A Roman Sunday

Morning light seeps through the slats in the blinds quite early even though we are in Winter. The light is weak and grey which means it is raining but we cannot hear it. It’s a soft rain, almost tropical in its cadence and different from the lashing, sideways rain that pelts ice cubes at our windows on a regular basis in Winter. Sunday morning in February and only the second one where we have been allowed to travel outside of Rome since before Christmas.

We have been waiting for weeks to get out of the city and into the beautiful Sabine countryside only an hour North of Rome. Reminiscent of Tuscany in parts because of its proliferation of cypress and rows of olive groves, it is less polished, less touristed, perfect for rambling and blasting the city from your senses. In no time at all we are deeply immersed in its green rolling hills, and constantly changing landscape. Jagged medieval towers rise in ruins out of dense forest, abandoned abbeys sit forlorn in the mist, Etruscan fountains still sprout in the wilderness, and everywhere you look there is a view below and above you.

 

 

Soon our car crunches onto a caramel-coloured road that seems to have a small tributary running through the middle of it. Other cars are inching along it ahead, obviously also Romans unused to driving over anything that is not cobbled, asphalted, or coated in leaves. We pull up at some stone buildings that have stood for centuries. They are connected by makeshift wooden verandas made up from sticks gathered in the forest nearby, hanging together because of their shapes rather than any type of formal attachments like a nail or bracket. Behind the small buildings we can hear a donkey braying loudly, and around them the most beautiful chickens and roosters I have ever seen peck and strut. Some of them have fluorescent green feathers, others are puffy balls of white down, still others are speckled with two tone feathers and white polka dots. And they are gigantic.

We have come to celebrate my husband’s birthday (which was in December, but we were in lock down), with some close friends who live in the Sabine hills and who have recommended this restaurant. It is a fixed menu that changes depending on the season and day, and none of us knows what is on it. We do not need to, and we never do. In this country it is part of the culture to eat this way, as though it is an extension of eating with the family, whatever they are cooking, using their own and local produce, they cook enough for all of us. With no explanation or introduction plates begin arriving as soon as we have sat down.

Inside, the place is quirkily and lovingly restored and decorated with farming tools and implements, hand painted doors and murals, and wooden tables and chairs. It is light and bright, warm, and noisy, each group seeming to have its own area, so it feels like you are dining alone in your Tuscan farmhouse (probably because of needing to have appropriate distance between tables for social distancing to occur). A large glass bottle filled with dark red wine is on the table along with a bottle of water and a basket of bread. They all get refilled as often as we ask.

A plate of thickly cut pink prosciutto (dried, cured ham) laced with fat, some bresaola (dried beef) and salami studded with slices of whole black peppers arrives, then a plate of crusty white bread laced with local olive oil and topped with bright green broccoletti, a bitter and delicious green leafy Roman vegetable boiled and then fried in oil, garlic, and chilli. Other dishes land simultaneously until our table is covered and luckily, we know the custom or we would assume this is our whole meal instead of just our appetiser…. or antipasto. Thick wedges of creamy white ricotta cheese resting on purple leaves of radicchio appear, along with a dish of rolled up and deep-fried slices of eggplant stuffed with mozzarella and ham, whole baked mushrooms filled with minced pork and vegetables and a steaming bowl of beans in tomato sauce floating with bits of chewy pork belly. I am unable to eat, drink, talk, look, and absorb my beautiful surroundings all at the same time, so I give up and just eat. Just in time for the focaccia topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese to be placed in front of me.

The bean dish is full of a deep earth flavour that makes me want to shove everybody out of the way as I engulf it, the sauce is also slightly piquant, and the pork and mince are chewy mouthfuls of heaven. The ricotta has a deep flavour unlike the ones I buy at the supermarket. It is slightly tart but also sweet and full of body which means you must chew it not just swallow it. The rolled up eggplant slices, although small and only one each unfortunately, are so juicy and filling that one is enough. And the cured meats have a robust flavour and consistency that you only find in the countryside where they are produced, salty, fatty, and deeply satisfying. Washed down with a glass of the strongest red wine I have ever tasted, I am very happy, and have forgotten that its rainy, Winter and that there is or ever was a pandemic raging.

