Where’s My Toga? Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe

The expression ‘Paese che vai, usanza che trovi’ is often spouted by Italians, as wise advice or an admonishment, I’m never sure which. The well-known English equivalent, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’, means exactly the same thing and is the golden rule for all travellers to foreign lands. Tourists in Rome however, can take this saying literally, especially when it comes to food.  I’ll eat like a Roman any day.

Non sto male, that’s for sure.

Some of the Roman meatless classics you are likely to find include spaghetti alle vongole verace, carciofi alla giudia, insalata di puntarella and my favourite Roman dish of all time, Spaghetti Cacio e Pepe.

A bowl of cacio e pepe: the creamy Pecorino sauce hides within.

I’ve had a few attempts at reproducing an autentico Spaghetti (or Tonnarelli) Cacio e Pepe over the years with varying success. The dish has only three ingredients yet is not so simple to make. There are a few magic techniques to master for a perfect result. After trawling through a variety of Italian sites, I’ve settled on the advice offered by the Giallo Zafferano site ( beware the advertisement bombardment on this site ). Many non-Italian sites add such things as butter or oil which ruin a good Cacio e Pepe. Don’t be misled by these recipes.

When making this cheesy peppery dish, keep in mind that the sauce will use the hot, starchy pasta cooking water. By gradually adding a small amount of this hot liquid to the grated cheese, a thick, non grainy sauce will form. The other trick is to toast the ground peppercorns in a large deep sided frying pan followed by added pasta water. This will make a starchy, peppery bath to finish cooking the semi- cooked pasta. When the pasta is added, it will absorb the extra liquid, a method similar to making risotto. It’s a good idea to read the details below a few times before beginning. If confusing, refer to the Giallo Zafferano site and watch the video demonstration of the creaming method.

Ingredients. For two large serves for a main meal.

  • 100 gr Pecorino Romano
  • 220 gr Spaghetti number 12 /(de Cecco brand is nice)
  • 5 gr whole black peppercorn ( you might not use all of this)
  • sea salt for pasta water.

Tools. Pasta pot, deep sided large frying pan or large non stick wok, small whisk, bowl, mortar and pestle, tongs, wooden spoon. Yes, only three ingredients and a whole lot of tools.

Method

  1. Grate the Pecorino.
  2. Boil the water in a pasta pot (use about half the usual amount of water to cook the pasta so it will be richer in starch) and salt well.
  3. When the water comes to a rolling boil, add the pasta. Timing is crucial here. If your pasta usually takes 10 minutes to cook al dente, set the timer for 8 minutes. You want the pasta to be slightly under cooked at this point.
  4. Meanwhile crush the peppercorns with a mortar and pestle or grinder. Pour half the ground pepper into a large frying pan or non stick wok and dry roast over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or tongs.
  5. Add a couple of ladles of pasta cooking water to the peppercorn pan. Bubbles should appear due to the starch contained in the water. Using tongs, lift the semi- cooked spaghetti into the frying pan, keeping aside the pot of cooking water.
  6. Stir the pasta about, using a wooden spoon or tongs. When the water is absorbed, add another ladle of pasta water and continue stirring. Continue adding a ladle of pasta water as needed.
  7. In the meantime, when you think the pasta is almost ready – and this can only be judged by tasting along the way – prepare the Pecorino cream.
  8. Pour half the grated Pecorino into a small mixing bowl. Add a few tablespoons of pasta cooking water and mix well with a whisk. When it is creamy, add more Pecorino and a little more cooking water, whisking all the while. Keep going in this way, holding back a little grated cheese for the final condiment.
  9. Finish cooking the pasta, adding a little more cooking water if necessary, before adding the Pecorino cream. Briefly mix the cream by placing the bowl over the steam of the pasta pot hot water, and stir with the whisk. This brings the cream back to the temperature of the pasta. Turn off the heat and add the Pecorino cream, stirring continuously with the kitchen tongs until well amalgamated.
  10. Serve adding more grated cheese and a little extra pepper. Mangia!
Chef on break. Roman laneways and trattorie.

Do as the Romans do, eat Cacio e Pepe autentico.

Over the Bridge to Trastevere, Rome

There’s something very captivating about Trastevere, despite the busy night time crowds and touristy restaurants. It’s just a hop over a bridge to Centro Storico, Rome’s ancient centre, and depending on which bridge you take, you’ll land in a different precinct. Getting lost is part of a good day in Rome as you find new streets and more colours until once again, a familiar piazza or ancient Roman building pops up before your very eyes and you know where you are. Rome is always surprising.

