Category Archives: Five Quarters: recipes and notes from a kitchen in Rome

supple ripple

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A very ripe kaki (persimmon) feels a bit like a little balloon filled with water. Cup one in your hands – they are often disconcertingly heavy – and then move it from side to side: you can almost feel the soft pulp sloshing inside the tawny skin, which has the sort of translucent glow that in many fruits would suggest the wrong side of ripe. The dry, crumpled calyx will tug away easily and then it takes almost nothing to break the skin. A knife would be excessive. A spoon is best. It isn’t quite the explosion of a water balloon, but almost: open the fruit over a plate so the flood of sweet, pulpy, almost jelly like flesh is contained.

Until I came to Italy, I had only ever eaten Sharon persimmons, called Sharon fruit in the UK, a variety developed in the Sharon valley in Israel to be less astringent when hard, meaning they can be eaten with pleasure and crunch like an apple. As a child I quite liked Sharon fruit, it was a fun fruit, as opposed to a boring fruit, both exotic, with its shiny, yellow-orange skin, and familiar to a 12-year-old who watched with dedication the soap opera Eastenders and England’s most famous landlord’s daughter, Sharon Watts. It was the equivalent, maybe, of a fruit today being developed in the Kim valley.

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Various less astringent varieties are cultivated in Italy, usually called kaki vaniglia, in Rome at least. Just to confuse things they are also called loti vanigliakaki mela and cachi fuya. Simply asking for kaki duri (hard) generally works. The hard vaniglia variety will eventually ripen too, the skin darkening from yellow to tawny red, the pulp softening into plummyness. However after extremely scientific research on my windowsill and in a paper bag, I can confirm they never quite reach the ripeness, nor the deep flavor, of varieties whose astringent tannins have been conquered by extraordinary sweetness. Hard varieties, I think, are best just so, out of hand, or sliced for a salad, where lemon and salt bring out best in them.

It is the kaki that begin life as a hard, mouth-furring ball, and then ripen into little balloons that really interest me at this time of year. The sort that make plenty of people shudder at the mere wobbly thought of them, The wild ancestors of Kaki grew in China and Japan, where full-fruiting trees have flourished, and had a deep symbolic significance, for over two thousand years. In her wonderful Fruit Book, Jane Grigson notes that in Japan the poet Issa uses Kaki to symbolize maternal self-sacrifice – Wild persimmons, the mother eating, the bitter part. I have seen pictures of trees in Japan, leafless, hung with deep red fruit that looks like glowing baubles on an avant garde Christmas tree. I have never been to Japan, but I have been to Abruzzo in November, a particularly damp and grey one to research a piece on olive oil. We had to stop the car several time to look at the strange Autumn beauty through the mist, trees with skeleton branches arching under the weight of the fruit, the ground below a ripe carnage. The owner of one tree almost begged us to take some off her hands, which we did, the fruits supple and extremely soft, spilling all over our greed in the car. Back home I thought about jam, and until I realized that ripe kaki are in fact already jam, the pulp so sticky and sweet that you need only nick a corner and a jam tumbles onto your toast. Or into your cake batter.

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As you may remember, I only really make one cake, of infinite variations. It is Ruth’s olive oil and yogurt pot cake – the one in which you use a pot of yogurt, and then the pot to measure the rest of the ingredients – which has now evolved into a ricotta and olive oil cake you can add anything to, the recipe of which is in my book. It will probably be in my next book too. I make a version of this cake most weeks, enjoying the fact I can fling it all together in about two minutes. This week, after dislodging the mixing bowl from the infernal pile rammed under the butcher block and thinking bollocks, I noticed a kaki and thought aha. So ripe was the fruit, pureeing it would have been superfluous, I simply squeezed and it slipped, like a jellyfish, into the bowl. I then fished out bits of skin, which wasn’t really necessary. The batter streaked with tawny ripples looked gorgeous. In the oven it went.

I have made the cake again since, weighing the kaki, which was just short of 300g. The weight and consistency of the ripe fruit means the cake doesn’t rise as it normally does, in fact when I first pulled the first one from the oven my heart sank like cake before me. It was heavy. The next morning I cut a slice, the crust deep golden brown, the crumb ruddy-yellow with tawny flecks. It was dense, damp and plainly delicious. This cake reminds me a little of Claudia Roden’s wonderfully moist whole orange cake in that it is better after a nights rest and keeps a good few days, that it happily moonlights as a pudding if given enough cold cream. I think this cake might be our Christmas dessert. That, or simply a ripe kaki, with cream poured in the top, and nothing else.

