"a time to interrupt all ordinary activities and get some rest."
Following on yesterday's analysis of what you can learn from food, today I have learnt a little bit of Roman history, a little bit of Italian nationalism, Italian holidays and traditions, watched a cooking video in Italian, which I almost understood as well as finding - and also not finding - some variations on one particular dish - Pollo Romana con peperoni, sometimes known as Pollo con i peperoni. The picture at left is from an eponymous blog by Toni Brancatisano a lady of Australian birth and Italian/English parents who now lives and works in food in Italy. Not only does her particular version look wonderful, but she was also the most informative about origins and all of that. The quote at the top of the page refers to the history part of this post.
But she wasn't the inspiration for this post. That was this bag of peppers that I bought yesterday. Well not actually this one. Mine is rather more varied and most of the peppers are smaller. They were a bargain. Well $4.50 for a kilo and such is the slow creep of familiarity and adjustment, that I thought $4.50 a kilo was a bargain price, having temporarily forgotten that I used to buy them at $2.00. However, months and months of seeing them at horrific prices - I think they reached $16.00 a kilo at one point, I now think $4.50 is a bargain. I'm guessing that those much less well off than I am would not agree. Which is all a bit of an aside really.
Anyway it's quite a few peppers - and I already have one in the vegetable drawer of my fridge which needs using. They don't tend to keep that long. So I wondered what to do with them and came up with an old family favourite Robert Carrier's Pollo alla Romana con peperoni, which comes from his Robert Carrier Cookbook. I cannot find the recipe online of course, or a picture - the world does not love Robert Carrier for some reason - but that picture at the top is pretty close.
I was also immensely cheered by the idea of cooking this very simple dish because it is familiar and well-loved. I was sort of in retreat. You see last night I cooked this dish - a new Ottolenghi (and vegetarian) dish - Asparagus cannelloni with coriander pesto. David really liked it and gave it 4 stars but I gave it just 3 1/2. The taste was pretty good, but I didn't think there was enough sauce. And indeed there wasn't because if you watch this video - not an Ottolenghi video but pretty good - I see that indeed my sauce was not nearly as runny. Might be because I made it with some home-made yoghurt which was disappointingly grainy and runny and so I drained it - too much as it happens. Worth trying again though. My pesto wasn't runny enough either.
Where was I? Well disappointed and disheartened was where I was, (and the continuing rain does not help matters) so I wanted the tried and true - hence, because of those peppers - a nostalgic rerun of a favourite Robert Carrier recipe.
So first of all I looked through my cookbooks and online for variations. Lots online - hardly any in my cookbooks. Mind you most of those online recipes are in Italian. In fact I think Claudia Roden was really the only one to have a recipe in my cookbooks and a blog with the title Moorlands Eater has reproduced it. They call it by its alternate name though - Chicken with peppers (Pollo con peperoni). They have also used chunks of chicken breast, rather than the boned joints that feature in almost all of the other recipes I found. Robert Carrier, of course, who was writing back in the early 70s begins with a whole chicken and cuts it up. We all did back then because we couldn't buy all those neatly cut up chicken pieces with bones in, bones out, skin on, skin off. I shall be using Chicken Marylands. The Silver Spoon, I think, was the only other of my Italian recipe books to have a version. Neither Jamie, nor Elizabeth David, nor Guy Grossi or Lorenza de Medici did.
Jamie did sort of modernise it though with a rather tempting looking traybake which he calls Hit 'n' run traybake chicken - no hint of Italians there. Same ingredients but a totally different kind of result.
And whilst we are on the modern here are two ultra high-cuisine deconstructed versions. No recipes - I'm sure you wouldn't want to try - just pictures. And here is where that Italian video came in. The video is of a young Neapolitan chef - David Fiordigiglio - making his fancy version for a panel of, experts - well I think they are experts - not judges. It was around 12 minutes long and they spoke at speed but I was so pleased with myself because I understood more or less all of it. Not every word, but the gist - there were bits about Neopolitan dialect, bits about nonnas- his nonna taught him to cook. Very morale boosting. The other deconstructed version was just a picture and a website - and apparently the chef was German - Oliver Glowig - but the text was in German. All very Heston really.
Perhaps of all the versions I found Rachel Roddy's is the closest to what I shall be making this evening, with the one exception that she roasts and peels her peppers. She was also the writer who waxed most lyrical about this amazingly simple dish's charms:
"Chicken with peppers transforms after a rest, the flavours deepen and sink into the chicken flesh, which becomes rosy ...
