Roman Holiday

I’ve not long come back from Rome, my first visit.  Yes, it overflowed with art, history, architecture, treasures, but, let’s be totally honest, I went there for artichokes, globe artichokes, by the bushel.

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It vexes me that they are treated with such apprehension and confusion in the UK, that you can’t buy them easily or cheaply (even though their season is nearly six months long). We can fly insipid blueberries and asparagus in from South America, year round, but seldom manage to haul a few loads of thistle heads the short distance from southern Europe.

Not that they even need to come that far, mind. They can grow perfectly well here in the UK, if you pick the right spot and the right variety. And I do grow my own on the allotment, across a shorter season and in constant fear of hard, claggy winters; but they are temperamental and I’m definitely a long way from self sufficiency. Consequently my knowledge on how to prepare and cook these most delicious of never-to-blossom flowers, is woefully inadequate.

So I went to Rome.  Needs must, and all that.

Two Roman cooks, Carla Tomesi and Rachel Roddy, do many wonderful things with words, food and people, one of which is a day devoted to the artichoke.  The buying of, the prepping of, the cooking of and, oh my, the eating of.  I have been waiting for this day to reappear in their calendar since I first spotted it last spring, right at the end of the artichoke season.

And I have been squirrelling my pennies away into a special artichoke piggy bank, and raiding the replacement car fund (again), for the sake of my peculiar passion. And so, finally, two weeks ago, I jumped on a plane and found myself in Testaccio, the old slaughterhouse district of Rome; I am full of cold and anticipation.

The weekend was apocalyptic – storms and rain the like of which I’ve never encountered. The kind that blows open the windows and billows the curtains of your AirB&B. Gothic, sprang to mind. And given that I was staying two minutes from the Protestant Cemetery, with its slew of Romantic Poets, all seemed very appropriate.

Rome with a view

It being Italy, I feasted on the first night; artichokes, of course, braised with lemon and butter; pasta with crab, wonderful parmesan by the chunk and grapes of Canaan. But this was just a prelude. The antipasto before the Saturday, which dawned with me overflowing with cold, deaf in my right ear and missing both my senses of smell and taste. A great start to a day of cooking and eating.

Purely by chance, I’m staying less than a minute from the mercato di Testaccio, where we’re meeting. So, I’m there, early of course, brimming with excitement and influenza. It is, as to be expected, a grotto of wonderful things. The market is, let’s be kind, late century modern, I’m guessing 90s. Purely functional, a hollow box in the terracotta shadow of the Monte di Testaccio. But inside is the meat and the marrow. Charcuterie, cheese, bread, vegetables, flowers, fruits, wines, oils. There is mundane, there is high end. It’s not huge, but, Lordy, it is bountiful.

Dogs in Markets; two of my favourite things

And we meet up – six artichoke fans, and Rachel, who is all height and exuberance, and we buy bags of artichokes, taste olive oil (I sneak in a couple of Citrons to fill up my hand luggage; another story, another day), and then make our way through the old abattoir, over the river to the Latteria Studio – a cookery school that is also, as near as damn it, my perfect kitchen. And if I can have a resident Carla, all knowledge, droll and raised eyebrow, I shan’t complain.

In a laid back whirl of prep and information, we trim and tidy 36 artichokes. These then are chopped and sliced to be braised, pureed, battered, soused. Carla makes focaccia, and makes it look easy, studding it with sweet grapes and dusting with cinnamon. Rachel pours cocktails, Cynar (more artichokes) and Prosecco. My cold improves instantly. There are eggs and oil to be whipped for mayonnaise, pasta to be rolled for lasagna. A caponata of artichokes emerges, all agrodolce Sicilian, and wonderful. A jammy cake of polenta and oranges sashays from the oven, to be joined by buttered, drunken pears baked in their own steam. We eat. We eat well.

A day of cooking is always fun, but cooking in good company, being taught by cooks whose knowledge and enthusiasm is endless, followed by a late and long lunch together, is definitely worth travelling to Rome for. Hell, it may even be worth moving to Rome for.

As dusk unfurled, and in the ceaseless rain, we tripped our way back down the hill, over the river and went our separate ways, six very contented and dedicated fans of the artichoke. There was, I knew, still a little room in my hand luggage. So I stopped at the supermarket, and bought just a few more artichokes, to squirrel back to Birmingham.


Like a kid in a sweet shop

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I forgot to ask the name of the shop,  or to take a photograph for posterity via social media.  I was too excited and made giddy by discovery.  It’s a Brigadoon of a place.  Fading from memory now, its only chance to be kept vivid coming from my keyboard. 

The shop is a stone’s throw from the original Palermo home of the Frutta di Martorana (hand painted marzipan fruits), carved out of the back wall of the Chiesa di Santa Catarina. There is a tiny workshop where a man and woman – perhaps married, perhaps brother and sister, make moulds out of Plaster of Paris for creating 21st century marzipan fruit.

Although, these have become ubiquitous across much of Europe – from the dust of Spain to the drizzle of a British Christmas, it was here, just a few metres away in a convent, the Monastero della Martorana, where nuns created the first of these edible jokes, to decorate the bare, winter branches in honour of a visiting bishop.  It’s a fey tale, I hope it’s true, as it might indicate that convent life was not as grim and restricted as the heavily barred and caged windows imply. 

The nuns have mostly gone now, they’ve broken free from their holy prisons, but the tradition of giving these marzipan fruits has remained – initially to expectant children on All Saints Day (November 1st), but now you can see them year round in the pasticerrias, piled high like a greengrocer’s display, garish treats for a very sweet tooth.

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But we found the source, by accident, on via degli Schiopettieri.  The studio is almost anonymous.  A subdued sign says ‘Decorazioni in Gesso.  B Ferrante’.  If they’re closed, it’s a pulled down grey shutter, graffiti and parked vespas.  But when they’re open, they spill out onto the street outside, piling racks and crates of bone white moulds to in the sun.  Even in October, in Palermo, the sun can cook the unwary.  And these forms are wondrous, not just the ordinary pears, figs and chestnuts. Here there are heads of artichokes, split pomegranates, bunches of grapes,  clusters of cherries.  And then as you look closer there are cracked sea urchins, ferocious weaver fish, sardines and strange exotic species that defy identification.

Inside, Snr Ferrante paints the dried moulds with a sealant, kept heated on a single electric ring, in a can that predates possibly all of us, encased in layers of historic drips.  This resin is dissolved in neat alcohol, so the tiny, dark, cramped studio space smells like a back street pub at closing time.  As he brushed the molten varnish inside the moulds, it looked like a glossy smear of nicotine.  Shelves reaching to the ceiling are stacked with parcels wrapped in brown paper, reached by his sister/wife precariously perching atop a wobbling three legged office chair.  Between them, they know the contents of every parcel, with a certainty that must come from decades of close proximity.

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This is a true Aladdin’s cave – bleached jewels of gesso for the taking at just two euros each .  It is out of time and out of kilter with the rest of the world.  How can they make a living with something so fragile, so unique to its place?  Defying mechanisation, a simple, hand made process lives on in a back street of Palermo.

We leave, clutching a bag of treasures, including the artichoke and the sea urchin – but also a scallop shell mould so we can bring The Chancellor’s Buttocks back to the UK  (a story for another day), and a giant Easter lamb, to make a dentist weep and destined to be packed with homemade pasta reale, its almond fleece encasing pistachio heart.

There wasn’t room in the bag for any more, so I will have to go back, not least for the spiky, dangerous fish.  I want to produce a fantastical still life from marzipan, all sea urchins and scales and sugar. 

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