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Wine and Food Diary of Giles MacDonogh

In the South

Written by Giles MacDonogh

In the South(Provence and Rome)

Posted: 1st March 2018

When I make my Lenten excursion to Provence I am often greeted by the first mutterings of spring: a sun warm enough to allow you to eat outside at lunchtime generally appears in the last half of February along with almond blossom and the first crocuses. This time the weather in the Ventoux was more troubled. On the Friday we sat outside for coffee by the cathedral in Carpentras and later for a beer at Jerôme’s cafe in Mazan where we soaked up the sun until it began to spit with rain. Saturday was a write off and cold drizzle and half-term conspired to empty the market in Pernes. Most of my favourite producers were absent. Where the soap-seller is normally to be found was a van selling ‘la gastronomie polonaise’. By the time I left on the 18th, a Mistral had blown up and was chasing away the rain clouds but it was bitterly cold.

There were good things to eat and drink and an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. The hunters had been by and left a haunch of Boris in the fridge which was duly pickled in the Ventoux red from the Domaine des Anges and proved a fine dish with mashed potatoes and a simplified caponata the night before we left. We went out a couple of times. In the first instance we returned to Chez Léon in Bédouin for lunch.

“Chez Léon is a new-wave cave-à-manger serving small, tapa-like plates of food: iberico hams and sausages, local cheeses, black pudding, anchovies, hand of pork, cod balls… accompanied by a long list of local wines (including the Domaine des Anges).”

On our penultimate night we went to the local La Calade which has changed hands yet again. Everyone agreed that it had got better.

“The menu had been shortened with a choice of just three dishes for each course. I had some oeufs en cocotte with truffles, a slab of bull meat and huge plate of cheese.”

I was back for two nights before a small family holiday to Rome. I can’t have been in the city for twenty years and feared the sort of depressed atmosphere I witness whenever I cross Paris, but Rome was more cheerful than that and although La Cronica di Roma was filled with stories of crimes committed by marauding migrants, I saw little that was unsettling on the streets. On the contrary, the groups of armed soldiers congregating around the tourist attractions were rather reassuring: at least you didn’t feel quite so much like game as you normally did, particularly if you went anywhere near Termini station.

I was also struck by how terribly helpful the Romans were when we failed to get the correct tram back to our digs in Trastevere or asked for information or directions. Often they went out of their way to put us on the right track. Huddling under an awning by the Colosseum to avoid the incessant rain I was drawn into a conversation by two old Romans who were complaining about the city administration, dismissing it as ‘schifo’ (disgusting). Did I think that it was the Colosseum or the Vatican that had brought all the tourists to the city? The former, I said: not everyone is Catholic. One of the old boys shepherded us onto the appropriate tram and showed us where to change. We never really got the hang of the number eight, which seemed reliable in one direction, and totally unreliable in the other.

“Once upon a time I wrote an article for the FT about the proper Roman restaurants in the abattoir quarter of Testaccio just across the Tiber from us in Trastevere. The abattoir has closed since but there are still the places serving various organs: tripe, pajata (the tripe of a weaning calf or lamb still containing its mother’s milk which is generally served with rigatoni – tube mingling with inner tube), and of course coda alla vaccinara or braised oxtails. What is Rome without oxtails? The ‘vaccinaro’ was the abattoir man who took home the tail after the slaughter, cooked it slowly and served it up with a thick tomato sugo.”

The best place to eat oxtails used to be the Thespian Sora Lella on the Isola Tiberina. The famous Lella died three years ago, and the restaurant was all shut up last month. We had no budget for that sort of establishment anyhow, but we did remarkably well considering. It is still possible to eat well for under €20 in Rome, and that includes wine.

In the morning I went out to fetch sticky buns and bombe (doughnuts) from a café in the via Benedetta. A scruffy little bar downstairs provided me with coffee. We didn’t eat much in the way of lunch – just a snack in a bar where it was possible to obtain that other Roman standby: fried food (fritti). Some people claim fish and chips came to London from Rome, and it is certainly possible to find delicious little bits of fried cod in batter in bars, as well as other things such as deep fried courgette flowers (fiore di zucche) or supli rice balls. It was coming up to the time of the deep-fried artichokes which are associated with the old Jewish quarter on the other side of the Isola Tiberina from Trastevere.

