Reciprocal roasting


Of course I thought Rome was glorious, but I didn’t want to stay. A month, three at most, then I’d take a train back to Sicily, finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted, before moving even further southwards-somewhere. Then about halfway through that first reluctant month, April 2005 to be precise, urged by my architect friend Joanna, we visited possibly the most Roman of Roman quarters: Testaccio

Approaching Testaccio for the first time as we did by bus, lurching from Lungotevere into via Marmorata then swinging sharply into Via G. Branca, I was caught off guard. Linear and grid-like, the blocks of undistinguished looking 19th-century buildings seemed hard, passionless even, after the delectable warren of terra-cotta hued medieval alleys, the exhilarating sprawl of imperial ruins and the curves, courtyards and staircases of Borromini we’d been lost in.


Disoriented, we stepped off the bus into broad and busy Via G. Branca. Joanna was already engaged, her eyes darting eagerly, words like ‘Public housing, elevations, detail, brickwork, internal courtyard, community, fascinating’ tumbling from her lips. We walked, wandered really – the best way and invariably a happy adventure in Rome – down tree-lined vie, past tenement blocks and clusters of chattering signore, peering into vast internal courtyards, sneaking up well ventilated stairwells, pressing our noses up against the frosted glass windows of local tratorrie, all the time Joanna mumbling and making notes.

The hard lines seemed to soften and the streets – although always neatly aligned – narrowed and relaxed as we moved into the heart of Testaccio. We watched a wicker basket being lowered from a fifth floor window, shopping deposited within, before the basket was hauled back up and swallowed by lace curtains. Just as our eyes were becoming accustomed to the distinguished late 19th century architecture, four arches of an ancient edifice, as if forlorn giants, loomed up before us. We gazed upwards at the sculpture of a winged god punching out an innocent bull atop the defunct slaughter-house and downwards at the expanse of cobble stones between which were wedged innumerable cigarette butts. We were jostled and elbowed, awkward tourists we, by the commotion and the rowdy market life of Testaccio. We sat at one of the small round tables outside Zia Elena and drank ill-timed cappuccini while Joanna confirmed what I was starting to suspect, Testaccio was charismatic and captivating, rudely real and remarkable, that I should find a flat here.


I’m still here of course. Once that English girl, now very much (and quite happily) that English woman, less idealistic and romantic but no less enamoured with my adopted home. My mum is visiting this week and at this very moment pushing my small boy, a half Testaccino, around the same streets Joanna and I pounded. Meanwhile I sit here at my red table looking out onto the cavernous courtyard of my building, which just happens to be the first building I noted as the bus swerved into Testaccio almost eight years ago to the day.

Lately I’ve been having nice conversations about why I came to Rome, why I stayed and why I cook and write in the way I do. My answer is almost invariably, Testaccio. I stayed in Rome even though I’d no intention of doing so because of Testaccio, a quarter with an identity and character stronger than anyone I know. Of course I’d cook wherever I was, but I cook in the way I do because I’m here and influenced by the very particular cooking of this very particular area, by the local market and the shops I visit every day. Before you roll your eyes at this, I should note that many of the shops and most certainly the market itself – which has recently moved – are a far cry from any rustic, whimsical or mediterranean idyll you might imagine, for although charming, they are straightforward, traditional, ordinary.


Straightforward, traditional, ordinary, such pleasing words and appropriate ones too when it comes to describing Roman food. Another thing that’s kept coming up in our conversations this week, is how aspects of Roman food have much in common with northern English food, the food my parents were raised on and an important part of my kitchen heritage. Both are straightforward, traditional, ordinary. I like ordinary. Homely cooking rooted in tradition. Cooking that makes good use of lesser cuts which require thought, resourcefulness and skill if they are to be transformed into something sustaining and satisfying. The enterprising use of the other parts of the animal, parts that would otherwise be wastefully and scornfully discarded: tripe, tails, feet, sweetbreads, liver, lungs (don’t squirm they are absolutely delicious if cooked well.) There is a nice symmetry for me that the iconic Roman dish: Coda alla vaccinara, braised ox tail with celery, bears an uncanny resemblance to a Lancastrian dish, a taste of my childhood and culinary heritage: ox tail stew.

