds and paper-thin slices of fennel on a plate or platter. You can fan artistically, interweave cunningly or simply scatter hopefully. To finish you punctuate your orange and white assembly with black olives – the coal-black slightly wrinkled oven baked ones work well – sprinkle with coarse salt and then dress with plenty of good extra virgin olive oil.


We had our salad of sorts with chickpeas – just cooked so still warm – dressed with coarse salt and an embarrassing amount of olive oil. There was bread too, obviously, how else would you mop up the puddle of olive oil and salty citrus, how else would you nudge the ill-behaved chickpeas onto your fork.

Look for sharply white, firm and bulbous sweet or Florentine fennel. Fennel with deep curves. Fat bottomed fennel. You may well come across flatter elongated bulbs, save them for braising or slow cooking. As for the oranges: sweet, really juicy naval are ideal. Pare away the peel carefully and set it aside for an appealing project.

The perfect antidote to downpours of rain or other bothersomeness. I also like this salad with grilled chicken or fish.


Orange, fennel and black olive salad. 

serves 2

  • 2 large, very juicy oranges
  • 1 large bulb of fennel
  • a handful of black olives, ideally the wrinkled oven baked ones
  • salt
  • black pepper (optional)
  • best extra virgin olive oil

Using a sharp knife, slice away the very top and bottom from the oranges so they sit flat. Then following the contours of the fruit carefully pare away the peel and pith. Using a serrated knife, slice the oranges crosswise into 1/4 rounds.

Cut away the stems, remove any damaged or particularly tough layers and trim the base of the fennel bulb. Reserve the feathery fronds. Halve fennel bulb lengthwise and then cut each half – again lengthways – into paper-thin slices .

Arrange the arcs of fennel and rounds of orange on a large plate. Dot the salad with either whole or slivers of black olives. Using scissors snip over the feathery fronds. Sprinkle with coarse salt (black pepper too if you so wish) and then dress with plenty of extra virgin olive oil.




Filed under fennel, oranges, rachel eats Italy, Rachel's Diary, recipes, salads, winter recipes

57 responses to “Bright bulb

  1. Well, once again I have clicked on a post of yours, seen the photo at the top and thought “Aha! That’s exactly the ingredient I’ve been craving lately (without realizing it)!” And of course, once again you have provided your take, which I know will be the perfect version and now I can think of nothing but fennel (which I really have been craving and just needed a nudge to buy some) and orange and olives. Somehow, inexplicably, you always know what I want to eat.

    • rachel

      Well it sounds like we like eating exactly the same sort of food (i’m sure many people didn’t feel quite so thrilled at the rather odd sounding salad-like-assembly. I do hope you find fennel and oranges nice enough to satisfy your craving. It’s always nice to know you are reading along R

  2. Oooh! I’m so delighted to have found your blog! Vicarious Italy! Beautiful and delicious looking food! (and a child who eats it??) Lovely.

    • rachel

      I’m glad you found me too – lovely to have you here. i should note, although my child is willing to try anything, he is also rather good at flinging food at walls/soft furnishing and, on occasion, the ceiling.

  3. That is a variation of one of my all time most favourite salads and somehow (as always) you make it look about a million times more delicious. Your writing, your food, your pictures, all make me want to return to Roma. Grazie.

  4. This looks both beautiful and delicious at the same time, apparently I am going to have to make a trip to my market to pick up some fresh ingredients!

  5. have had this salad many times. but never with olives. This weekend I will rectify that oversight!

  6. You make me miss the (admittedly less impressive) markets of Milan. Lovely post for a simple and dignified salad. The chickpeas look good too!

    • rachel

      Dignified salad – perfectly put. I haven’t spent much time in Milan, but Iremember one very nice market with the most extraordinary mushrooms, raddicchio and cheese, cheese and cheese. The chickpeas were nice. Cooked until really tender and then drenched in olive oil while still warm.

  7. laura

    Ditto in spades to CQ’s comment.
    Another splendid selection of sentences that are often pure poetry (You can fan artistically, interweave cunningly or simply scatter hopefully).
    Beautiful photos, too.
    Quite a load you lugged home on Sunday!