It is a dish that tastes of Roman summer: sun-soaked, fullsome and a bit much if you are not in the mood. But if you are, it is gorgeous, the stewed tomatoes and peppers like a well-matched couple, balancing each other out, acidity tempered by sweetness and vice-versa, smothering the chicken." Rachel Roddy
And with that reference to Roman summer I was introduced to the history and culture lesson for the day. Of course it's a summer dish - peppers are a summer vegetable. She also explained how it is a luncheon dish saying that: "most Romans can’t digest peppers after 4 o’clock – something they may well mention in conversation with you." She lives in Rome so she should know but I suspect the lack of any further comment on that indicates that this is a bit of an old wives' tale. However the reference to lunch is a precursor to the history.
You might think that this is just one of those peasant dishes cooked by nonnas, each with their own little flourish and it sort of is, and actually now that I think about it I do not actually know why this particular dish is the traditional dish for the Ferragosto holiday. Nobody explained that. Let's just accept that this is the dish that Italians traditionally eat at lunchtime - hot or cold on the beach - on Ferragosto.
And what is Ferragosto? Well this picture neatly shows where it came from and what it is today.
In 18BC the Emperor Augustus, after some military victories and at the time of the harvests, decided to extend the feriae Augusti (festivals of the Emperor Augustus). There were already two of these holidays - Vinalia - to celebrate the grape harvest, and Consualia - to celebrate the more general harvest and the storage of grain. To this he added Ferragosto on August 15th - Augustus' holiday/festival, which because of those military victories also had some association with the goddess Diana, and also Neptune who amongst his various duties was responsible for horses. It was a general invitation to relax after all the hard work of winning battles and getting the harvest in. So there were horse races amongst other things - the most famous of which is the Palio di Siena, which is still celebrated today.
This is all pagan stuff and the Italians loved it, so when the country became Christian the Catholics decided to get in on the act and decided that the Festival of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary should be celebrated on August 15th. The Assumption is when the Virgin Mary ascends into heaven. That's not the end of the story though.
Jump to the 20th century and Mussolini, who in an effort to boost national identity declared August 15th - Ferragosto - to be a national holiday. A kind of Italy Day if you like.
"the regime would organise holidays with special offers during Ferragosto. The aim was to give the less wealthy social classes the opportunity to visit a different part of the country. The tradition of holidays starting on 15th August became part of Italian culture and continues today." Toni Brancatisano
Yes indeed it does. It's a public holiday and everyone heads to the beach or the hills or the mountains to get away from the stiflingly hot cities, just as the French all head south on the same day - the weekend after the schools finish. We have driven for miles along the main autoroute between Paris and Nice, fortunately going north, but on the south heading side there was a traffic jam that stretched literally for hundreds of kilometres. So I'm guessing the same thing happens in Italy. Certainly you will find a lot of shops are closed. So bear that in mind if you are considering Italy in August.
And when they get to the beach, or when they picnic beside the road they apparently eat Pollo alla Romana con peperoni. As we shall tonight. As the rain pours down. Not summer holidays here. It's a reminder of summer holidays past.
POSTSCRIPT NO. 1
Thank you to my lovely English friend Sue who is currently visiting her son in Catalonia where they dined out - being presented with pan con tomate as an appetiser. This is what it looked like:
Looks like the true pan de tomate is the basic version whereby the tomato pulp is more or less just shown to the bread - perhaps a bit more than that here but not very lavish anyway. Which isn't to say it's not delicious of course. And Sue said it was.
I didn't make those Sticky prune teacakes yesterday because of the rain. The rain was torrential, the gutters overflowed and we had to keep rushing outside to brush the water away from the house - the slight slope to the stormwater drains will not cope with keeping it away from the house when this happens. So I didn't think I would risk making them. But this morning I did and this afternoon I had one with a cup of coffee. Yum - very yum. I shall be having one after dinner this evening as well.
It's Friday and I feel I need comfort - Pollo alla Romana con peperoni, a glass or two of the excellent Evans and Tate Western Australian Sauvignon Blanc, a teacake and a cup of coffee - or maybe some home-made limoncello. Topped off with watching an episode of All Creatures Great and Small in front of the fire. A truly comforting evening - good food, good drink, cosy entertainment. Very low brow and not adventurous. Warm. Not summer but a reminder of summer and a hope that it is just around the corner.