One bridge takes you to the Jewish quarter, a great place to wander about on a weekday morning but avoid the weekends when this district is swamped with lunchtime crowds and restaurant spruikers.

Around the Jewish quarter, Rome

Another bridge takes you to the working class, gritty suburb of Testaccio, with its central food market and authentic Roman trattorie. You’ll pass yet more ancient Roman treasures along the way, some just lying about, and wonder why you hadn’t seen them before. There’s a certain insouciance in Rome when it comes to antiquity and this is part of the charm.

Testaccio, Roma,

Other bridges lead you through some official districts until you wander past Palazzo Farnese and find yourself in Campo Dei Fiori and nearby Piazza del Biscione, with its old style restaurants, another market and a superb fornaio ( bakery) on the corner.

The walls seem to glow in Rome’s cold late Autumn light, an attraction in themselves. Layers of ochre, pinks and reds, some colours when weathered, have no name at all. They are the colours washed by time, the colours that make you keep wandering and wondering, the colours of Rome.

 

Villa Farnesina, Rome. Who was Agostino Chigi?

This summer throughout January, I’m catching up with some of my unpublished stories from earlier travels in Europe in 2017. Some posts will be light-hearted, centered around food and accommodation, ‘the best of’ reports, while others are research based essays. It will be rewarding to polish them up and give them a final airing. Of course there will be a few cooking posts along the way too.

                                                          Buona Lettura

I’ve been thinking a lot about Agostino Chigi lately, and wondering why there’s not a great deal written about him. Given that he commissioned one of the most elegant and beautiful buildings of the Renaissance, Villa Farnesina in Trastevere, Rome, and was a generous patron of the arts, I find this quite unusual.

Agostino Chigi, (pronounced kee-gee) was a 15th to 16th century banker who was born in Siena then moved to Rome to assist his father, Mariano Chigi in 1487. He became the wealthiest man in Rome, especially after becoming banker to the Borgia family, in particular Pope Alexander V, followed by Pope Julius 11. If there’s one thing that helps a banker stay at the top, it’s having business dealings in Rome and becoming the Pope’s treasurer. The Florentine Medici, Giovanni di Bicci and Cosimo de’ Medici, also milked their Roman and Papal connections in the preceding years. Chigi’s financial interests expanded to obtaining lucrative control of important minerals, including the salt monopoly of the Papal States and Naples and the alum monopoly in Southern Italy. Alum was the essential mordant in the textile industry. With financial and mining interests, like a modern-day crony capitalist and entrepreneur, Chigi was ready to splurge.

The connection between the arts and banking makes an interesting Renaissance study in itself ¹. Banking families were keen patrons of the arts, not only in a bid to show off their taste and refinement, but also to cast off the slur of usury. Usury, making profit from charging interest on a loan, was a crime in 15th century Europe: a usurer was heading straight to hell, according to the main religious thinking of the day, unless he made a few corrections to that practice, through intricate bills of credit requiring lengthy international currency exchange deals. Banker patrons, worried about their afterlife, could buy a place in heaven by financing religious works -perhaps a marble tomb for a Pope, or some fine brass relief doors for a baptistry, or a few walls of religious themed freschi demonstrating their piety and devotion by appearing as genuflecting bystanders in a painting or two.

Chigi, like other bankers before him, was keen to spend time with the literati and patronised the main artistic figures of the early 16th century, including Perugino, Sebastiano del Piombo, Giovanni da Udine, Giulio Romano, Il Sodoma and Raffaele. These artists, and the architect Baldassare Peruzzi, all had a hand in making Villa Farnesina so attractive and harmonious. But the main feature you’ll notice in the painted works is its secularity: no religious themes appear in the decoration at all. Thus somewhere between the mid 15th century and 1508, when this building was commissioned and begun, the subject of the visual arts had shifted. Here, the freschi depict classical and historic themes: there’s not a Madonna or baby Jesus in sight except for those cheeky putti holding up garlands. I doubt that Agostino Chigi was overly concerned with the sin of usury. Times had changed.

Suggestive coupling of fruits. New world fruits appear in the garlands of Udine.

The ground floor room, the stunning Loggia di Psiche e Amore, was designed by Raffaele, though was mostly executed by one of his followers Giulio Romano, and seems heavier in style. It’s not the best secular work by Raffaele: his most graceful works are held in the quiet gallery of Gemäldegalerie, in Berlin, Germany ( more on this gallery later). The decorative garlands and festoons are by Giovanni da Udine, and although hard to get close to, draped as they are on high ceilings and around tall window sills and pillars, they steal the show.