 

 

 

 

 

As I said those of us in the know, know that this is only the beginning of a meal so matter how yummy the beans are and how many slices of prosciutto there are left, none of us is rushing for a second helping. Luckily, the portions are just right and there is nothing wasted. There are several courses to come though – the primo, secondo and dolce, dessert. Luckily coffee and liqueurs will help us digest. The primo dish is pasta and a communal bowl of ravioli squares filled with ricotta and spinach and covered with tomato sauce and parmesan is served. A little while later a platter of thin barbequed pork steaks like huge thick slices of bacon, and some sausages come out, juicy, tender, and full of flavour. Coffee is served with bowls of homemade biscuits to choose from. They are filled with jam, nuts, dried fruit, or spices. Hard and crunchy they are small and light, just perfect. Local digestives and some from far away (the Amalfi coast) finish off this magnificent birthday meal (all for a cost of AUS$ 40 per head).

The rain has not let up and is now coming down steadily, the fog has descended halfway down the valley settling on the top of the Abbey of Farfa giving it a white fluffy halo and making the bright green olive groves directly under it light up. We are back in our car to watch the light gently fade and the sun set over Rome as we drive back into it.

If you enjoy these blogs you might also enjoy my books Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons and Ticket for One. Available in paperback and kindle on Amazon, Book depository and book stores. https://www.amazon.com/Bronte-Dee-Jackson/e/B00I5BH68K

My favourite activity of the week

The market is a two minute walk from my apartment but is unrecognisable unless you already know what it is.  For six months I walked past the shabby collection of closed up boxes wondering what they were.  Each only slightly bigger than a skip bin, they were sometimes outnumbered by them. But one day I happened across them in the morning and now shopping at my local market is my favourite activity of the week.  Whatever befalls me during the week I know I have the market to look forward to.  I wake each Saturday morning excited and happy, looking forward to the experience that I know won’t disappoint me and will be over too soon.

I am standing at the edge of Aldo’s fruit and vegetable counter hemmed in on both sides and at my back with people.  Aldo keeps up a non-stop chant, tallying up the prices of the fruit and vegetables as he weighs them while customers impatiently crowd around thrusting their bags full of produce towards him.  Hands push out from behind me at the level of my hips, towards the apricots and peaches that are stacked up in front of me, as customers continue to shop while others wait in a non-existent line based on the time they first put their bags down on top of the fruit and stopped filling them.  Every time Aldo finishes serving a customer he tells the remaining ones which of them are next, up to the last person waiting.  No one ever argues and he never gets it wrong.

All women are referred to as beautiful “bella” and young “giovanne” by Aldo who is well into his 70’s and has regular heart valve surgery.  The older you are the younger his description of you is. I am referred to as a beautiful girl “bella ragazza”. I am 55. White haired women bent over double are referred to as beautiful little girls “belle ragazzine” while young women are called “belle donne”, beautiful women.

“Hey don’t forget about me”, shouts out a man.

Only people who are new to Aldo’s stall ever say this.  The rest of us know that he knows exactly who has been waiting and for how long, and we patiently or impatiently wait our turns.

“Throw me a bag Aldo”, someone shouts and another hand is thrust out from between the bodies to receive it.

“Are these the only type of apricots you have?”

“Yes they are”, he answers, “they are from my orchard, taste one I promise you won’t be disappointed.”

“Do you have any prepared salad left?  Yes we do, Marie, get that young man a bag of salad.”

Along with answering and organising he is still weighing goods and verbally tallying them up.

The stall is open on all sides and shaded with a low canvas that covers the array of tables topped with produce.  It traps the sound in.  It is very hot and I have been standing here at least ten minutes waiting for my goods to be tallied.  But I am not in a rush.  I let others fill their bags full of apricots from the mound in front of me not fearful of losing my place under the eagle eye of Aldo and actually hoping it will take as long as possible.  Because under this cacophonous, fragrant tent stacked with figs, overflowing with cherries, nuts and lemons, decorated with eggs, honey, mozzarella and lettuce, swimming in tomatoes and zucchini and pegged down with watermelon, eggplant and cabbage, I can feel my aura being gently cleansed.

My shoulders relax and start to ease themselves down from around my ears, my spine straightens and I can feel my feet firmly on the earth for the first time since the beginning of the week.  I take root amidst the vegetables and fruit and come back to fully inhabit my body again feeling each part of me gingerly integrating and coming into the present.  I watch an old man bend over peppers and inspect each one before putting it into a paper bag. I see a youngish man next to me enthusiastically filling a bag with small deformed apples and ask him in Italian what they taste like.  I exchange a smile with a woman next to me and ask how she intends to cook her cabbage (because I don’t know how to even though I love cabbage).  I join in a general conversation and answer another man who is wondering what beetroot is and what you might eat it with.  The cares and worries of the week cascade off me, puddle in a pool at my feet, and gradually melt away into the earth.

