I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the Colosseum, caught out the window of a speeding taxi, nearly two decades ago. Quite unexpectedly, it was all of a sudden, just there! The road we were travelling wrapped right around it. Time-pocked stone arches built atop one another were instantly recognisable, familiar almost, and yet, at the same time, it wasn’t entirely as I’d expected. Conditioned perhaps, by a slightly whimsical depiction on a watercolour fridge magnet that had, for a very long time, graced the door of my grandmother’s old Kelvinator, I’d expected a surrounding field of wildflowers, something of that sort, in the very least… Certainly I hadn’t guessed that it would just pop up as it did, centrepiece of a busy roundabout!
I seemed to simply stumble upon Rome’s treasures, one after the other, on that first trip. A corner turned from a dark, narrow lane would suddenly give onto the dazzling white façade and dancing light of the Trevi Fountain. Another such corner would open, quite startlingly, onto the decadent stretch of the Piazza Navona. Even the hulking mass of the Pantheon can sneak up announced. Approached from the back or sides it could be almost any old Roman wall. It is only when you see it from the front, the colossal columns of unbroken Egyptian marble, the entire structure seeming to sink into the marshy earth beneath and draw the sloping piazza down with it, that the awe genuinely descends. And then you too are drawn in, to admire the improbably perfect dome, to marvel at the sheer length of time it has stood.
This time around however, many years on, now a newly arrived but hopefully ‘permanent’ Roman resident, it was culinary more than architectural treasures on my mind… And these, I had assumed, would be just as easy to discover, just as generously and casually offered up.
For the first two weeks, without an apartment or kitchen to call my own, I ate every meal out, and was diligent in trying many of the ‘musts.’ Top ten dishes, top ten restaurants, trattorias, pizzerias, gelaterias, an epic binge, but one at the end of which I was left feeling strangely hungry, a bit unsatisfied. Was what I had eaten ‘real’ Roman food? Does it even make sense, nowadays, to ask or hope for such a thing? Mounds of spaghetti, bucatini, carbonara, amatriciana, those are the classics for sure, and some plates were better than others, but, without wishing to underscore too deeply my already evident ignorance, I felt, not only in those first weeks, but, if we are being honest, really for the first few months, a little deflated by what it seemed Rome had to offer.
With the lease on an apartment finally signed, I began to stock my new pantry and cook at home, but the situation did not much improve. Regular ingredients, things that I’d ordinarily expected to buy in any supermarket, were apparently the preserve of specialty shops here in Rome! Not a single store stocked cumin! I eventually gave up trying to find halloumi. I cooked my usual multi-ethnic mish-mash of things, but with half the ingredients missing, and they didn’t taste the same. Home in Australia for a holiday, early in the New Year, friends and family delightedly trilled – “but the food over there, it must be wonderful!” Involuntarily, guiltily, I felt my nose wrinkle in response. “You can’t even buy halloumi…” I offered weakly, inadequately, by means of defence.
Not very long afterwards things were to come to a head. I’d pitched up extra early at my local market on a mission to track down some very important chives. Fossicking through a cane basket of herbs – bunches of sage tied with string, leaves like velvety rabbit ears – tossed aside. Branches of woody rosemary – same treatment. Sweet little clumps of mentuccia, the local mint, all furiously side-lined in the search. “Mi scusi,” I addressed the stall holder, “ma sto cercando l’erba cipollina,” I’d practised this sentence on the way down, strongly suspecting I was going to have to use it. He shook his head for a moment, chirpily mimicked “l’erba cipollina” back to me, then laughingly added, “you Americans!” Chive-less, and mistaken for an American! Defeated culinary, culturally, linguistically, I bought what they did have instead – leafy cime di rapa, a ton of it.
At home I boiled the leaves, a little begrudgingly, then fried them with sliced garlic and pepperoncino, ‘ripassata’ style. I knew how, it’s not difficult, I’d eaten them like this a million times before, prepared, once upon a time, by my Sicilian nonna, and recently enough by my own mother. Nonetheless, the first bite was unexpected, a little startling somehow, the exactness of the flavour, of the memory. The bitterness I’d found off-putting as a child felt wonderfully comforting now, the taste of the oil, of the iron-rich leaves, cleansing in its simplicity.
Chickpeas followed soon after, in a soup, tasting like chickpeas and not at all like tahini, or garlic, or cumin. The moreish mush of them was stomach filling and warming, the get-well-soon flavour of a wintertime sick-day. Zucchini, cut into rounds, came next, fried with garlic, dressed with mint and lots of vinegar; then fagioli any old way, cooked from dry for a long time in water and oil until plump, or, another time, in free-for-all minestrone, everything at the bottom of the fridge chucked in. It was like a mouth-washing of plain, wonderful, true, and, for me, enormously nostalgic, flavours.
