Testaccio in August: hot, quiet, sleepy and slightly squalid, which I put down to the dust, heat and arbitrary rubbish collection. There is just enough life to reassure – including my preferred bar, market stall and forno – but no more. The whole quarter is behaving like a cat, that is lying low in the shade all day, rousing only when absolutely necessary (meaning meals) and then prowling at night. I like Testaccio in August.
Of course there have been moments when I wished we were guests in a fair Umbrian villa or yodellingly good mountain retreat rather than wilting within Rome’s ancient city wall. They have been rare moments though – after all both villa and mountains will come later this year – and almost invariably when we’d forgotten that come August in Testaccio, it’s best to behave like a cat.
One reason to rouse is the market. Others are our own private Ex-Slaughterhouse and a daily Grattachecca: a Roman treat of roughly grated ice, fruit syrup and almost enough fruit decoration to bring out your inner Carmen Miranda. But I digress. Most of the market may be closed: grills pulled low, locked and emblazoned with luminous notices reminding us the stall is chiuso per ferie, but my favourite stall isn’t. What’s more, there is no queue, no argy bargy, plenty of time for idle chat and best of all, a small but lovely selection.
We have been eating peaches, mostly the flat, blushing ones that look as if they have been sat upon by a fat bottomed girl (or boy), nectarines, freckled apricots, white, bright-orange and icy-fleshed red melons, black cherries, flat and slim green beans, bunches of fragrant basil, golden flowered zucchini and of course, red as red can be: tomatoes.
On Friday I made pomodori al riso, or tomatoes stuffed with rice. I have written about these simply stuffed tomatoes, a classic summer dish much-loved by Romans before. At great length I seem to remember. It seems appropriate to mention them again though – briefly – being as they are such a good, tasty, resourceful and appropriate dish for these slow, tomato heavy days. The recipe is here. Remember, they are best served just warm.
On Saturday I made sauce, a smooth simple one, some for lunch and some for the freezer. On Monday too. Each day buying two kilos of San Marzano tomatoes, the pale red, plum-shaped variety that collapse and reduce so well into a rich-red, well-balanced sauce.
For this sauce you need a passatutto, Mouli or food mill. I apologize if you don’t have one, but also urge you to use this recipe as an excuse to buy one! It is a brilliantly simple (and cheap) device consisting of a bowl with a removable perforated plate and a crank with a curved metal paddle that forces the food through the holes as the crank is turned. It is a sort of cranked up sieve really, separating the rough from the smooth, the wanted from the unwanted, but one that also does the same work as a blender only leaving the sauce/soup/paste or mash in question with more character than an electric blast would. When it come to sauces like this, certain Italian soups, vegetable and fruit pureès a Mouli is indispensable.
So the sauce. You need to wash and then cut your tomatoes in half before putting them in a large heavy-based pan – I use my Le Creuset – with nothing more than a generous pinch of salt. You cover the pan and then put it over a medium-flame for about 10 minutes, lifting the lid and prodding every now and then. Once the tomatoes have started to relinquish their juices, you remove the lid and let the tomatoes collapse and soften in their carmine broth for another few minutes.
You pass the collapsed tomatoes and their juices through the Mouli into a clean bowl. You will need to do this in batches. Once all your tomatoes are milled, you pour them back in the heavy-based pan with two peeled and smashed garlic cloves, a good slosh of olive oil and a few basil leaves, and put the pan back on the heat. Once it reaches an easy boil, you reduce the heat and then leave it to bubble and reduce into a thick sauce – that clings to the back of a wooden spoon. Once cool enough, you taste and season the sauce before ladling it into suitable containers for the fridge or freezer.
Then yesterday, Tuesday, with two deceptively pale, creamy-fleshed cuore di bue tomatoes, a ball of mozzarella di bufala and a few large, floppy basil leaves I made another summer standard, the perfect plate when it is too damn hot, a combination I never seem to tire of: Insalata Caprese.
The truth of the matter is: both tomatoes and mozzarella di bufala should never be refrigerated, it changes the nature of their flesh, seizing and tightening it into something else. Like me on a beach in August. Of course this advice is all very well if you live within non-refrigeratation-is-a-possibility distance of both buffaloes and vines. Not so easy if you don’t. If your mozzarella di bufala and tomatoes have been refrigerated, then let then come to room temperature – to relax – for at least an hour before slicing.
Slicing (ripping and pouring) is the only thing you have to do for this simple dish. In fact this dish is all about choosing well and temperature. The tomatoes should be ripe but firm and flavoursome. Rugged, ribbed cuore di bue (ox heart) with their thin skin and creamy flesh are ideal. As I’ve already mentioned, they should be as warm as the room you are sitting in. As for the mozzarella di bufala, this is no time for parsimony, use the best you can find, it should wobble and weep. Look for big, floppy basil leaves and tear them with your fingers, remembering to dab a little of their sweet, peppery scent behind your ears. The salt should be scattered prudently and the extra virgin olive oil poured generously.
Serve with bread to assist and then mop up one of the nicest dressings in the world: sweet-sour tomato juice scented with basil, mozzarella milk, extra virgin olive oil and tiny shards of salt.
Insalata Caprese Tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala and basil.
- two large, ripe tomatoes
- 250 g ball of mozzarella di bufala
- a few basil leaves
- extra virgin olive oil
Cut the tomato and mozzarella into 5 mm slices. Arrange them as you wish on a large plate or platter. Tear the basil leaves and slide them between the tomatoes and mozzarella. Sprinkle judiciously with salt. Pour over extra virgin olive oil. Serve.