The following places were all a stone’s throw from our B&B in the via della Scala:

The Taverna della Scala was recommended by the owner of the B&B. The restaurant is on the pretty piazza with its church, but is very touristy. Two of us had a four-course menu at €15 – a modest antipasto of a crostino with tomatoes and basil, a primo – in my case penne all’ arrabiata – ‘the angry woman’ I associate with Rome – meatballs (polpette) with tomato sauce and some crème caramel. The wine list was extensive and expensive, but drinkable red house wine was only €12 a litre. Eating à la carte is much dearer with secondi averaging out at €15 and more.

The Ristorante Carlo Menta was a huge surprise. It is on the busy via della Lungaretta and with its menu at €13 and prices as low as €5 for a primo or secondo it looked suspiciously cheap; and yet it was full of Italians and had a real homely feel about it very largely generated by our waiter, an elderly fellow with a moustache, a firm control of everything that took place around him and considerable charm. I had the Roman speciality of spaghetti cacio e pepe which uses pecorino and lots of black pepper and then a rather rubbery scallopina alla valtellina. There was a passable Montepulciano d’Abruzzo for €10. The Roman red novello had come off the menu in December. No one seemed to have any Roman wines, not even frascati. The meal for three came to a very reasonable €47.50.

The Casetta di Trastevere in the piazza de’ Renzi was possible the most disappointing place we went to. It lacked the intimacy of the others and sported a silly Turner-Prize-like installation of a washing line with underwear hanging off it. We sat at a table with a couple from Manchester who were on honeymoon (not their first in either case) and the woman talked loudly about her daughter’s lavatorial habits. They spoke a fair bit about us too apparently. It appears we were the sort of people who drove a ‘four-four’. Once the ‘four-four’ was explained to me I was quite flattered. I have never learned to ride a bicycle, let alone drive a car. If I had one it would probably be a second-hand 2CV and not one of those expensive tanks Americans call ‘gas-guzzlers’. What it is to talk posh! Once in Prague an angry East German told me that I had to pay inflated prices for my drinks – ‘weil du stinkst Geld!’ Despite the cruel vicissitudes of my later life, apparently the stench of money has yet to wear off.

The food was not bad. I had some decent lasagna and a classic ‘saltimbocca all Romana’ (veal plated with ham and sage). Some fritti arrived at the table for the others, not only fiori di zucca but deep-fried mozzarella ‘in carrozza’. There was good-value Cannonau di Sardegna for €12.

We went to La Casetta because we couldn’t get into the Trattoria da Augusto across the street. This place has been written up so many times and in so many lands that there is a queue outside it half an hour before it opens for dinner at 8.00 pm. We had better luck the following evening, standing in a queue in the rain behind Italians, Danes and Germans. Later we were joined at our table by enthusiastic French people.

Despite fame and antiquity (1954), Da Augusto was the second cheapest (€52). I had some stracciatella soup with eggs and cheese and a marvelous little dish of rabbit alla cacciatore (just a hint of chili). There was very good boiled beef and an artichoke done to death so you could scoff the whole thing. My son wolfed down a pine nut tart so quickly I did not get the chance to taste it, but it looked very good. One French couple ate some substantial bean soup and tripe. Both looked extremely good and filling, but we missed a trick by not ordering pasta, which is clearly made fresh daily. There is a proper atmosphere to Da Augusto, unlike the Casetta across the road. The wine list amounts to all of four bottles. We had a litre of house red for €8.

Finally I must mention the Cantina dei Papi across the road from our bolthole, which drew us in for a snack because the hams and cheeses looked so good and the presentation was so stylish overall. They cut us some lovely Tuscan ham from the bone and we drank some half-way decent sangiovese too. I would certainly go back if fate takes me to Rome again. It proved a useful shelter from the rain as well, which was coming down in buckets by then and had been enhanced by an ice-cold tramontana wind. All promise of spring had disappeared. Thirty-six hours after we left, Rome was covered in a thick pall of snow.

About the author

Giles MacDonogh

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