Sensuous and erotic, the total effect of the Loggia is complete in its aim and purpose. This is a pleasure palace, a space decorated with pagan themes of love and seduction from classical mythology, designed to amuse Chigi’s guests. The modern addition of a walled glass fronting the garden allows more light to shine on the rich colours and detail. It is delightful.

Upstairs in a smallish room, the wall panels by Il Sodoma, ( catchy nick name for the artist, Giovanni Antonio Bazzi , no two guesses why), depict scenes from the marriage of Roxana and Alexander. In such a small space, the painted walls are ceilings are visually overwhelming.

At the end of the 16th century, Villa Farnesina was bought by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese ( of course a Cardinal needs an erotically decorated villa) and its name “Farnesina” was given to distinguish it from the Cardinal’s much larger Palazzo Farnese on the other side of the Tevere. Today the Villa is the centre for the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, the Italian Science Academy and the rooms are open to visitors. Palazzo Farnese, across the river, is occupied by the French Consulate and is not open to the public.

These small decorative motifs on window shutters and in cornices add to the overall aesthetic of the villa.

 

Some useful accompanying notes.

Giorgio Vasari, (1511-1574) author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, often simply called Vasari’s ‘Lives’, was the first art historian and the first to use the term rinascita ( Renaissancein print, though an awareness of the ongoing “rebirth” in the arts had been in the air since the writings of the Florentine Humanist, Alberti, almost a century earlier. He was responsible for the use of the term Gothic Art, and used the word Goth which he associated with the “barbaric” German style. His work has a consistent bias in favour of Florentines and tends to attribute to them all the developments in Renaissance art. Vasari has influenced many art historians since then, and to this day, many travellers to Italy are blinded by Vasari’s Florentine list and bias, at the expense of other important works in Milano and Rome. Vasari, however, does recognise the works in the Farnesina.

¹ The nexus between banking and art patronage is fully explored by Tim Parks in Medici Money. Banking, Metaphysics and Art in Fifteenth- Century Florence,one  of my favourite books. I am now re- reading this excellent history: it is written in an accessible style and makes for enjoyable summer reading, for those who like reading about the Renaissance.

² Various papers on the festoons and garlands in the Villa Farnesina in Colours of Prosperity Fruits from the Old and New world, produced by the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei and purchased at Villa Farnesina in Rome.

Agostino Chigi, 1506. Oil on canvas, anonymous.
 Villa Farnesina is in the quiet part of Trastevere, well away from the tourist hordes in that precinct, and during our visit last November, had only a few visitors. Sadly the garden wasn’t open.
Via della Lungara, 230, 00165 Roma RM, Italy

 

The Pantheon Revisited. Rome

I flinch when I hear that commonly asked question, “what was the highlight of your trip?” I never have a ready answer, (a) because I cannot honestly choose one favourite and (b) because I know it’s a trick question, designed to protect the enquirer from a long-winded monologue, the equivalent of the tedious slide night of old.

And so when asked to share the most meaningful photo of 2017, I drew a blank. There are too many, ranging from beautiful shots of the young children in my life, their skin glowing with health, thousands of travel snaps taken throughout a recent five month journey, photos of my handmade sourdough bread- flour, water and salt- which always surprises me, pictures of friendly visitors, the bright red and green King Parrots, and more. None of these photos are particularly meaningful though many are quite special.

I’ve been looking at my Roman photos recently and remember the day we came upon the Pantheon after walking around randomly one afternoon last month. It was a cold day, and I certainly had no intention of revisiting that famous site. But there it loomed, that famous temple to every God insisting that we enter once again. That’s the problem with Rome. It’s hard to get much done as there are just too many distractions. Revisits offer new insights. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome remains the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The height to the oculus and the diameter of the interior circle are the same, 43 metres ( 142 feet). It always amazes.

Snaps from the inside of the dome, edited just for fun, while I’m working on my answer to that question.

Rome. Piazza Navona Revisited

During a solo visit to Rome, almost 25 years ago, I vividly recall the colour of Rome more than anything else. It was February, wintertime, and although cold in the morning, by late afternoon the buildings seemed to glow salmon and pink. My senses were heightened during that particular visit. During this year’s visit, the rawness of that earlier time has crept up on me. Rome is still bathed in pink, despite its ochre, yellow and beige buildings along with white and grey marble. Roman light is a magical thing.

