Alf in Italy, arriving in RomeMar 25, 2015
This story and many of the stories about travel in Italy will be written by Alf, my husband. Our first trip (together) to Italy many years ago did not just change his life, but mine as well. Without that trip, my Italian food pilgrimage and Alf’s discovery of everything Italian, I would not be doing what I am doing today and this Blog would not exist. In a way that trip was the reason I was able to finally leave the corporate world, set up my cooking school and immerse myself in Italian culture, food and cooking as I have done since starting “La Cucina di Sandra” . This change in my working life allows me to now live a life filled with my heritage even if I live in Australia and in Melbourne which I love as much as I love Italy.
When at last I could travel overseas my greatest desire was to travel to France. Fascinated by all things French, food politics, history, music, art and of course wine finally I had the chance to experience it all first hand. What I did not realize was that I was going to be completely derailed, put on another set of tracks leading me in an entirely different and unfamiliar direction. Sandra suggested we go to Italy first, so we arrived in Rome!
Aside from the wonderful things I saw and the excitement of being in one of the world’s greatest cities there were a few things that could be classified as minor observations that made a deep impression.
On our first day in Rome when I should have been contemplating some marvel of baroque ecclesiastical architecture I was distracted by a pretty girl riding a Vespa. It was early morning so I suppose she was on her way to work. Mad mane of black hair, elegant tailored suit, tight shirt, crazily healed stilettos. Weaving through the chaotic Rome morning traffic smoking a cigarette, having a conversation on her mobile phone and controlling the scooter with perfect skill. A job needing three hands done with two! If I thought deeply about this scene I could have turned it into some sort of metaphor for Italy, something stereotypical about disregard for rules and individuality. Instead I thought what an incredible place this is, where someone can look so elegant and in complete control while simultaneously easily and casually performing three things that combined could easily lead to disaster. Much later I would understand this as an every day example of “sprezzatura”, the art of performing difficult tasks with effortless mastery.
On our first day we walked from our hotel in Via Marche to the Campo dei Fiori market for breakfast. We had read about the wonderful bakery “Il Forno” on the west end of the piazza. In the very early hours of the morning we walked to Piazza di Spagna, through an almost deserted Piazza Navona. There were only a few aimless locals, three dogs and a film crew rattling their equipment into order. We crossed Corso Vittorio Emanuele II to Campo dei Fiori where the famous market was still getting ready for another day selling to the locals and providing holiday memories for tourists. We bought pizza rossa straight from the oven, sat on the steps around the plinth of the robed hooded Giordano statue and bit into the soft, warm pillow of bready delight. A perfect example of taking a very few simple ingredients flour, water, yeast and tomato and producing something extraordinarily good.
We then crossed the piazza through the market to the nearest bar for coffee. This was a very different start to the day from muesli, eggs and milky coffee at home or the snatch a take away coffee as part of the rush to work that was normal for me. As I sat with an espresso and newspaper Romans sauntered in, greeted and joked with friends, engaged in banter with the barrista, stood at the bar and downed a coffee in one swallow and perhaps ate a cornetto before commencing a rather unhurried stroll to work. This seemed a very civilised way to prepare for a day at work. Relaxed and unhurried before the day’s contribution to the global economy, the Romans went by. A way of living to emulate. Would rushing madly to work change anything? Of course not. And hurrying would spoil the effect of their practised strut.
Wandering along Via del Corso near Piazza del Popolo I saw something that made me stop and stare. Walking at a sensible, considered pace taking the time to observe other walkers was a man in his late fifties I’m guessing. He was tanned of course, sunglasses and brushed back thick grey hair, a little upward curl at the neck, just brushing the collar of his bright blue shirt. A normal well presented Italian business man. But incredibly over the shirt was a bright yellow jacket. And his trousers were yellow too. He was wearing a yellow suit! Confidently, as if that was how any fifty year old normally dressed. I imagined myself outfitted like that but realised that the tan to set off the outfit was impossible with my anglo complexion, and I was terrified of the reaction I would get back home!
Years later I have never spotted a yellow suit in Melbourne. Sometimes things that seem normal in Italy don’t readily transfer elsewhere. Still I had to admire his style! What a great country where this type of self-expression is normal. In a shirt shop the next day I found the most vivid red shirt. It said buy me, and I did. On the window sill above my desk there’s a photo of me wearing that shirt. It certainly stands out. That shirt was the thin edge of a fashion wedge for me. It started me on the road to the brown leather shoes with green paisley patterned cloth insert I’m wearing today.
Aside from the elegant, attractive Vespa riders and men who believe in self-expression through their clothes the other thing that distracted me from history and high culture was simply food. Of course I knew that La Porchetta and the worst of Lygon Street did not represent Italian food but my appreciation of it hadn’t advanced much further than the simple pizza, pasta and risotto level of understanding. In fact I knew very little. Three places we visited set me on the path to enlightenment.
The very first revealing experience was a stroll through the Testaccio market. This market has been in it’s new building since 2012 but on our first trip to Rome it was still operating in the old, noisy crowded, run down building in Piazza Testaccio. Most visitors to Rome gravitate toward the market in Campo dei Fiori which is postcard pretty. Testaccio was different, more a market for the locals, it had a much wider range of produce, was louder, a bit down at heal and had a slightly anarchic atmosphere. There was an assault of sounds, colours and smells. For the first time I saw flat peaches, all shapes, colours and sizes of tomatoes I never knew existed and fresh fish of types unknown to me, all with bright, glistening scales. There was the biggest John Dory (San Pietro in Italian) I had yet seen. St Peter must have had the most enormous hands to put his thumbprint on that one!
As well as the huge variety of produce, much of which I knew nothing about and was not expecting to see, what struck me most was the way food was displayed, the freshest and best produce artistically and proudly arranged to show it to its best advantage.
A short walk to Via Marmorata and we where in Volpetti, probably the most famous delicatessen in Rome. It didn’t take long to realise why. Rows and rows of hanging prosciuttos, cheese from all across Italy and an amazing array of wine. Aromas of salami, cheese and fresh bread swirled together. I knew that there was hot and mild salami, oh and Mortadella, but the variety here was almost impossible to grasp in a brief visit. I thought it would take almost a lifetime just to study sausages! Slowly I was beginning to realise that a country with such food choices was diverse, dynamic, peppered with many subtleties and washed by cross currents which would take quite time and effort to grasp.
That night we walked to Cul de Sac, Rome’s oldest wine bar, for dinner. On our way we passed Palazzo Madama, the home of the Italian Senate. Left wing demonstrators waving red flags bearing the hammer and sickle were noisily protesting about legislation exempting parliamentarians form investigation by prosecutors. The Carabinieri where directing passersby clear of the demonstration with elegant waves of their machine guns. Here even the police were stylish.
Cul de Sac is across Piazza Navona in Piazza Di Pasqino named after an ancient “talking” statute so called because in former times Romans would anonymously stick satirical verses to it. Sitting at an outside table on a warm night with a good wine and a cheese platter, salumi and a selection of pates including wild boar you can only be happy, content with the day and relaxed by the wine.
I asked about one of the cheeses: “Is this caciocavallo made from mares milk?” Why was everybody laughing, cavallo means horse doesn’t it? I had a lot to learn.
Originating in Southern Italy, caciocavallo is cheese made in a shape a bit like saddle bags, so caciocavallo~horse cheese.
It’s made from sheep or cows milk!
Follow me, AKA Sandra’s husband, on my journeys in Italy as this sometimes bewildered Anglo-Saxon tries to understand this beautiful, complex, contradictory, frustrating and absolutely fascinating country.
(Written by Alf)