There’s always a story to the best meals, isn’t there? and the best dinners create as well as build on them, in leaps and bounds and by stealth.
There are the myths (did dad really always sneakily grab twice as many roast potatoes as everyone else then look askance when called on it? Did I really eat nothing but honey sandwiches for lunch for a few years? Did mum really enjoy cooking the plain food that family life demanded, as much as the cordon bleu she admired and carefully studied?) and then there are the hard lines — Christmas doesn’t work as well when those roast potatoes haven’t dad’s eye on them; with a diminished household, where’s the fun in cooking lavishly? And there are the stories we create in order to renew life and to make our own ripples.
We keep Christmas with my mum every year now, though for a time after dad’s unexpected death she preferred a New Year celebration. Christmas memories were too raw, better left to scab and heal and revive around the scars. In later years, we’ve reclaimed Christmas and it’s now a Roman festivity, with all hands on deck helping to make the baccalà, the brodo, and whatever we determine on for a multi-course romp through menus new and old.
For the turn of the year, we keep to ourselves mostly now, but we try to cook some dishes with a backstory, and to lay down new hopes along with the shucking off of a twelve-month’s might-have-beens. This year, we’ve a menu that resounds through those ideas of looking forward while remembering to think back and rehearse the stories that might grow new tales.
We’ll raise a glass of Prosecco from the incomparable Orazio Palombi, whose enoteca on Piazza Testaccio is our lodestone. Cin cin to the family there, who have seen many of our ups and downs…
Then we’ll have mozzarella and Prosciutto di Norcia from our friends Enzo and Lina in Testaccio market. When we first set up home here we loved the old market, but found its odours, gloom, and general profusion overwhelming. I’m not sure we developed any lasting relationships during that first year.
When the old market closed and the new opened, we got a better grip on ourselves and made some connections. Enzo and Lina are our first stop for cured meats and our day-to-day cheese needs, plus those little delicacies (courgette fritters? Grilled peppers?) that make life swing.
With that, we may eat some pane lariano from Artenio, also at the market, and nibble some of the amazingly crisp yet toothsome taralli he makes (this evening, with rosemary). I also made seedy biscuits, but I think we’ll save that treat for 2019…!
Drizzled across the meat and cheese…some of this year’s olive oil from the family farm of the Angelici team (whose meat, wine, and oil, along with engineering and architectural skills, are propping us up!).
We’ve been lucky to be taken into the worlds of many of the kind people of our little part of N. Lazio, and their hard work and skills in growing, maturing, processing and producing the staples and savours of everyday, as well as high days and holidays, have helped me better to understand the flesh-and-blood dramas and laborious annual cycles of my mum’s farming-childhood stories. My lived memories of the home farm, though vivid, and of that uniquely childish perspective that sees only the most vivid and paradigmatic parts of the turn-and-turnabout grayscale grind that was the reality of mixed farming in Ireland in the 70s, at least.
A pork tenderloin stuffed with prunes (a thing my mum used to make in the 70s when she was an enthusiastic entertainer, and dinner parties were an exciting punctuation to an otherwise rather mundane and penny-wise reality in Dublin, amidst oil crisis woes, relentless power-cuts, general poverty of expectations…). One of our great friends here, Marco Gargiulo, cooked a version recently and it recalled to my mind the delights of those tipsy, riotous, food-and-drink-fuelled evenings of my childhood. We picked out the pork at Sartor, while marketing this morning.
Prunes also evoke early mornings when, so very occasionally the second person up, I’d happen upon my dad relishing them, plump-soaked overnight from their wizened catatonia, We’ll eat our pork with apple chutney that I made from this summer’s glut out in N. Lazio, with roast potatoes (of course), and bieti (I love that gently, almost mustardy/irony flavour) courtesy of Silvia, our go-to woman for fruit and veg at the market. Her high esteem for Bruce is a delight to them both, and creates conversational eddies into which food ideas drift. We’ll follow this all up with Silvia’s puntarelle, for which I made the sauce earlier, a riff on the recipe by one of the first friends I made in Testaccio, Rachel Roddy.
With this succession of dishes we’ll drink a rich red wine from Le Marche, bought while on summer holiday (in September) and saved for the dark days when its ruby lushness would find an atmospheric match.
Sweet thoughts follow.
First, peaches I bottled here in Rome, in wine and sugar, after a summer glut a few years ago. Maybe a little fermented by now…Eaten with ricotta (from Enzo and Lina), and accompanied perhaps by a dessert wine from the Umbrian vineyard of our friends who grew up in our country house. Drifting past fruit, we might nibble the home-made shortbread biscuits our Cottanello/Australia friends gave us for Christmas, and the candied orange-peel with chocolate that I make to evoke the fruit jellies my Co. Wexford granny loved, as well as the Sicilian days of my honeymoon.
Cracking some walnuts and chocolate, pouring a glass of last year’s bargnolino (we had a glut of sloes in 2017, in Colle della Fonte), or passito, and maybe eking out the last of the alloro liquor from our wonderful Testaccio friends, Maureen and Marco. Maybe we’ll make it to midnight. If not, I rather prefer the celebration of the opening year, toasting its head, to the retrospective waking of the old.
2018 has been a curate’s-egg year. The ongoing stress of my first adopted country (UK) proposing to expel economic migrants such as myself, and the stripping of EU rights from UK citizens, has appalled me, and is like a running sore rubbing daily against my skin. Our dog’s diagnosis with a tumour, and surgery, was so hard to bear within our family’s troubled relationship with cancer. But for now he’s well. My endlessly delayed shoulder surgery, finally resolved, now gives me pain-free rest…
I hope for a truly joyous 2019 for us all, in which we are all appropriately enriched and fulfilled, and see an end to the real and psychological diminishments in rights and in the values of civil society that have made past years so unhappy.