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Persimmon (kaki), olive oil, lemon and ricotta ring cake

There are a rather confusing number of varieties of kaki/persimmon grown all over the world. As you can imagine, the varieties that need to be matured until very soft are ripened in various ways, some more preferable than others, and transport can be difficult. It might be worth doing a bit of research. I have reduced the sugar slightly from my book recipe as the kaki provides plenty.

  • 250 g plain flour
  • a bag of Italian leivito or two teaspoons of baking powder
  • 150 g sugar
  • 250 g ricotta or whole milk yogurt
  • 200 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 eggs
  • the zest of a large unwaxed lemon
  • a very ripe, very soft (Hachiya) kaki/ persimmon, approx 300 g.

Pre-heat the oven to 180°

In a large bowl, mix together the dry ingredients – flour, baking power and sugar. Add the ricotta/yogurt, olive oil and eggs one by one and mix vigorously until you have a smooth batter.  Grate the lemon zest directly over the mixture and then scoop the persimmon flesh from the skin and mix again.

Pour the mixture into an oiled and floured ring tin and bake on a rack in the middle of the oven for 40 – 50 minutes or until the cake is golden brown and a skewer or piece of spaghetti comes out clean. Let the cake cool in the tin and then invert onto a plate.

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what else is there to do?

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Did it take you a very long time to write? Asked my four-year old niece while balancing the book on her upturned palms as if to really weigh it up. ‘About a year‘ I answered. ‘What a long time!’  She paused for a few seconds, then began turning the pages, her fingers moving like a pro. ‘I like that picture‘ she said before pausing again and staring at me hard. ‘I don’t need pictures now you know. Harry Potter doesn’t have pictures‘. She continued working her way through the book, her fingers and eyes moving from left to right. In that moment she looked about 10 years old.

Look, look there’s that building we drove past, the one you said looks like a cake, which means your flat is here!’ She was looking and pointing at one of Nick’s pictures, a sweeping shot of Rome, in which you can just about make out the Vittorio Emanuele monument. We passed that monument, once, at speed, a few weeks ago during Beattie’s first visit to Rome. My aunty awe at her memory and orientation were interrupted by ‘Tomato, tomato, pasta, pasta, pasta.’ The nearly five-year old was back, her eyes wide-hungry. ‘Is that a sticky bun aunty Rach, a really sticky bun?’ Then she slammed the book closed, leapt down from the chair and ran off. I thought that was that, but she turned. ‘Well done, Aunty Rach, it is a good book’.

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I say it took me a year to write! Which it did, technically. A generous 12 months which allowed me to write, shop, cook, test, photograph and of course eat my way through the four seasons and as much as possible keep the process in tune with our everyday life (which is all too often far from melodic). But really, I started the book 10 years ago in April, when the 170 bus swerved into via Branca and I visited Testaccio for the first time. It was that day, as disorientation gave way to curiosity in a corner of Rome where ancient and modern collide with almost banal ease, and where food culture is woven into the very fabric of the place. I unknowingly began Five Quarters.

Many of you know the story. I didn’t intend to stay in Rome. I was set on returning to Sicily to finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted. Then I visited Testaccio, which – for want of a better description – tripped me up with its cocky charm. I decided to stay for a while and rented a flat above a breadshop, across a courtyard from boisterous trattoria and seconds from the burly old market. My front door, like the two dozen other front doors, opened onto a narrow balcony overlooking an internal courtyard which was sort of vortex of cooking smells and vigorous Roman life.

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There is a wonderful Elizabeth Bowen quote (that we were given permission to use on page 252) pointing out the injunction to do when in Rome as the romans do is superfluous: what else is there to do?  Of course I was going to eat pizza bianca just pulled from the mouth of a baker’s oven, flowers dipped in batter and fried until golden, carbonara, spaghetti alle vongole, gnocchi with tomato sauce, whole braised artichokes, bitter greens cooked with olive oil and garlic, wobbly cream puddings, wild cherry tart. Seasonal, uncomplicated, bold, and with flavours that are undisguised and definite: Roman food was a revelation. And I didn’t just want to eat these dishes, I wanted to try to understand them, to make them. I have always cooked and written, but the two met, collided really, in a small wind ventilated kitchen on Via Mastro Giorgio.

