Were it not for Testaccio market or Monte Testaccio, the extraordinary ancient Rubbish dump that rises somnolently the bottom corner of this most Roman of Roman quarters, I am pretty sure I would never have started writing a blog at all, never mind a book, or a column. So it seems absolutely fitting that nearly 13 years after arriving in Testaccio, my first proper tour, alongside my friend and inimitable tour guide Agnes Crawford, is of the market and dump.
The plan is as follows, Agnes and I shall be leading you through the Testaccio market, visiting some of my favourite stalls and learning some technical tricks on taming puntarelle: every Roman’s favourite winter salad. We shall discuss the area’s social and culinary history, and nibble on fried goodies with a glass of something fizzy before a wander through the former (cleaned up!) abattoir.
We also have specially arranged access to the usually closed Monte Testaccio where we shall crunch our way over the shards of broken terra-cotta pots for a unique view of the city and a chat about the numbers and types of pots beneath our feet, and why they had to be thrown away. Appetites suitably sharpened, we will repair to a small trattoria off the usual food tour route for a festive lunch with a specially chosen winter menù, including (of course!) those puntarelle. Much chatter and wine guaranteed. The day will begin at 10.30am and lunch will conclude at about 3.30pm. Total cost, including all food and wine: 100 euros. Book here
Dietary restrictions can of course be accommodated, please mention details when booking.
At this point you might like to go off and read Agnes’s post about Monte Testaccio. Once you have done so, come back here for a recipe and – if you wish – to book the tour.
Insalata di puntarelle
Puntarelle with anchovy and lemon dressing
The mere mention of puntarelle has me shooting off on a sentimental tangent that involves my friend Alice, a trattoria in an irritatingly pretty piazza, a paper tablecloth, Pyrex glasses, a litre of hair-curling wine, a grumpy waitress, braised rabbit and a bowl of pale-green curls of gently bitter salad leaves with anchovy dressing.
I’d heard about an idiosyncratic salad from a Roman friend in London long before I moved here, of a Catalonian chicory with dandelion-like leaves called puntarelle, which, once trimmed, cut and immersed in cold water, curled in much the same way as Shirley Temple’s hair. The pale green curls are dressed with a pungent and loudly delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and lemon or vinegar. I ate it with Alice during the first spring I was in Rome, and neither the wine nor the waitress could spoil our delight in the puntarelle salad that we, in the proprietorial manner of new arrivals in Rome, had so happily ‘discovered’.
Twelve years later, less proprietorial and pretty comfortable about still being in Rome, I prepare puntarelle a lot during its winter- spring season. I say prepare, but curl, pulse and assemble is a better description. Some people say that the dressing should be made with a pestle and mortar, but I make mine with my stick blender – not just for speed, but because I like the more consistent, thicker dressing that a few pulses creates. I also prefer lemon juice to vinegar, as it gives the dressing a citrus-sharp but less aggressive edge. Puntarelle is becoming more widely available, but in its absence you can use frisée.
1 head puntarelle or frisée
1 garlic clove
4 – 8 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained
1 teaspoon lemon juice or red-wine vinegar 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
To prepare the puntarelle: holding the whole head, pull away the dark green external leaves. Separate the individual tube-like stalks and pull off any dark green leaves. Cut away the tough lower part of each stalk, then cut the tubes in half lengthways and then each half into strips about 3 mm wide. Rinse the strips under cold water, then immerse them in a bowl of iced water for 30 minutes, or until they curl. Once curled, drain and dry thoroughly.
To prepare the frisée: discard the tough outer leaves (or use them for soup), then wash and carefully dry the paler inner leaves. Tear the leaves into bite-size pieces.
Peel the garlic, then cut it in half and remove the green shoot, if there is one. Pound the garlic in a pestle and mortar, then add the anchovy fillets and grind to a rough paste. Stir in the lemon juice or vinegar and then the olive oil. If you’re using a stick blender or small food processor, blend all the ingredients until they form a textured dressing. If not, just blend the ingredients in the pestle and mortar.
Tip the leaves into a bowl or serving dish, pour over the dressing, toss to coat evenly and serve immediately.
(recipe extract from my book Five Quarters. Second and last picture of Testaccio market by my photographer in crime Nick Seaton)