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What could be better, really?  These elegant little flowers are beautiful and edible!


Fresh mozzarella, anyone?

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My dissertation, that is, is done.  Sadly, so is our packing.

We’ve been saying goodbyes to good good friends here in Rome, and will leave on Thursday.  It’s an anticipated sadness and loss, so it’s one that ebbs and flows, comes and goes at unexpected moments.  Life goes on, too, as do the food and wine discoveries. Why did it take 9 months for me to learn about this vino vivace I’m sipping right now?  Monsupello, an off-white slightly fizzy wine made with Pinot Nero grapes (skins taken out), from the Pavia region in the north of Italy.  The reason I didn’t know about it sooner is that Jeannie and Valeria, friends and moms of Jack’s friends, discovered it at our local enoteca—wine shop—and bought it all up.  But with the new season, new caseloads have come in, and we’re all drinking it.  I had it first on Jeannie’s balcony in Trastevere while Jack and Nico “went fishing” with coat hangers over the edge.  Then I had it two nights later at Valeria & Andreas’ apartment.  Two Roman veterinarians, they told us about their dreams of opening a restaurant in London or Berlin that serves good basic Roman cuisine.

Late, too, I found out about Necci, a wonderful little cafe that does everything from breakfast pastries to toy-swaps for the kids with aperitivi for the parents.  Jeannie, Sarah, and I went to Pigneto, a Roman neighborhood outside of the city center, last week, on a mission to taste the artisanal cornetti (Italian croissants).  The chef, a British guy named Ben, is one of those admirable chefs who uses only local and seasonal ingredients and who is reviving old ways of making things.  Jeannie and I had chocolate cornetti and agreed that they were the best we’d tasted in years.  Light crunch to the pastry flakes—dark, warm chocolate within.

Necci is a fun place with great deck seating, kid-friendliness, a sense of humor, and delicious food.  Some pictures.

Jeannie & Sarah

banana flush pull

After a long, leisurely hour and two cappuccini at Necci, we walked down a central neighborhood street that has an open air market during the morning.  I bought a melon, a bagful of cherries, and susine plums.

Then we wandered with our fruit-heavy bags back to Sarah’s car, stopping in little shops along the way.  One of them was a funky second-hand store, with everything from a vintage Singer sewing machine—from the 1910s—to Pokemon cards.  Now, if I had known then what I know now, I would have bought a huge handful of those cards.  For the past few days of goodbyes Jack has been cathecting all of his mixed emotions onto his carte di Pokemon.  I buy a pack for him (and they’re exploitatively expensive!) and he gives them all away as regali.  Or his more cunning friends convince him to trade 4 for 1.  I tell him I won’t buy him anymore, and he cries and says he doesn’t want to go to school or see his friends again.  I say, “I know you’re sad that we’re leaving. Let’s talk about what you like about Rome” and he’ll say, “I like the buses and the carte di Pokemon.”  It’s been a sad time for him, because he’s had such a wonderful year.  He learned Italian and finally feels comfortable with his Italian friends and teachers. He loves his school.  He loves life here at the Academy where there are always friends available right next door. So he channels his emotions into the things he can grasp at and consume until we go away (friends are too complicated for these operations): Gormiti (little Italian elemental action figures), Pokemon cards (which, he doesn’t know, are everywhere), and ciambellini (the mini doughnuts they make at the Kosher cafe we stop in almost every morning before school).  We all do it.  I’m drinking more coffee because I know I won’t taste coffee like this in the New World.  I’m putting one more slice of mozzarella on my plate because it might be my last for years. I’m getting a cup of pistachio gelato even if Jack doesn’t want any.  We’re trying to squeeze in one more coffee-date, playdate, late-night conversation with the wonderful friends we’ve made here.  And I’m trying to drink in the views and sounds of Rome so that I won’t forget any of it, so that it won’t become muted and hazy when we get back to “real life.”

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Not a mis-spelling of burrito, no.  Something much, much better.  Exquisite, even.