    • rachel

      It was, I nearly dislocated a blooming shoulder (luca is walking now, but still needs hauling in the sling when things need speeding up.) I always scatter hopefully. xx

  8. I’ve basically been eating this salad every day. I can’t get enough of it this time of year!

  9. Ooh this looks good. I wish I could find blood oranges, they are a rare sight indeed here. So make sure you buy some on my behalf next time.

  10. va

    I have been making a similar salad, with tangerines and green olives, and I love it so much! Instead, I don’ t particularly love this pope (not that I like any of them, for a reason or the other), whose scary past is coming out more and more…Not that I care, anyway, but he influences us all, religious or not. Too bad.

    • rachel

      Hi V, I love the sound of tangerines and green olives – noted. I feel much the same way as you. The cloudy past and frankly disturbing views on some things seem even sadder considering he is clearly progressive on some matters. Hope you are well x

  11. sorry the one above is me 🙂

  12. Romla Ryan

    Yummy. I made a salad once that this reminds me of. I tried to make up something a bit north African in order to stretch out a tagine when more people than I had anticipated had turned up for supper. It had the oranges and I put lots of thinly sliced radish (which for some reason I had a lot of) some red onion, black olives and I believe there may have been some crumbled feta. It was very good and thank you for reminding me about oranges in salad.
    Your line “Look for sharply white, firm and bulbous sweet or Florentine fennel.” made me giggle because it also reminded me of something, a Billy Connolly story where the Duchess of Somewhere-or-Other had written, in the late 1800s, a cookery book for Glaswegian housewives, herself being one of those aristocratic Scottish residents who neither look nor sound remotely Scotts. She had written “Insist on Afgan melons.” and Billy Conolly was saying how he’d love to have seen a big, girt, ginger Glasgow housewife down at the grocer’s saying “Ah INSIST on Afgan melons!!” I shall similarly seek out bulbous Florentine fennel in the depths of Kent but I’m not promising anything….

  13. We love this winter salad at our house. I sometimes substitute the olives (if I am out of them) with feta cheese, or rucola. Other times I just stick to fennel and oranges. With a lot of freshly ground pepper. Delicious, I agree.

  14. That first photo just makes your life look clean and simple and beautiful. And obviously the world with its smoke and popes is more complicated than that, but still. Happy weekend.

    • rachel

      happy weekend to you too. Keeping things simple, or trying at least, when things all too often feel far too complicated and smoky.

  15. You had the happy idea of dropping into my in-box at just the right moment. It was dinner for friends at our house last night and I hadn’t decided how to start the meal. Lo and behold, this gorgeous salad. It went down a treat. Thank you.

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  17. Ann

    The first time I ate this salad was in Rome and I think recreating it at home this week could take me back, if only for a moment. Lovely!

  18. Fiona Key

    Rachel, so PLEASED to see your blog on the Guardian list of best 50 food thingy’s. As an avid reader of both the Guardian, its food pages and your blog I felt top of the pops! And you deserve it! Will look out for you in Testaccio!

    • rachel

      Thanks Fiona. Does this mean you live in Testaccio? If yes, say hello, I am the tired looking English woman with a cheeky little boy wriggling in a sling or running away shouting CAR CAR BALL CAR.

  19. This is a salad I make quite often here in Nashville Tennessee so it makes me happy to know that you, who are so far away in a totally different “conclave” , eat the same thing. It really is a small food world in many ways. Beautiful photos.

    • rachel

      My rather rainy conclave these days, this salad has been bringing longed for brightness. Yes a lovely synchronicity, in our distant kitchens making the same salad. Hope you are well? x

  20. Your Luca eats very well.

    • rachel

      He also throws well -especially soft, sticky things – usually at the sofa. I think you have written about this salad – baci R

  21. Natasa

    Your writing is so beautiful! I enjoy reading your posts so much!

  22. I think I owe you a decent comment! Lovely combination of ingredients (I have them all). We have a local salad (in Spain) using sharp oranges, radish, avocado and can’t remember what else 😀

    • rachel

      Appreciated. As were your observations, I am verbose and my spelling is sloppy. Noted.

      • You asked. Everyone makes spelling mistakes post-publication, me included. Sometimes it is worth mixing your style. Although my shorter posts never attract as many comments as the longer ones so who am I to talk? 😀

  23. ahhh, these colors are pure art!
    beautiful space!

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