I am waiting to make Coda  alla vaccinara with Leonardo so that was out. We considered boiled beef, one of my favourites and another dish with which to observe this Roman / northern English connection – cooking for me is all about making connections. Do you know the recipe I have for Roman Lesso is almost identical to the recipe for boiled beef and carrots my northern family would make? Then the sun came out and the discussions turned to spring, Easter, and celebratory lunches in both Rome and Manchester. Not that it was Sunday. Mum reminisced and I ruminated while we walked from my flat in via Marmorata to the market. By the time we reached my butcher we had decided: roast lamb with potatoes on Wednesday it would be.


Alice would have roasted half a leg or half a shoulder, English lamb being older, bolder and larger. In Rome the lamb roasted with potatoes is – more often than not – abbacchio or suckling lamb. A small, slim leg with ribs and kidneys attached is perfumed with fresh rosemary and garlic, then cooked in slow oven with pieces of potato anointed with strutto (lard) or olive oil until the potatoes are golden and crisp, the meat tender and falling from the bone.

We English are mocked for our plate piling and tempestuous sea of gravy, especially on Sundays. My Granny Alice, my mum’s mum and my second namesake, was not a fan of such plate chaos. She would have served her lamb as they do in Rome, a nice slice or two, beside it a couple of burnished potatoes, over it a spoonful of the juices from the bottom of the pan.


I’m almost certain you have your own recipe for roast lamb with potatoes, this post is nothing more than a long-winded reminder. Below is the way I cook lamb, that is: in a rather Roman manner with distinctly British sensibilities. On Easter Sunday we will start with fave e pecorino followed by a modest slice of lasagne ai carciofi and then, for secondo, this simply roasted lamb. We will then adopt somnolent postures on the nearest soft furnishing, cover our faces with the Observer and doze.

Abbachio al forno con le patate    Roast lamb with potatoes

Adapted from the recipe in La Cucina Romana by Roberta e Rosa D’Ancona and Jane Grigson’s recipe in English food and Simon Hopkinson’s sage advice.

serves 4

  • 2 kg very young, lamb. Ideally leg with ribs and kidneys
  • lard or extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • several sprigs of fresh rosemary
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1k g potatoes

In Rome they slash the leg of lamb deeply (but not cutting through entirely) creating thick slices.

Lay the lamb in a roasting tin large enough to accommodate it with the potatoes. Peel and slice the garlic and break the rosemary into small sprigs. Rub your hands with lard or olive oil and then massage the lamb inserting the slivers of garlic and sprigs into the slashes as you go. By the time you’ve finished the lamb should be glistening and scented with garlic and rosemary.

Smear a little lard or oil on the base of the tin and then lay the leg skin side down. Season with salt and black pepper leave to rest for 30 minutes or so.

Set the oven to 180° / 350F.

Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters, rub them with lard or olive oil (hands are best) and then arrange them around the lamb. Season the potatoes with a little salt.

Slide the lamb into the oven. Cook for about an hour – basting every so often and turning the leg twice – or until the meat is very tender when prodded with a fork. Very young lamb might need less, older lamb more. Some people like to pour a glass of white wine over the lamb half way through the cooking time, In this case I don’t

Allow the meat to rest, covered loosely with foil, for at least 10 minutes before serving in thick slices with a potato or two and a spoonful of the sticky juices from the bottom of the pan.



Filed under Eating In Testaccio, food, lamb, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes

65 responses to “Reciprocal roasting

  1. Just in time for Pasqua . . . thanks for the story, recipe and method!

  2. myherbkitchen

    So lovely & simple! I’ll be using Cornish lamb for our Easter lunch 🙂 x

    • rachel

      I have to say, as much as I adore Roman Abbacchio, I miss Englsih lamb: older, bolder tasting. I am back home in May so looking forward to a roast with my family. Cornish lamb, lucky you, Have a good easter.

