People who read my blog regularly know that I often write about food traditions and regional specialties in Italy. I admit that I’m no expert, but that doesn’t stop me from diving fork-first into the topic. Food plays such an important role in the culture at large, that any blog about life in Italy would be incomplete without an occasional discussion of the culinary influences.
Last month in Rome I was fortunate enough to have two very different encounters with the Roman food scene. First, I tasted the best of the cucina romana in Trastevere, and then I got to see where some of the food actually comes from.
Eating Italy Food Tours in Rome
Technically speaking, preparations for my Rome food tour began 24 hours in advance. I made the wise decision to heed the repeated warnings of Maria, my contact from Eating Italy Food Tours, to “Come hungry.” Good thing I took her at her word. And honestly, after three weeks of traveling through this culinary wonderland, it was about time to give my stomach a day off.
That morning, I had only a cappuccino for breakfast. By the time we began our gastronomic treasure hunt through the Trastevere neighborhood at lunchtime, I was, indeed, quite hungry.
We started out with just a light pastry. Delicious and just enough to tempt us. I quickly realized, to my delight, that this was going to be an exquisite marathon, and NOT a fast-food sprint, or one of those eating competitions that you see on various food shows. However, it wasn’t long into the tour before we had a chance to sample what passes for “fast-food” in Rome: the supplì. It’s a bite-size morsel of fried goodness, filled with rice, cheese, and tomato sauce. Similar to the Sicilian arancino, but—well, let’s not start that debate. Yet.
Most of the places we visited were long-established fixtures in the Trastevere neighborhood. The types of Mom & Pop stores that, when regular customers enter, the proprietors know what they want before the customer does. Salutations and warm greetings all around, free samples offered, lots of neighborly cheer. Even if you’re not buying that day, just stop in to say “ciao!”
What’s more, these shops generally have relationships with the highest quality providers in and around Rome. For example, at the Antica Norcineria Trastevere, they go out into the surrounding hill towns of the Castelli Romani to get the very best porchetta in all of Lazio. Every. Single. Day. And they just get one, so don’t be late for lunch!
Another case in point is the Antica Caciara, where they have a dizzying selection of cured meats, wines, and other local products. But they’re famous for their Pecorino Romano (they raise their own sheep for the milk). If you’ve never had the real thing, it’s a wonderfully salty and oily hard cheese that pairs so well with typical Roman pasta dishes. But it finds its true soul mate every spring when the fresh fava beans become available. Roman families traditionally enjoy this combination every year on the first of May.
Trastevere has long been known as the most Roman of Rome’s neighborhoods. I think that’s still mostly true, even as they struggle to fight off the encroachment of mainstream consumerism. Spending a slow day wandering the side streets in search of authentic food traditions really helped me connect with this idea. People here still care about their food, who makes it, and where the ingredients come from.
If you want to know Rome—or any city in Italy, for that matter—share some of its local food with the people who grow it, prepare it, and serve it to their customers. Put aside your checklist of famous monuments for a day and take a food tour in Rome. In Italy, it’s important to experience the culture with all your senses.
Good food starts with high quality ingredients. And perhaps no ingredient is more integral to Italian cooking than olive oil. Fortunately, the area surround Rome produces some of the best olive oil in the world. It may not be as well-known as some other olive producing regions, but the savvy connoisseurs are well aware of its considerable merits.
I met Guido, a native Roman, and his Australian wife Sally in the Sabine Hills to learn a bit about cultivating olive trees and olive oil production. Growing up in Rome, Guido and his brother often accompanied their father into the countryside on the weekends to buy top quality products and seasonal ingredients directly from local producers. Wine, fruit, vegetables, cheese, and of course, olive oil.
A few years ago, he and Sally decided to give up big city life for the peaceful charm in the village of Toffia, about 45-50 minutes outside of Rome. Now instead of fighting traffic and breathing diesel exhaust, they arrange cooking holidays, along with wine and olive oil tours for their company Convivio in the lush, green countryside. I joined them for half a day to improve my understanding of what goes into making high-quality oil, from tree to table.
Our first stop was near the village of Canneto to behold, “Olivone,” Europe’s largest olive tree, more than 7 meters (22 feet) in circumference around the base (and one of the oldest, estimated at more than 2,000 years). And yes, it still produces fruit.
Some interesting facts about olive trees and olive oil:
- The first known cultivation of olive trees occurred on the island of Crete around 3,500 B.C.
- Trees grow best on the side of a steep hill, with good sun exposure, in dry but breezy conditions.
- The trees benefit from active cultivation, keeping the branches trimmed so that air can reach the center of the tree.
- Trees reach full maturity at around 20 years old, and produce their best olives between 35 and 150 years old. Often, at around 200 years, a separate off-shoot will spontaneously form, giving the tree new life. Reincarnation, if you will.
- It takes about 5 kilos of olives to produce one liter of oil. Our friend “Olivone” yielded 120 kilos a year when he was at his peak. Now he makes about 70 kilos a year.
An Olive Farm
We got back in the car and followed rough country roads through the hills. The path grew progressively narrower and steeper before eventually arriving at an olive tree farm called, “Il Cervo Rampante.” Here we strolled among the thick groves, which contained some very young trees at just 5 months old, and some very old trees at more than 500 years. There were several different varieties present, and we’d learn more about their unique flavor qualities during the tasting session at the end of the tour.
When tasting good oil, it’s important to identify a bitter, peppery aftertaste towards the back of the palate. These are the high quality oils that you’d want to use to dress a salad or grilled vegetables, or drizzle on your fresh fish. Don’t ruin a dish that you’ve carefully prepared by finishing it with industrially produced oil. Yes, the good stuff costs a little more, but it’s well worth it.
If you’re visiting Rome and want to learn more about olive oil, its characteristics and proper uses in the kitchen, then I suggest you contact Guido and Sally through their website. Besides the tours through the country, the also offer one-day cooking classes, as well as full culinary holidays in the hills just outside of Rome.
Let this digest for a while
This is a theme that I’ve discussed before and will return to again and again: food as an integral part of the local culture in Italy. I’m not a chef or a sommelier or even a self-professed “foodie,” whatever that means. But I will continue to explore the important role of food and cooking traditions in the daily life of Italy. It’s a delicious, savory, sweet topic that I have no problem digesting.