It is always so delightful to be back. It feels so good to be home, in your bed, in your kitchen, in your space.
Over the passing years I have grown very fond of shorter trips. Just a few days away to change the ambiance, taste new food and wine or to come back to the places that already hold a special place in our hearts, fill us with comfort and bring a big smile to our faces.
When we are absent for a longer period of time, even the dreamiest place can’t stop me from developing the feeling of longing and nostalgia. At least I used to feel that way until our recent summer trips. Somehow there seems to always be a turning point, mainly when least expected. I could translate it that we really had a wonderful time away this year, the time that you want to hold on to for longer, the precious feeling of absolute happiness that you want to last for ever.We spent a magical week in Sicily to start our summer. Upon reflection I think it was our best trip to Sicily so far. Having gained valuable experience travelling and commuting across Italy, many things have become a lot easier by now. The kind of confidence that you can gain only with time and practice. We both feel very lucky and privileged to have been able to experience that as well as to live in Italy.
Summer this year has been incredibly hot in Rome and it is only now, during the first days of September that we can experience rain, lower temperatures, short lived thunderstorm with their extremely loud and bright lightening. Simultaneously there is always a high level of humidity that accompanies them.
The Romans use the word l’afa to combine the atmospheric conditions like excessively high temperatures, high levels of humidity and the absence of wind in one. One word that sums it up perfectly and which I use occasionally (this year more than I would have liked) over the months of July and August.
Puglia, a vast region at the bottom of the so-called Italian boot, was our home for a while during August. Itria Valley is one of the most iconic and extraordinary examples of folk architecture. That is where we stayed, in a small, cosy dry stone hut with a conical roof. We also had a very good sized swimming pool which helped to beat the heat, a lovely garden with generously planted herbs and a fantastic outdoor grill, something that the Dègustateur truly loves. I happily let him set the fire, grill the food prepared by myself and clean it afterwards of course.
It wasn’t our first visit to Puglia. The first time we visited the region was at the very beginning of our move to Rome in late January almost four years ago. We didn’t even have our belongings with us yet, just two suitcases of clothes. When I look back upon that trip with the perspective of time I am certain that we feel more comfortable and confident wherever we go in Italy right now. Having learnt the language undoubtedly has helped. Fortunately I was already able to communicate in Italian since the very beginning but that certain degree of fluency, understanding and cheekiness you can only gain with time. We had stayed in Lecce, a splendid baroque town with its streets kissed by the afternoon’s golden light. It was lovey and quiet. A low season that we almost always try to take the advantage of. I can still remember the taste of a very decadent and representative pasticciotto leccese, an oval shaped pastry filled with indulgent rich pastry cream. The pastry casing traditionally calls for strutto (lard) to be used. I’ve made a few attempts at home and I am cognisant of the fact that I still have a few touches to improve on. But that doesn’t worry me because I do believe that certain delights somehow taste best in the places where they belong. All I have left now is to come back to Lecce I guess. The pasticciotti can be found in Rome of course, however they are never the same, as perhaps they never will be.
I absolutely loved grocery shopping in Aberobello that was just a few minutes away by car. We stumbled upon two delicatessens situated just opposite each other, laden with local hams and of course capocollo, cheeses, grilled vegetables kept in olive oil, marinated seafood calling: buy me, buy me! Well, we did buy it and lots of it. We indulged in the wine too. The wine obtained from dark- skinned Primitivo grapes. I adore the bottles too, dark, rather big and very heavy.
Most of the visits however we made to an another nearby sweet and cute “white town” Locorotondo. It is where the Dègustateur had the best stinco (pork shank) ever. Myself on the other hand, being a big fan of a very “poor men food” plate of dry broad been puree and blanched seasonal greens drizzled with best olive oil, I couldn’t have asked for much more.
The orecchiette are the most famous pasta of Puglia. They look like small disks resembling a small ear hence the name. Orecchiette con cime di rapa (with broccoli rabe) are perhaps most known outside Puglia but since it wasn’t the season to try the dish, I had orecchiette con bracciole. In other words the small ears pasta with meat rolls cooked in tomato sauce. I liked it so much that I recreated it at home and shared the recipe on the blog immediately.
We really had a lovely time. The food from the land was alternated with going to the coast (not a touristy spot even though the very famous Borgo Egnazia was just next door) and having almost everything that the fishing boat offered on the day. We treated ourselves to sea urchin, raw langoustines and red prawns. Those delicacies were so sweet and heavenly good. From a very generous selection of mixed warm starters we particularly liked black rice with burrata cheese and baked local mussels au gratin.
It was quite tricky for me to open raw mussels by hand. There is a special technique to do that, the technique that I have by no means a full command of yet. But my temptation for making tiella barese was stronger than my skills. As a consequence with the help of my stubbornness and after a few scratches on my hands I managed to prepare the mussels as required and save their water which is released once you open the shells. The rest was easy. Tiella barese consists of layers of thinly sliced potatoes, sliced onion, roughly chopped tomatoes, rice and opened mussels but still kept in one half of the shells. Each layer is finished with grated pecorino cheese and it is then baked in a casserole dish for about an hour. It was delicious. So lovely that I may forgo my scratched and slightly painful fingers and make it again. It was surprisingly delightful.
Sooner or later all holidays come to an end and it is time to go back. Home is always home, my space and air. In Rome everything gradually comes back to life from the end of August onwards.
I love being back in my kitchen and pottering around it. I always bring so many ideas (that I don’t always put in writing unfortunately) with me on food and on what to cook but we were both craving for some traditional Roman food. The food of just a few ingredients and of strong flavours. That is perhaps one of the most accurate descriptions of la cucina romana.
I immediately made beef straccetti, thinly sliced beef pieces that are the make up of an outstanding dish.
I never use bread crumbs nor flower for cooking them (as I have seen in the past). My version is simple and packed with flavours, that is why I don’t sear the meat and serve almost immediately after having tossed the thin pieces in a hot pan. I like to gently cook them in white wine, some marjoram, generous amounts of seasoning and very often to finish with balsamic vinegar. You see, to me the flavours are of crucial importance and the meat can only absorb them if you allow enough time for it. This dish is extremely simple and quick, no more than 30 min in a pan and it is ready. We have just had a good friend visiting us and he really likes straccetti. So I prepared it as above and served it on the bed of rocket leaves and garnished with shaved parmesan. We loved it.
Having a guest over gave me a perfect opportunity to cook some Roman classics that we were looking forward to having: pasta alla carbonara and l’amatriciana. Just a few ingredients, guanciale being the key one. We all of course went to our favourite restaurants, a must try was coda alla vaccinara, lamb chops, tonnarelli cacio e peppe. Then there were stops at favourite enotecas or wine bars for some Prosecco or Franciacortata to start the evening with. Ice cream tours we reserved for after dinner for two reasons: I find them to be a wonderful end to the dinner and the queues are much smaller.
My friend Robert and I did a lot of walking. He really appreciates the city, the food culture, the weather and most importantly the history. During one of the walks we looked at Forum Romanum from the Capitol Hill. The late afternoon light was warm with orange hues giving a sweet and soft contrast to the shadows. We stayed there for a moment, admiring the heart of the Roman Empire in silence. And that was one of those moments when I say, it is good to be home.