Too soon it is my turn to be served.

“It’s this beautiful girls turn now”, Aldo announces to everyone as he drags my bags over the mounds in between us, and starts to weigh and tally out loud.  It’s like listening to a race commentator.

“We have four zucchinis, some peppers and an eggplant.  What’s in this bag now?  Oh so we have also a bag of       salad and some tomatoes along with the zucchinis, peppers and eggplant and now I can see a fennel.  What do we have in this other bag?  Oh some apricots, peaches, figs and a quarter of a watermelon.  Now we still have the zucchinis, peppers, eggplant, salad and tomatoes along with the fennel, and we are now adding the apricots, peaches, figs and watermelon.”

 

No matter what I buy it’s always the same price, twelve euros. He throws the money into the red plastic bucket he uses as a cash register. Sometimes he doesn’t even add on half the vegetables in my bags.  I try and hand him more than the twelve euros and he responds by putting another few peaches into my bag and then stacking it full of lemons, thrusting the bags back at me and turning to the next customer before I can protest.

“You can’t pay whatever you want you know”, he admonishes me.

“Well you charge me whatever you want”, I counter.

“It’s my store”, he responds, laughing.

My husband takes the heavy load of fruit and vegetables from Aldo’s garden and we move away together, me slightly sad as it will be another week before I get to stand in the aura cleansing tent again.

“What do we need next?” my husband always asks.

I don’t know.  All week my days are about ‘to-do’ lists.  Some weeks, each day is divided into half-hour slots of time where I have to produce, do, or attend something for every slot.  So when I am not at work I don’t have lists.  I buy whatever takes my fancy and I follow my intuition.

The fish lady knows this.

“What about these salmon and “orata” fish burgers that I have just prepared, or the fresh anchovies marinated in vinegar and celery? Or how about this blue fish “pesce azzuro”,  that I have just finished frying with red onion for lunch?”

The first time I tasted the salmon, I rushed back the next week and demanded to know why it tasted so different to any other salmon I had ever eaten.

“I know”, she said, winking at me and pushing her blond curls off her face with the back of her plastic gloved hand while holding a long thin knife that never seemed to leave her palm.

“It’s from a special farm in Norway where they raise the salmon to be relaxed.  They play music to them. That way they develop a lot of fat just under their skin.”

Each time I am cooking the salmon I watch the layer of fat between the skin and pink flesh melt and spit, flavouring everything.  Today she hands me the package of salmon that her father has already prepared in anticipation for us.  It has ‘Australia’ written in black biro on the paper that the fish is wrapped in.  Like Aldo she wishes me a good Sunday and tells me she will see me next week.

Unlike the fishmonger, the butcher and I regularly need to brainstorm together before any purchases can be made.

“What kind of meat would you like?”

“Lamb.”

“How would you like to cook it signora?  Baked, grilled, casseroled, with or without potatoes (my favourite so if you were wanting to invite me over that’s what I would like you to cook), vegetables, or with a little wine and olives?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Together we come up with something and he grabs the relevant animal and prepares the cut.  He doesn’t wear gloves and cuts with a blade that could double as a paddle, some pieces are so thin you can see through them.

He is the head of the market and in charge of its comings and goings so he updates me on anything relevant and then asks what season it is in Australia, what temperature it is and how many hours flight it is again?

I linger at the grocer’s counter eyeing the array of fresh mini ricottas made from sheep or cow’s milk, some of them baked and standing up in little plastic sieves, some oozing and gooey like white butter starting to melt.  My eyes gaze upwards to the pink rounds of prosciutto, salamis and hams that would go magnificently with any of them, each one with their own salty, fatty, chewy taste.  Today I spot my favourite cheese, a camenbert made with buffalo’s milk, so subtle and yet so delicious it takes control of you and makes you finish the entire round in one sitting.  Everyone I introduce this cheese to has the same experience, and in a nation of experienced cheese tasters I am delighted to be able to offer something different and new.  It goes a long way to building up my credibility as a  resident of Italy, and being worthy of my visa.

But too soon it is over.  There is nothing left to buy unless I want a cotton handkerchief, a velvet dressing gown, or bleach, all housewife staples which are on offer and which I wish I needed, if only  to keep me looking at the market for longer.  But my husband knows we have mortadella in one of the bags and is inching me towards the exit.  And we have to stop at the flower seller on the way out.