If, on any given morning, I found myself short of inspiration for my (now increasingly regular) market trips, I’d fish about on the internet for a bit, see what I could see. One such expedition turned up Rachel Eats, written by Rome resident and British expat Rachel Roddy. Her blog chronicles how everyday finds from Testaccio market make their way (via a famously photographic stainless steel sink) to her kitchen table. With Rachel as ‘virtual’ company on my morning market endeavours, I began to experiment with more classically Roman combinations. Carciofini (little artichokes) for example, mixed with the first spring peas and broad beans, then bubbled with a little fresh onion into a soft pan-full of natural sweetness known as a vignarola. I ate it with bread, olive oil, and fresh ricotta. I got hooked on preparing the vegetables, podding and shelling, therapy in the springtime sun. I was back at the market the very next morning for more of the same.
‘From market to table’ – the simple idea of starting with what’s fresh, what’s local, available, and working with it, letting it star in the cooking. A Roman approach to eating, it’s also the name of a new event, hosted by Rachel herself, along with cookery teacher Carla Tomasi – a chance to benefit from their actual (as opposed to virtual!) experience. The idea is to start the day among the produce stands of Testaccio, buy up what’s looking fresh, whip this into a series of delicious seasonal dishes, then finish up with the table laden for a wonderful lunch. The very first outing took place just over a week ago, and I was lucky enough to take part…
We were four that Friday, assembled bright and early, poised to catch the market in fullest swing – Rachel our guide, food writer Diana Henry, Jeremy Cherfas (of Eat-This-Podcast), and myself, along for the ride. The current market, we learn, is ‘new’ or at least the site and covered buildings are. The original setting, long since demolished, sounds like it may have been a little more ‘atmospheric,’ but not without accompanying pitfalls – a car, once left parked outside the fish section for a morning, Rachel recalls, was so thoroughly permeated by the smell, it could still be detected a week later!
So the new market may be different, but the stallholders, in large part, are the same. A few are even the farmers themselves, bringing in daily what they grow, a token smattering of bananas the only imported exception! But our list today is all about the seasonal, starting with zucchini flowers, destined to be dipped in a light batter, dropped in hot oil, and quickly fried. The male flowers, with their large petals, are best for this we’re told – they’re the ones sold in pretty bouquets, the sort you rarely see outside Italy. Next up, there are fresh fave (broad beans), some intended for a bright green Sicilian maccu soup, the rest for a late-spring vignarola, (one last hoorah before the carciofi disappear, and the beans become too large!). Then it’s some fresh peas, still young and sweet, a kilo of little carciofini, and, finally, a bag of glossy ripe cherries, some of the first of the season, to be cooked into a syrupy topping for a cake of baked ricotta.
As we wander the stalls, we eat. Some two minutes in, I have nespole (loquat) juice down both arms. Less than ten minutes later (no food order rules to dictate market nibbling!), it’s a little square of pizza, thinnest shavings of potato roast to a gentle crisp on top. Just outside the market, one last quick little gulp of coffee, then, full bags dangling from shoulders and elbows, it’s off to the kitchen...
Past the ‘hill’ of discarded Roman amphora (from the ancient days when Testaccio was an important river port), through the now decommissioned slaughterhouse (where, at one less historically distant point, most of the neighbourhood were employed), then across the Tiber at the bridge where tall trees grow directly on the river’s banks giving the impression that the city no longer exists behind, that we may have strayed accidently out into the countryside instead.
Situated on a steep Monteverde street we find Latteria Studio, and Carla already inside. With her she has brought along even more things to eat, mostly from her own garden – tiny radishes, freshly uprooted spring onions, an array of just-picked lettuces! Piled up on a rustic wooden table, light spilling scenically through the windows behind, the sight is picture-perfect and a frenzy of photography, from which not one of us is immune, inevitably ensues!
But onto the business of lunch. Aprons tied (‘grembiuli’ in Italian, surely the most incongruous of all words), then to the podding of peas, shelling of fave, and paring of artichokes. An industrious buzz, mildly fuelled by prosecco, sees pasta mixed and rolled perfectly thin, a filling of spinach, ricotta, and nutmeg enclosed between layers, cut into ravioli; corallo beans, smothered with a sauce of blanched tomatoes, then left to slowly simmer and plop; one half of the fave, fried with onion and whizzed into maccu, the other half slid into the vignarola pan along with the peas, (the very smallest of the beans, who seem briefly to have escaped both fates, rounded up and nibbled raw, with some salty pecorino); then, finally, the batter-dipped zucchini flowers, lowered into the sizzling oil, cheered by another round of photography, and eaten on kitchen roll, as fritti like to be, straight from the pan!