  3. Lovely writing.
    I actually hate the fact that the leg of lamb is pounded into chunks here, because it creates a myriad of bone shards that are more of a liability and which presence in the mouth tend to ruin the pleasure of eating. This said, this is a lovely recipe, similar to that used by my own (French) grand-mother.

    • rachel

      Hello N, I know what you mean, even though I don’t mind the shard avoiding if I can use my fingers. I would never pound a larger, bolder English sized roast. It is so nice to have you reading along, we have several friends in common, all who have suggested we might get on

  4. I took a long sunny walk in Testaccio yesterday with a new arrival to Rome, imparting much of your neighborhood wisdom. It looks like roast lamb is definitely on this weekends menu.

  5. Richard White

    Not sure how I came across your blog the other day, but I did and subscribed and this arrived in my inbox this morning. It’s captivating. Not only do I get a recipe (and a nice simple variation as you say of something we all know), but also a reminder of why I like Rome and Roman cooking so much.

    But best of all, you tell such a good story and in it I find part of the reason, your very personal reason for being who you are where you are. And that very specificness (sic) hones in and meets mine and I see myself for a moment as I really am.

    Thanks, food for body and soul…


    • rachel

      Morning Richard, what a nice message to meet in my mail, the nicest possible message really. That you enjoy reading, enjoy the story, identify and then appreciate lunch says it all.
      All best

  6. I dunno. I really haven’t got used to the youth of Roman lamb, and generally prefer something a little meatier and a little less fatty. But I know yours is delicious.

    • rachel

      I miss English (and Welsh) lamb too. Bigger, bolder tasting. I like mutton for goodness sake. I will be having some in May.. I suppose we are lucky that we have both. Thank goodness spring has sprung. all best Rx

  7. When I visited Rome the second time, I tried to skip all the classic touristic attraction to explore the more “popular” quartieri, and Testaccio impressed me deeply, too. If I had to think about a place to move to in Italy, Testaccio would be on the top 5. Foodwise, I loved the market and I have dreamed of the lunch I had at Da Felice for a long time. Ironically, it was there that I had my first and last abbacchio ever. Life-changing. Yours look just as awesome.

    ps: congratulations about the Guardian mention –so happy to see you in the list!!

    • rachel

      Hello V,
      I’ve never had the abbacchio at Da Felice. I am fan of Sandro’s abbachio al forno con patate at Augustarello (I am a huge fan of everything at Augustarello). I am wondering about the other 4 places? baci Rx

      • Bra/Torino, Padova, Trieste mmm…and somewhere on the sea like Sant’Agata ai Due Golfi or Tropea for the spring/summer season! 🙂

  8. What a delight to wake up to this post. As always, your writing is straightforward and charming. But you can never be ordinary! Enjoy your visit with your mum. xo

    • rachel

      I am pretty ordinary, you think I’m not because you are a friend and beautifully loyal. Mum has just gon,e so sad and without babysitter. At least it is sunny. Hope it is with you too RX

  9. such a great story. your photos and words are wonderful. and of course your recipe is just as lovely.

  10. My mum was a straightforward type too. Pure rural Derbyshire. If she were still around, I’m sure her approach to calming her often querulous and over-caffeinated progeny would resemble this dish. Lancashire hot pot with oysters or roast pork with onion sauce would also likely have done the trick. Lovely post. Eight years is a good stretch of life. I’ve just completed nine in the US. A quarter of my life. Anniversaries and family visits always seem very appropriate moments for reflection.

    • rachel

      I like our synchronicity. It seems a good moment to note our blogging freindship anniversary, five years. We met because of Testccio and Roman posts. Your mum sounds terrific and my sort of cook. You must miss her. Lancashire hot pot with oysters – yes please. love to you all xx
      Ps – come to Rome, anzi Testaccio

  11. Carolle

    I’ve just got back from Tescos with a half price leg of lamb, I was going to stick it in the freezer but having read this we’ll be eating it for dinner. My hubs thanks you as he didn’t really fancy what I’d originally planned!

