Morning light seeps through the slats in the blinds quite early even though we are in Winter. The light is weak and grey which means it is raining but we cannot hear it. It’s a soft rain, almost tropical in its cadence and different from the lashing, sideways rain that pelts ice cubes at our windows on a regular basis in Winter. Sunday morning in February and only the second one where we have been allowed to travel outside of Rome since before Christmas.
We have been waiting for weeks to get out of the city and into the beautiful Sabine countryside only an hour North of Rome. Reminiscent of Tuscany in parts because of its proliferation of cypress and rows of olive groves, it is less polished, less touristed, perfect for rambling and blasting the city from your senses. In no time at all we are deeply immersed in its green rolling hills, and constantly changing landscape. Jagged medieval towers rise in ruins out of dense forest, abandoned abbeys sit forlorn in the mist, Etruscan fountains still sprout in the wilderness, and everywhere you look there is a view below and above you.
Soon our car crunches onto a caramel-coloured road that seems to have a small tributary running through the middle of it. Other cars are inching along it ahead, obviously also Romans unused to driving over anything that is not cobbled, asphalted, or coated in leaves. We pull up at some stone buildings that have stood for centuries. They are connected by makeshift wooden verandas made up from sticks gathered in the forest nearby, hanging together because of their shapes rather than any type of formal attachments like a nail or bracket. Behind the small buildings we can hear a donkey braying loudly, and around them the most beautiful chickens and roosters I have ever seen peck and strut. Some of them have fluorescent green feathers, others are puffy balls of white down, still others are speckled with two tone feathers and white polka dots. And they are gigantic.
We have come to celebrate my husband’s birthday (which was in December, but we were in lock down), with some close friends who live in the Sabine hills and who have recommended this restaurant. It is a fixed menu that changes depending on the season and day, and none of us knows what is on it. We do not need to, and we never do. In this country it is part of the culture to eat this way, as though it is an extension of eating with the family, whatever they are cooking, using their own and local produce, they cook enough for all of us. With no explanation or introduction plates begin arriving as soon as we have sat down.
Inside, the place is quirkily and lovingly restored and decorated with farming tools and implements, hand painted doors and murals, and wooden tables and chairs. It is light and bright, warm, and noisy, each group seeming to have its own area, so it feels like you are dining alone in your Tuscan farmhouse (probably because of needing to have appropriate distance between tables for social distancing to occur). A large glass bottle filled with dark red wine is on the table along with a bottle of water and a basket of bread. They all get refilled as often as we ask.
A plate of thickly cut pink prosciutto (dried, cured ham) laced with fat, some bresaola (dried beef) and salami studded with slices of whole black peppers arrives, then a plate of crusty white bread laced with local olive oil and topped with bright green broccoletti, a bitter and delicious green leafy Roman vegetable boiled and then fried in oil, garlic, and chilli. Other dishes land simultaneously until our table is covered and luckily, we know the custom or we would assume this is our whole meal instead of just our appetiser…. or antipasto. Thick wedges of creamy white ricotta cheese resting on purple leaves of radicchio appear, along with a dish of rolled up and deep-fried slices of eggplant stuffed with mozzarella and ham, whole baked mushrooms filled with minced pork and vegetables and a steaming bowl of beans in tomato sauce floating with bits of chewy pork belly. I am unable to eat, drink, talk, look, and absorb my beautiful surroundings all at the same time, so I give up and just eat. Just in time for the focaccia topped with tomato sauce and melted mozzarella cheese to be placed in front of me.
The bean dish is full of a deep earth flavour that makes me want to shove everybody out of the way as I engulf it, the sauce is also slightly piquant, and the pork and mince are chewy mouthfuls of heaven. The ricotta has a deep flavour unlike the ones I buy at the supermarket. It is slightly tart but also sweet and full of body which means you must chew it not just swallow it. The rolled up eggplant slices, although small and only one each unfortunately, are so juicy and filling that one is enough. And the cured meats have a robust flavour and consistency that you only find in the countryside where they are produced, salty, fatty, and deeply satisfying. Washed down with a glass of the strongest red wine I have ever tasted, I am very happy, and have forgotten that its rainy, Winter and that there is or ever was a pandemic raging.
As I said those of us in the know, know that this is only the beginning of a meal so matter how yummy the beans are and how many slices of prosciutto there are left, none of us is rushing for a second helping. Luckily, the portions are just right and there is nothing wasted. There are several courses to come though – the primo, secondo and dolce, dessert. Luckily coffee and liqueurs will help us digest. The primo dish is pasta and a communal bowl of ravioli squares filled with ricotta and spinach and covered with tomato sauce and parmesan is served. A little while later a platter of thin barbequed pork steaks like huge thick slices of bacon, and some sausages come out, juicy, tender, and full of flavour. Coffee is served with bowls of homemade biscuits to choose from. They are filled with jam, nuts, dried fruit, or spices. Hard and crunchy they are small and light, just perfect. Local digestives and some from far away (the Amalfi coast) finish off this magnificent birthday meal (all for a cost of AUS$ 40 per head).
The rain has not let up and is now coming down steadily, the fog has descended halfway down the valley settling on the top of the Abbey of Farfa giving it a white fluffy halo and making the bright green olive groves directly under it light up. We are back in our car to watch the light gently fade and the sun set over Rome as we drive back into it.
If you enjoy these blogs you might also enjoy my books Roman Daze – La Dolce Vita for all Seasons and Ticket for One. Available in paperback and kindle on Amazon, Book depository and book stores. https://www.amazon.com/Bronte-Dee-Jackson/e/B00I5BH68K