The courses begin to roll off the stovetop and onto the table. First helpings are devoured, seconds indulged, the juices all mopped up with fresh sourdough bread, baked by Jeremy and kindly donated to our feast. We eat, we talk, we drink, and just as we profess to be unable to do anymore of the first, the cake arrives, topped with a sauce of dribbling stewed cherries. Quickly, by the mysterious rite of dessert accommodation, which I’ve never known not to hold, it is duly, delightfully, demolished.
The recipe for Carla’s wonderful cake is reproduced below, and that for Rachel’s spring vignarola too. Like everything we ate that day, the recipes contain few ingredients – only the essentials – delicious in their simplicity.
The culinary heart of this city isn’t that difficult to find, as it turns out. It can even find you, if your eyes are open to see it. But then, it is all too easy, sometimes, to lose sight of those good things we are most used to seeing.
- 1kg carciofini (tiny artichokes), or 3 large artichokes (preferably a choke-less variety)
- 1kg fresh peas, in their pods
- 1 kg fresh broad beans
- 1 lemon (to acidulate a water bath)
- 2 large spring onions – finely sliced
- 1 glass of water, or white wine
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Sea salt
- Crusty bread and fresh ricotta (optional), to serve, and some mint leaves if you'd like
Prepare the artichokes by pulling down on the outer leaves until they break and you are left with the tender heart. Next, take a small knife and pare down the stem where you have removed the leaves, trimming the base of the stem if necessary. Turn the artichoke around to take 1-2cm off the pointy tip as well. Depending on size, you may want to slice in half lengthways next, or even into quarters or more if using very large artichokes. Place into a bowl of water acidulated with the juice of a lemon those you’ve already prepared, as this will prevent them from discolouring. Throw the lemon halves themselves into the water as well, if you’d like, for good measure.
Next, pop the peas from their pods into a waiting bowl, the same for the broad beans too. If the beans are on the large side, they may need their thin outer jackets removed. Simply tear a hole in the outer membrane with a fingernail to do so, squeezing the tender inner bean out. Or, to make things even easier, plunge briefly into boiling water, and then into very cold, this will loosen their coats, allowing you to just slide them off.
In a heavy-based pan with a lid, heat a generous glug of olive oil. Sauté the sliced onion slowly, without browning, to release its sweetness, then add the artichokes, and stir to coat. Next, slosh in the wine (if using) or water, along with some salt. Cover and cook over medium heat for around 20 minutes, re-jigging occasionally with a wooden spoon, and cooking for longer if your artichokes were very large to begin with.
When everything is looking silky and tender, add the broad beans, pop the lid back on, and cook for a further 5 minutes, before finally adding the peas.
These need only a minute or two, so do a quick check of the seasoning, adjust if necessary, and then, that’s it, the vignarola is ready! Turn off the heat, and let it settle for a bit before serving with some fresh ricotta and crusty bread for mopping.
Cassola (Baked Ricotta Cake) with Cherries
- 800g of cow milk ricotta
- 300g granulated sugar
- 8 eggs
- 500g ripe cherries – stones removed
- 250g granulated sugar
- 2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
- 1 glass of water
- 2 glasses of red wine
Carla suggests preparing the cassola the day before you wish to eat it, allowing the flavours to develop overnight.
Begin by preheating the oven to 200°C.
Next, prepare a 20cm diameter cake tin by greasing with butter and dusting with flour, or by lining with baking paper, as you’d prefer.
Beat the ricotta in the bowl of a food processor until completely smooth. In a separate bowl, beat the whole eggs, together with the sugar, until pale and fluffy.
Fold the beaten eggs and sugar gently into the ricotta using a rubber spatula. Then, transfer the mixture to the prepared cake tin and place in a middle shelf of the oven.
Bake at 200°C for the first ten minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 180°C and cook for a further 25.
When the cake is done, turn off the oven, and open the door, leaving it ajar, and the cake inside to rest for around 20 minutes. No matter if it’s still a little on the wobbly side at this point, as it will firm up while slowly cooling down.
Outside the oven, leave the cake to cool for a further hour or so, before carefully turning out of the tin and onto a plate.
If you intend to eat the cassola same-day, prepare the cherry topping while it rests. To do so, place the stoned cherries in a medium saucepan together with the sugar, bay leaves, water and red wine, then cook over low heat, until the cherries have softened, and the liquid turns thick and syrupy.
To serve, simply spoon the warm cherry topping over individual slices, and enjoy!