While I sit here waiting for my Byron chapter to print out, I find my mind drifting back to dinner last night with Tess and Jessie (interns at the Rome Sustainable Food Project and co-producer—that’s Tess—of the must-see Food Inc.) and David (a documentary filmmaker and husband of Jessie), at a tiny table in a teeny apartment in Trastevere, where, while we sat around the burrata like worshipers at a sacred font, Jack jumped on the bed in the other room.

http://danamccauley.files.wordpress.com/2008/12/burrata.jpeg?w=325&h=251

Oh, my!  This is how burrata, a soft, fresh mozzarella with liquefying cream in the middle, looks at the store.  When you take it home to serve, our Italian associates in food-loving tell us, you put it in a bowl, pour a bit of your best extra virgin olive oil over it, slice it with a spoon, and eat it—preferably with a spoon.

Burrata is my new love.  It’s better than gelato.

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The forecast was for rain for the long Thanksgiving weekend, but each day, we had mist and then sun.  That was a nice turn of events, because we had lots of touring of Rome to do with our visitors.  Yesterday morning, I had to swear to everyone that I didn’t plan it this way, but en route to Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, we ended up walking by both Antica Caciari (where we bought fresh ricotta, fresh pesto, and fresh sausages) and Roscioli, my favorite forno (where we bought fig bread, hearty bread for dinner, and a torta di mele—apple cake—the last of which I’ve been wanting to buy since I first laid eyes on it).

Some other observations…

Sorry, this is gross and unappetizing, but interesting.  Don’t park where the starlings roost:

What would beauty be without shit?

Now, though, let’s turn to beauty.

Lion and pinecone: fierce, lordly, evergreen; pignoli, carne, regeneration, peace, power, teeth, needles, mane, shade.

Giant Bernini-designed river god, at ease in his musculature, reclining in the center of Piazza Navona:

The oculus:

Another, humbler, dome:

Mmmm… so moist and appley.

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IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.

IMG_2502

Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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Fall fell in a swirl of branches, leaves, and whole trees.  Yesterday afternoon, we watched the pines and bamboo swaying in circles as the wind picked up.  Rain fell hard, and stopped quickly.  And then, the most magnificent double rainbow I’ve ever seen arched across the Rome skyline, and the mountains, free from the haze after a long hot summer, seemed etched into the sky.  This morning, the air was crisp, about 15 degrees cooler than yesterday’s, and smoke from burning piles of brush signaled the arrival of autumn.  We rode the bus to our usual stop, just past Piazza Ottavilla, where we saw a huge pile of downed trees and branches.  Later, I ran through the park at Villa Pamphili, and saw huge old pines and palms lying broken on the grass.

I had spent the morning on a long market circuit in Trastevere, stopping at my favorite shops: Antica Caciari for fresh ricotta, Canestro for organic cereals, grains, lentils, and peanut butter, and Antico Forno Roscioli for delicious bread and un cornetto integrale–a whole wheat croissant with bitter honey inside.  I knew I’d found an amazing baker when I saw the impossible combination of whole wheat flecks and buttery thin flaky pastry.  How do they do it?

I love walking around Trastevere because of its spider web of narrow off-angle streets that open onto beautiful architectural surprises.

Trast. arch

Rena sent me on a hunt for this place, which carries organic milk in a little fridge near the door.

checco

nut tart

Wow!  It looks pretty, but what would it be like actually to eat this nutty tart?

The Fontana d’Acqua Paolo, seen from the pedestrian bridge, Ponte Sisto, jutting up at the top of the hill, marked the line I’d need to walk to find the steep set of stairs that would lead me up the hill back home.

Ponte sisto

And now, the pictures we’ve all been waiting for…

Il Arcobaleno!

arcobaleno 1

arc 2

I’d been cooking dinner, when Jack, sitting at the high counter in the kitchen, said, “there’s a huge rainbow in the sky.” Uh huh.  I was busy.  But then, I decided to look, and couldn’t believe it.  We ran down the stairs, but not before Jack resourcefully thought to pull on his puddle boots.  We buzzed Lulu and Jesse’s apartment, and ran outside with them to stand in the street.  The rainbow made a full half-circle.  And then we realized it was doubled by a fainter, inverted rainbow above:

double bow

Peter called down from the terrace, where everyone else was watching it.