Each week it is the same.  I moon over the herbs and flowers knowing full well we have no balcony and that all three of our window boxes are full to overflowing and threatening to take down one side of the building if I fit one more pot in there.  So I settle for blooms that cost less than one day’s worth of public transport and thank the vendor as he adds a few more in for free.

There really is nothing more to do except go home, enjoy the produce and look forward to the next market shop, one full week away.

Panettone or Pandoro? What to eat at Christmas.

I have suggested in previous posts (and explained clearly in my book ‘Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons‘), that Italians can often be neatly divided into two groups, in a variety of ways:

  • Those who take their annual holidays in the mountains v those who take their annual holidays at the beach (and neither the two shall meet! :))
  • Those who hail from the North of Italy and those who are from the South of Italy
  • Those who support the Roman football team ‘Roma‘, and those who support Lazio, the Regional Roman team
  • Communists and Fascists (who are friendlier to each other than those in the above two categories are)

Now I want to introduce two new categories.  Those who prefer Panettone as a Christmas dessert v those who prefer Pandoro.  Both are delicious, sweet cakes and are eaten only at Christmas time.  They both come in highly decorative, large boxes (sometimes Panettone can come wrapped in brightly colored cellophane instead of a box).  They only come in one size (large) and will feed between 10 – 20 people, depending on the serving size.

Italian Christmas cakes

Now some explanation about the difference.  Panettone is originally from Milan and is a high, airy dome of yellow fluffy goodness studded with candied orange peel, candied lemon peel and sultanas.  It takes many hours to make as the dough must rise and fall three times before it can be baked.  It is never attempted by home chefs and going out to buy the Panettone (or Pandoro) is a sacred Christmas ritual.

Image result for images for pandoro and panettoneImage result for images for pandoro and panettone

Each household would buy up to 5 or 6 Panettone (or Pandoro) as each Christmas visit is accompanied with a Panettone (or Pandoro) for the host.  In this way Panettone and Pandoro are often swapped around frequently between households until Christmas day when one is finally opened and consumed as the dessert of the Christmas meal.  This can be anytime from Christmas eve to Christmas night.

Alternatives are:  as soon as they appear in the shops going and buying one and eating it immediately with a cup of tea, eating it regularly for breakfast leading up to and including Christmas day, eating it regularly for afternoon tea leading up to and away from Christmas day, eating it smothered in butter (for breakfast – Panettone only), smothered in ice-cream/liquor for dessert (Pandoro only).  But these are just my suggestions 🙂

I must admit to being a bit disappointed when i first unwrapped a Panettone and cut into it.  Delivered of its smart, brightly colored box with ribbon handle it looked like a large brown rock and not very appetising.  Looking inside it looked a little plain to me and not worth all the hype and excitement surrounding it.  I was used to cream, brandy butter, and desserts that were alight with flames as part of my Christmas dessert, and this looked like it was going to be a bit of a let down in comparison.  But like much Italian food, the key is in the simplicity, and the quality of the ingredients, along with the seasonal approach to food which creates a longing and anticipation.

Image result for images for pandoro and panettone

Image result for images for pandoro and panettoneImage result for images for pandoro and panettone

What looked like a door stop of a piece collapsed in my mouth into quite small mouthfuls as the dough was liberated from its airiness.  The tender, fluffy morsels were interspersed with just the right amount of sweet sultanas and slightly bitter peel.  Towards the bottom (my favourite bit), the dough became denser and more chewy.  A Panettone (like a Pandoro) is not served with a fork or spoon but is usually pulled apart with your fingers or held in your hand with a serviette and bit into.  Usually accompanied by a glass of prosecco.

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But what about the Pandoro?  Is there any room left for argument?  Plenty.  Pandoro comes from Verona originally and literally means  ‘Golden Bread’.  It is bread dough enhanced with lashings of eggs, butter and sugar.  It rises high and is in the shape of an 8-pointed star, dark golden on the outside and light gold on the inside.  It comes in a cellophane bag with a small packet of icing sugar.  Protocol requires that you keep the Pandoro inside the cellophane bag and sprinkle the icing sugar over it.  You then hold the bag tightly at one end and shake it therefore dusting the entire Pandoro evenly with the icing sugar.  You need to do this just before serving it as the moist outside will quickly absorb the sugar.  It looks like a Christmas wonder, all tall and dusted in white.  This is eaten in the same way and at the same time as a Panettone.  Now can you see the dilemma?  Luckily for me I love Panettone and my husband loves Pandoro so we always have to have one of each!

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