During that 1993 trip, I stayed close to Piazza Navona and wandered around the campo each morning before the visitors arrived. I always enjoy revisiting Navona when in Rome and usually find something new to consider. This year, Bernini’s marble river gods look very appealing in the rain.

I mentioned yesterday that memories are subject to revision when revisited. In the past, I found the semi- naked Gods in Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi far too mannerist in style and not unlike the images found in a beefcake magazine. This time, the rain bought out the transparency of the skin and the gracefulness of male movement. It’s simply a matter of turning a blind eye to the not- so- well- hung, or should I say, not so well endowed, statue of the Moor standing nearby. 

Each stature represents a river- the Ganges, Nile, Danube and Rio de Plata.

“The Ganges carries a long oar, representing the river’s navigability. The Nile’s head is draped with a loose piece of cloth, meaning that no one at that time knew exactly where the Nile’s source was. The Danube touches the  Pope’s personal coat of arms, since it is the large river closest to Rome. And the Rio de Plata is sitting on a pile of coins, a symbol of the riches America could offer to Europe. Also, the Río de la Plata looks scared by a snake, showing rich men’s fear that their money could be stolen. Each is a river god, semi-prostrate, in awe of the central tower, epitomized by the slender Egyptian obelisk, symbolizing by Papal power surmounted by the Pamphili symbol. ( the Pope’s family crest, patrons of this work) In addition, the fountain is a theater in the round, a spectacle of action, that can be strolled around. Water flows and splashes from a jagged and pierced mountainous disorder of travertine marble.”¹

Given the rain, we took refuge in Borromini’s church, Sant’Agnese in Agone. I was thinking about the appropriateness of this title, given the state of my legs, but it turns out that ” in agone” has nothing to do with that martyr’s agony but is a reference to the original name of Piazza Navona, which was Circus Agonalis, a competition arena for the Roman military. The church was full of other rain escapees sitting quietly in the pews. I was also keen to find the doves with olive branches set in marble on the floor. These doves spoke to me during my 1993 visit and in my memory, they were small and graceful. This time, they appeared awkward and primitive, and more like chooks! There are three to be found, again symbols of the Pamphili family who commissioned Sant’Agnese.

Rome is never very cold in winter and although still busy, especially on Sunday, Italian is the language you’ll hear most in the crowd. It is, for me, the best time to visit, away from the maddening crowd, the tour groups, and the loudness of foreign tongues. It’s the season when Rome is bathed in pink.

¹ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fontana_dei_Quattro_Fiumi

Rome, Glorious Rome.

Rome, my favourite city, is often visited at the beginning or end of our travels. There’s a problem with this and it’s taken me 32 years to work it out. Visiting Rome before heading off on a long journey allows you to see her wonders with fresh eyes, vigour and enthusiasm but often the visit is cut short by an eagerness to travel to the proposed, more anticipated, Italian or European destination. Visiting Rome at the other end of the holiday often means that you are less eager to wake early and are suffering from church and museum overload. Your legs will hurt as you wander along kilometres of Rome’s cobblestoned ways, but at least your muscles have been in training.

Often a mysterious melancholy descends when you realise that Rome needs more time. It always does. It doesn’t matter how often you visit, Rome will continue to unfold and excite, tripping you up along the way with unexpected finds, more exciting lanes and suburbs, new bridges and villas. I use the word ‘unexpected’ as this is what Rome does. Once away from the usual Roman icons, you discover lesser known classical ruins, just lying about, some rarely visited, and suburbs with real markets, Roman lifestyle and ‘local’ osterie, views never imagined from yet more hills, and more of that exciting Roman night-time brio. And just when you think you know Rome, you realise that you know nothing at all.

Memories are reinterpreted and revised as favourite districts and churches are revisited, a rainy day enlivens Bernini’s sculpture, all that masculine flesh glows with new vigour. Wet marble and muscle, pink and black veined. Sant’Agnese provides shelter from the storm and a rest for weary feet. Another Baroque church beckons, Sant’Andrea delle Valle, or maybe a visit to Feltrinelli’s bookshop, or is it time for a Prosecco? 

Although winter is nigh, Rome glows pink. I want to keep wandering all day and night, but my legs can’t keep up with my desires. And that thing that I finally discovered so late in life? Rome is a destination in itself. One day I’ll just go there and nowhere else.

More on Rome next post.