Peter on terrace

The view from up there was even more amazing.

arc from terrace

arc terr 2

Jack

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I just happened upon a new, exciting flavor combination.  With a still-heavy bag of chanterelles in the bottom of my fridge, and a ball of mozzarella needing to be pulled, I decided to make pizza.

For the crust, check out this post.  For the topping, I sauteed green onions, garlic, 1 sliced sage leaf and a small sprig of rosemary, and a big pile of chanterelle chunks in butter and olive oil.  I brushed the crust with olive oil, spread the veg, sprinkled on the mozzarella strings and some grated parmesan and salt, and baked it for about 15 minutes.

We opened a bottle of one of the staggeringly cheap, good local wines, a rosato frizzante (is just what it sounds like).

The combo was the best kind of thrilling comfort food that I love so much.

For dessert, we each had a little amaretto cookie I’d picked up this morning at the bakery on Quattro Venti.  These cookies—I tell no lies—are perfect.  The outside can be tapped with a fingernail, but is chewy, not crisp.  The inside is a moist, chewy crumb that pulls apart with delicate resistance.  The flavor is pure essence of almonds, sugar, butter.

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porcini cart

I’ve seen this truck full of gorgeous mushrooms on successive mornings for the past week.  I hadn’t stopped to buy any though, because we’ve had so many dinners there and everywhere, but not here, in our own dining room.  Yesterday, though, after bringing Jack to school, I walked back by a route that would take me past the fungi guy.

I asked for “some of those”—in Italian—and pointed.  That was enough.  He started loading up a small bag, and when I said, “basta, grazie,” he put it on the scale and mumbled something about “dieci.”  In other words, let’s make it an even ten. Euros that is.  He heaped some more in the bag, and I was too sheepish to say no.  Despite the cost, too, a part of me was thrilled to be walking away with such a mound of perfect chanterelles.

chanterelle pile

I’m not just trying to justify my spree by saying this, but this picture really doesn’t do justice to their size.  The biggest ones are as broad as my palm.

These mushrooms are so flavorful—with such a delicate combination of earthiness, sweetness, and nuttiness—that they’re best served by simple cooking.  Tonight, I’ll be making a pasta dish in which every ingredient is there only to stage and spotlight these graceful plants.

I don’t have hand-cut papardelle, but here’s a version of the dish I had at Pane e Salute, in Woodstock, Vermont.

Chanterelles with Fresh Papardelle

enough pasta to serve four as a first or main course
1 small shallot, minced
1 sage leaf, sliced, or some fresh thyme leaves
1/2 c. dry, light-bodied white wine
freshly shredded parmesan
a pile of chanterelles, sliced into nice, bite-sized pieces

Sauté chanterelles and shallot in butter over medium heat, seasoned with salt and pepper.  Remove them to a plate, and deglaze pan with wine.  Reduce it a bit.  Meanwhile, boil pasta until al dente.  Add the chanterelles back into the pan to warm.  Toss the pasta with olive oil and parmesan, and serve topped with chanterelles and more cheese.

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Yesterday, I had my first Rome Sustainable Food Project lunch, put together by Mona Talbott and her crew of cooks and interns.  The choices of different delicious tidbits with which to pile one’s plate was almost overwhelming.  I took teeny portions so that I could have some of everything.  There was pasta with lentils, a green bean and fennel salad with chopped roasted almonds, warm zucchini with tomatoes, pâté topped with pickled onions on toasted whole grain bread, big leaves of Boston lettuce (which I’m sure has another name here), and pizza bianca.  Everything was delicious, but the one item I couldn’t resist getting more of was another crostini—this one a slice of whole grain bread topped with the most delicate, moist ricotta, a drizzle of flavorful olive oil, and a few tiny shreds of basil.  The elements are all utterly simple in themselves, but together they made one of those morsels that cause you to close your eyes and focus on the flavor that is sadly, thrillingly, fleeting.

