It seems like ages ago now, but for almost two glorious weeks around Easter I was in Italy on what can only be described as a gastronomic tour to give both Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Gilbert a run for their money. It was also a most efficient holiday as I managed to spend time with my husband, my family and friends all in one trip. We started in Rome, without plan or agenda, simply walking the streets in search of new sights and good food and wine. On our first day we gave the Easter crowds a wide berth by avoiding the Centro Storico and Vatican. Instead, we headed to the neighbourhood of Monti, with its quieter streets, more peaceful squares and treasure trove shops. This was followed by a walk to Said chocolate shop, which has been producing treats for the Romans since 1923. After stocking up on truffles and Easter eggs, we nipped in for dinner at Pastificio San Lorenzo across the road. An excellent place to try a few dishes that veered away from the pasta/pizza fare of the centre of town and the perfect place to people watch over an aperitivo.
After this city break and in the midst of the Easter rush, we escaped to the countryside. After surviving what was possibly the most terrifying taxi ride of my life (our driver felt he was quite capable of turning around and chatting to us at length while speeding down the motorway), we picked up our car at the airport and drove up through Lazio into the heart of Umbria and where my Dad is gradually semi-retiring. We met him in his tiny little village near Orvieto, perched at the top of a hill with views stretching out into Tuscany.
Umbria is sometimes overlooked by tourists, but this relative quiet really only adds to its charm. It is known as the il cuore verde d’Italia (the green heart of Italy) because of its verdant hills and agricultural abundance. It certainly seemed like everywhere we turned there was wonderful produce – from the olive groves and vegetable patches around the village we were staying in, to the nearby vineyards and saffron fields. Over the Easter period there were plenty of markets in the nearby towns and villages, manned by proud farmers showing off their produce. We particularly enjoyed a blustery afternoon spent in Citta della Pieve, tasting salame, cheeses, beers and hog roast panini.
After a few peaceful days in Umbria, I waved goodbye to my family and headed up the country to Florence, where I met a group of girlfriends for a long weekend. Walking around the city was a strange experience, it seemed like there were ghosts of a past life on every corner, echoes from a long time ago. I lived in Florence for a year when I was 16, my father’s infatuation with Italy brought the whole family there at the turn of the millennium. I went kicking and screaming, not wanting to leave my friends and established life behind. Of course when we moved from Italy year later, it was in further floods of tears. I’d fallen hard for the city, the weather, the people (Italian boys, of course!).
Every street in central Florence brought back a memory, a conversation I had forgotten, a person I’ve lost touch with, a smell or a taste I can’t quite seem to place. It was eery and a bit sad, but also wonderful to be reminded that yes, this did actually happen half my life ago and it was great and came to shape who I became as an adult.
Not least in terms of food. I had a wonderful friend that magical year in Italy, called Hannah. She was the daughter of the priest at the American Church in Florence (who from what I could tell spent most of his time marrying Japanese tourists, even answering the phone with a cheery ‘moshi moshi!’) and she was in the year above me at school. She had bright pink, red or purple hair (depending on the week) and cooked like a goddess. It was the first time I had met anyone my age who loved food and loved cooking to that extent. Before living in Italy, I’d been a bit embarrassed by my love of food and kept it hidden and separate from the rest of my life. It was something I shared with my family and only revealed to friends at the occasional school bake sale.
But Hannah made it not only seem like the coolest thing in the world (I remember watching in awe as she chopped a peach sans chopping board, delicately segmenting each slice in the palm of her hand), but also a viable career option – she always knew she wanted to be a chef and eventually open a restaurant or bakery. Even at that young age she was taking birthday cake orders from all the moms at our school. Although I haven’t seen her in many years as she now lives in Texas, from what I understand from social media she is well on her way to making that a reality.
My year in Italy was sandwiched between the two summers I worked at Lisa Elmqvist in Östermalms Hallen, Stockholm, gutting icy herring and rolling meatballs all day long – hard, physical and sometimes monotonous work creating those classic Swedish dishes. And I loved it. So I guess that year when I was 16 cemented my future in food. I went about it in a pretty round about way, but got there in the end.
I was immensely fortunate in my choice of travelling companions over that weekend. We all share an obsession with good food and drink and so rarely went for more than an hour without eating, drinking or at least planning where our next meal was going to be. Highlights from the weekend included the Cantinetta Verrazzano for the most delicious focaccia (the truffled mushroom was out of this world) fizz and coffee taken standing up at their pastry-laden counter. The Enoteca Fuori Porta was also well worth the hill climb for a favourite for crostini and lengthy wine list. Then there was the piazza Santo Spirito for nightlife and watching the world go by. I also managed to pick up some wonderful curtains and prints from the monthly Santo Spirito antiques market.
Of course, I had to fill whatever small scraps of space in my suitcase with loot from the Italian supermarket. Olive oil, parmesan wedges, dried mushrooms, biscotti and sauame all came with me. As did a paket of curious greens that caught my eye in the vegetable aisle. I wasn’t completely sure what it was, but decided to take a risk and do some research when I got home.
It turns out I hit the jackpot – agretti, or ‘barba di frate’ (Monks’ beard) has all but sold out in the UK, I later found out. It is quite delicate and subtle in flavour that is slightly spinach-like. Cooked properly it has a lovely bite, a bit like samphire. It likes classic italian flavours – garlic, anchovies, lemon. Although it’s not so easy to get hold of, it is well worth picking some up if you do happen to stumble upon it. I also had to take some artichokes back as they were absolutely everywhere we went and wonderful to cook with. The recipes below are inspired by these ingredients and the simple, delicious dishes that Italy is so renowned for.
Agretti with Chilli, Ricotta, Caramelised Lemon and Pine Nuts
You will need:
Large bunch agretti
2 tbsp olive oil
1 chilli, finely chopped
20g pine nuts, toasted
small handful greek basil leaves
1. Remove any tough ends of the agretti before plunging into a large pan of boiling, salted water. After about a minute, drain and season with salt and pepper as well as a drizzle of olive oil.
2. Cook the spaghetti according to packet instructions. Meanwhile, strip the lemon of it’s zest using a zester or a sharp knife to create little shards of zest, avoiding any pith. Heat a little olive oil in a large pan and cook the zest until golden and beginning to caramelise. Set aside.
3. Drain the pasta and toss in little olive oil. Add the agretti, lemon zest, chilli and ricotta as well as a squeeze of lemon juice. Season and serve, topped with pine nuts and basil leaves.
Roman Baked Artichokes
You will need:
4 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 tbsp grated pecorino cheese
4 tbsp fresh breadcrumbs
4 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp chopped oregano
2 tbsp chopped basil
juice and zest of 1 lemon
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra
4 medium sized artichokes
150ml dry vermouth
1. Preheat the oven to 200C. In a small bowl, combine chopped anchovy fillets, minced garlic, pecorino, breadcrumbs, herbs, lemon juice and zest. Add the olive oil and mix to form a thick paste.
2. Cut off about 2 cm of the artichoke tops and rub with the leftover lemons. Pry oven the individual leaves and stuff with the herby breadcrumb mixture. Sprinkle with a little olive oil and the vermouth. Cover tightly with foil and bake for 45 minutes, until tender. Uncover for the final 10 minutes to allow the artichokes and breadcrumbs to crisp up. Serve with chunky bread and a crisp green salad.