I’d left everything behind in order to travel. I adopted a similar approach to cooking, allowing myself to watch, taste, experiment and learn things all over again, especially the blindingly obvious things. Such as how to make a soffritto, the simplest tomato sauce and bean soup, how to braise vegetables and meat in wine and their own juices, to boil pasta and soak chickpeas, all things I ostensibly knew how to do, but then again didn’t. Things that, once re-learned and better understood changed the way I cook.

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To start it was all about the new and different. But as a year became several, and recipes began to feel like my own, I began to observe similarities as well as differences. Roman food, I noticed, had much in common with traditional English food, particularly that of my northern relatives, the simplicity and straightforwardness of it (my grandfather would have said no fuss); the resourcefulness; the long slow braises using less popular cuts of meat; the battered cod; the love of peas, broad beans asparagus and mint; the jam tarts, stewed fruit and spiced fruit cakes. These connections were reassuring and made cooking even more of a new-found pleasure. There was another dimension too, the Sicilian food culture of Vincenzo, which felt like a bold and brilliant slap around the cooking face. I cooked and kept notes, and cooked and kept notes. In 2008 my notes found a home here on this blog, and now 7 years later a new home in a book.

Five Quarters; Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome is the title. Nick Seaton a photographer whose work I like very much, came and more-or-less lived with us – and our chaos – for a days at a time in order to capture Testaccio. His pictures, which feel like acute sideways glances at this distinct part of Rome, are honest and beautiful and add another dimension to the book. The rest of the pictures are mine, taken over the course of the year in our small kitchen as I cooked my way though the seasons and the 120 recipes.

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I am now sitting at my desk holding the book, weighing it up if you like. It has a picture of my kitchen sink and a kitchen roll on the front and I can’t help but wonder what my grandma Roddy would have had to say about that. Plenty I imagine, including ‘A Kitchen Roll, by heck, you can’t put a kitchen roll…! The name on the front cover is mine, but this book is the work of many, most notably my commissioning editor Elizabeth Hallett and Kate Miles at Saltyard Books, editor Laura Gladwin, designer Myfanwy Vernon-Hunt and Dan Etherington. It is impossible to talk about Italian food without talking about wine, so I did, a lot, thanks to the advice of the woman who makes my drinking life better Hande Leimer. To everyone involved – thank you.

I also want to say thank you to you all for reading, commenting and for the real sense of community that exists here. Without you, this book would quite simply never have happened. Thank you, Grazie, cheers and more cheers. Many of you have already preordered I know – thank you.  If not, and you would like to here is the link. Alternatively you go into your local bookshop and ask if they have it /order it, you could even suggest a book signing – I will try and come. The US edition is still a few month aways yet, February 2016 if all goes to plan. However and whenever you get the book, please do send me an email as in these days of fast mail I would like to return to slow mail and send you a post card with a picture from the book and two extra recipes. My e-mail is on my about page.

So to finish, a recipe. Or rather what we happened to have the day I wrote this post. An assembly I never seem to tire of: Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and ricotta. What I like most about this lunch, is what I like best about Roman food, it is robust, inviting and uncomplicated. Also it is very satisfying to toast some good bread and then rub it with a cut clove of garlic, to pile on tomatoes glistening with extra virgin olive oil and scented with fresh basil and then finish with a big fat blob of ricotta. Then what else is there to do? You eat.

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Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and ricotta

serves 2

  • 4 slices of day-old country or sourdough bread
  • 300 – 500 g good, flavorsome, ripe tomatoes
  • a few leaves of basil
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • a cloves of garlic
  • ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk)  or goats curd

Rince and cut away the tough stem from the tomatoes, then dice them roughly into a bowl, taking care to catch the juices. Add a pinch of salt, the basil leaves ripped into small pieces and a good amount of olive oil. Let the tomatoes sit for a 10 minutes.

Toast the bread (either under the grill, on a griddle or in a toaster). Cut the garlic in half lengthways and then use the cut side to rub the toast. Share the tomatoes and their oily juices between the four slices of bread, top with a spoonful of ricotta, a grind of black pepper and another thin drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.

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