One of the inspiring thing about the kitchen here is that they source as many ingredients as they can locally.  Mona has spent a good part of her three years here getting to know the dairy farmers, vegetable and livestock farmers and purveyors, and cheese makers, in order to find the best ingredients.  The ricotta served yesterday comes from Tuscany, and is sold at what Mona describes as the best cheese shop in Rome, La Tradizione, near the Vatican.  I’ll have to find that one….

ricotta

The ricotta pictured here is the piece I bought the other day at Antica Caciara in Trastevere.  I thought I’d make some pasta with ricotta, peas, and prosciutto, based on Marcella Hazan’s recipe in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, a favorite of mine.  But after yesterday’s lunch, I think I’ll have to make crostini.  Anyone want to come over for aperitivi?

Ricotta Crostini
(based on my experience and not Mona’s recipe; serves 4 or so)

1 c. ricotta (the best you can find!)
1/4 c. basil chiffonade
2-4 tbs. evoo (again, the best you can find)
salt to taste
1/2 round loaf whole wheat bread, cut into 1/2-inch thick half-slices

Toast the bread slices until crisp.  Spread a large dollop of ricotta on top of each, sprinkle on a smidgen of salt, sprinkle on the basil, drizzle with olive oil.  Serve with wine and olives!

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What a morning! My friend Jeannie took me on a tour of some of her favorite food shops in Trastevere. We left our boys, Nico and Jack, drawing with crayons at Scuola Arcobaleno, and took the 44 bus down the hill, transferred to tram, crossed the Tiber, and hit the streets.  Our first stop was at a bar (yes, it was morning, but coffee shops are called bars, here), the interior of which was like a cave of sparkling chrome and mahogany.  We stood at the marble counter and sipped cappuccinos, priming ourselves for a busy morning.

Our first stop was Antico Forno Marco Roscioli—a beautifully abundant bakery better known as Roscioli.  Follow the “FORNO” sign:

fornoInside, a curved bank of display counters embraces the gaggle of customers pointing high and low to the breads and pastries they want.

pane

bakers

bakers

I bought pizza bianco, a half-loaf of whole wheat bread with figs baked into the crumb, and four little almond macaroons which, I just discovered, conceal a sweet cherry in their centers.  Next time, I’ll have to get one of these apple torts:

tortine di mele

From there, we wandered into the Campo di Fiori, over which the hooded heliocentrist heretic Giordano Bruno presides, and where on weekday mornings there is an open-air market.

campo di fiori

I bought un pezzo di zucca—a chunk of pumpkinish squash—which I’ll use in risotto, and some spices I’ve been missing: ground cumin and cumin seeds, and cinnamon.  The vendor scooped tiny handfuls with a plastic bag:

spices

Next, we went to a shoe store.  Having brought with me four pairs of sandals and two pairs of tall boots but nothing in between for the rainy fall weather, I justified to myself a shoe-shopping detour.  Jeannie took me to a shoe store, called Ugo Celli, that has been in business since 1912.  After looking at the selection in the window display in the foyer, you enter the store, which has looked just like this since 1938, when it was last renovated:

shoe store

They still have the original register (though they also accept credit cards):

shoe store register

Feeling weighed down with purchases, we decided to turn in the direction of home, but made one last culinary-destination stop, at Antica Caciara, a friendly cheese shop just off of the main drag of Viale di Trastevere.   Jeannie bought a mild cheese called Sienetta and some feta, and I asked for some Sienetta as well, along with some ricotta, all of which were wrapped carefully in slightly waxy paper.

Lunch hour was approaching, and we both had fresh things in our fridges, along with the bread and cheese we’d bought today, so we decided to head home.  We also felt a twinge of guilt for not working but shopping all morning.  The walk home will make anyone feel virtuous, though, because it’s basically a climb up a mountain.  This aspect of living in Rome gives me deja vu, because it’s just like my walk from “the gourmet ghetto” of Berkeley to Euclid Ave., where I lived for a few years.  Stairs, paths, hairpin turns, bags heavy with good food, lush vegetation.

Here’s just a taste of my walk home:

steps 1

steps 2

Just one more flight…

steps 4

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