  12. I like the look of that lamb very much. I like ordinary very much too. Enjoy your mum and Easter. x

  13. laura

    Ciao, Rachel.
    1) You are NOT “middle-aged”! (Of course, context is everything – as I used to tell my students. Still, you are NOT middle-aged!)
    But congratulations to the Guardian for its perspicacity on picking you.
    2) “Straightforward”! WOOHOO! The older I get, the better it does.
    3) BRILLIANT photo of Luca! Thank you for sharing.
    4) Am here waiting with bated breath for your post on “coda alla vaccinara”.
    5) THANK YOU!

    • rachel

      I cringed when I read the middle aged bit, and then I remembered I said it. I was joking with the journalist about being a cliché and not a bright, flipperty 30 something now. In retrospect I’m glad I mentioned it, I quite like being a 40 year old woman. I certainly didn’t cook or write in the way I do now even two years ago.
      Laura, as always your loyalty make me smile. Coda is coming soon and I also think we should eat it together one day. Come to Rome Rx

  14. Visiting you here is always a pleasure, Rachel. Carry on.

  15. It’s fun to read this post reminiscing about how your time in Rome began, just as the husband and I pack our bags to begin a new life in Ireland. The roast lamb looks delicious!

    • rachel

      Ireland, my goodness Jess, that is so exciting. Only a quarter but I have unmistakably Irish roots: my reddish hair, my colouring and my surmane Roddy (which was of course Reedy back in County Clare) I look forward to reading all about it xx

  16. Roast lamb is delicious but sitting and reading and then dozing off with the Observer is just the icing on the cake. Long time since I have indulged in that ritual.

  17. jan fielden

    Hello rachel. So lovely to read your vivid description of arriving in Testaccio. I love too cook lamb. often a slow roast and we’ll have a leg on easter day. But this weekend will try yr yummy sounding recipe. love Jan

  18. matt

    It’s the ‘straightforward, traditional & ordinary’ that make your writing & cooking so compelling Rachel. I found it slightly irritating that your Guardian mention alluded to a ‘glamorous life in Rome’
    It’s not ‘la dolce vita’ so beloved of fedora
    clad aesthetes that you write of is it? it’s just, well, la vita…elsewhere. Don’t lose that if you do write a book.
    A fan.

    • rachel

      Hi Matt,
      I think you should be writing somewhere, you put it so much better than I ever could. Straightforward, traditional & ordinary is what I hope to be and yes, my life is anything but glamorous, come for lunch and you will see.

  19. Eha

    Quite frankly I do not know whether I read every line of your posts to join you in one of my favourite cities of the world, to listen to your philosophy and think about mine or whether the recipe you have placed on the pages has drawn at my heartstrings? Remember my very first visit to Rome, at Easter, when I sat next to the King Gustav of Sweden at the Villa Hassler restaurant and he leant over asking what I had on my plate 🙂 ! Unborn lamb as it happened: it tasted beautiful, but I have never oredered it since . . .

    • rachel

      Hello Eha, oh my, king Gustav indeed, how splendid. And then shocking by the sounds of it. My lamb was suckling so 4 weeks old. It came from a good source in whom I trust. I eat such lamb about three times a year. It is always nice to have you reading along. Hope you are well x

  20. I believe I fell in love with Rome when I stayed in Testaccio for the first time ever – can you believe after 7 years of living in Florence, it was on our last few days in Italy before moving to Australia. My first thought was, “why did we not live here?!” Marco still says every now and then, “let’s move to Rome!” but then the Tuscan comes out of him and he takes it back, saying he doesn’t want our daughter to grow up with a Roman accent! *me rolling eyes* May I be invited to your Easter lunch? Sounds like the ideal meal.

    • rachel

      I’ve read your lovely Testaccio post, the one in which you have lunch with Katie. I think it might even be the post we met through. That seems particularly fitting. Luca already has couple of deeply Roman sounds, my Tuscan friend howls with laughter. You must be counting the days. Safe trip and have a glorious time with your Florentine family baci Rx

  21. Shopafrolic

    I am still in awe of your ability to cook such fabulous food, raise a little person, and find the time to write about it. I seem to be lucky if I can rustle up bangers and mash. I just wish C could move around without near death incidents! Then I could play in my kitchen more. Love this blog Rach xx

    • rachel

      I think it might all be about to change, Luca, who used to sit in one place or waddle slowly, can now climb and as a consequence fall. He is also very interested in pulling heavy things onto his head. I think I might be writing about toast next week. I love that you are reading Sal xx

  22. I’ve only recently found your blog and was astonished when, looking at the Guardian online (no Observer for us: it costs an arm and a leg here in France and they cut half of it anyway), saw they’d found you too. I love your writing, and its glimpses of an Italy I don’t know – I lived and worked in Florence for about a year after leaving school, and have only been a brief tourist in Rome. Thank you for your posts, your recipes and your enthusiasm for all you share with us, your lucky readers

    • rachel

      I believe I am the lucky one, such nice readers and editors at the observer too. Thank you for your words, it is a pleasure to have you here. x

  23. A beautifully written post and lovely recipe. I have lamb that I buy from a fellow ski instructor, which are truly abbachio – a leg barely feeds three of us. Your dinner sounds perfect – with the simple roasted meat, a truly authentic preparation; not loaded with sauces as too many restaurants here do, and call Italian. I look forward to future posts 🙂

    • rachel

      It’s true, a leg of abbacchio feeds three, four at a pinch. We ate this leg in two and a half (my little boy). There was a little left over. A little. No sauce needed. Oh and Thank you.

  24. Ann

    Ah, every culture has their version of a feast, but the nap afterwards is universal 🙂 Thanks for some lovely roasting inspiration!

  25. Hilary

    Forget the lamb (although it does sound delicious), I want to be in Testaccio, now!!! Beautifully said, as always!!

    • rachel

      Come and visit, we can walk the streets of Testaccio. Not today though, it is pouring with rain, but wednesday once the sun comes back…

      • Hilary

        oh, and I would if it weren’t for having to be at work today. And the 24+ hour flight!! I will just have to dream about it till October.

      • rachel

        October is a lovely month to be in Rome but I think you know that.

  26. I love lamb more than any other kind of meat, and any new recipe is welcome. Funnily enough, even though I almost always cook suckling lamb because I too live in Italy, my favorite recipe comes from the UK, precisely a Jamie Oliver recipe with a mint and garlic rub.

    • My husband favourite meat and I was planning to buy it for Easter Day until we got thoroughly snowed-in here in Wales. 🙂 So it looks like something from the freezer on Sunday and your mouth-watering recipe kept until the snow finally melts.

      • rachel

        It’s hard to imagine the snow when it is so certainly spring here in Rome, rainy spring, but spring nonetheless. Hope the sun melts the snow in time for Easter.

  27. This is a lovely story of food, shopping for food, loving and being where you are and relishing the bounty available. Your stories are so very engaging and visual. I can just taste the juices and potatoes as well as hear soft steps in the markets.

  28. Rach – you know how I feel about Testaccio – I felt so nostalgic after reading your post – no matter where I live in Rome – Testaccio will always be a part of me more than any other place. Such a beautifully written post. x s

    • rachel

      I know we feel exactly the same way. We can talk about this devotion to our wedge shaped quarter over lunch in Augustarello one day (soonish) x

  29. There have been a number of sundays where I’ve thrust fork tines into a tender potato that sits in a nice shallow pool of fall-off-the-bone meat liquid. Straight from the pan, just moments before the stomach is officially full, is best. Following that with some sweet. Just a little. It is required.

    This sunday we have been promised lamb. I hear fave with artichoke and potatoes might make an appearance as well. There will be pasta too, of course.

    • rachel

      I was thinking about you this morning, I was writing dates in diaries and thinking about May. I have just made stewed artichokes and potatoes, not the most beautiful dish in the world but so so tasty. Happy lunch on Sunday baci xx

  30. Pingback: Roast Lamb with Potatoes | rachel's food blog

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