But most often about food. When I market, which is daily when I am in Rome, I go out with no ideas. I soak in conversations — and recipes, and ideas — as I meander slowly up and down Via Nicolini and the 42 market stalls that are there. Of course I am looking all the time — noting that finally the local romaneschi artichokes are in (“Paola, will you clean me six of those lovely artichokes” ?) or that Carla has today cleaned her puntarelle particularly well (“200 grams of puntarelle please Carla”)…
small and particularly fresh (“one kilo thanks, Vincenzo”).
Today however, what I was most taken by was a conversation ongoing at the third stall on the right, after the fish monger.
“Non la digerisco” (I do not digest it”). An elderly lady, with a small poodle on a red lead, straining to get at a pigeon, was deep in conversation with the Sisters. The Sisters are two affable, very plump ladies, who work with their truly ancient mother and one of their husbands. The mother sits on a rickety chair behind the stall and de-roots and slices vegetables, dropping them into a large wicker basket, which is then whisked to the front of the stall and put on sale. Everyone was concentrating on the problem at hand.
“Finocchio” (fennel), suggested one sister. Raw fennel to be eaten at the beginning of the meal would help with digestion (I unfortunately did not catch the reference to what was not digestible.)
“Cook it for a shorter time, and then sauté it with spring onions, the sweet ones. No parsley”.
“Cook it for 40 minutes, with lid on, and then take the lid off, and let it sit. That is what my mother does and we all digest it very well”.
“It is very difficult to digest in the hot weather, but in the cold weather it is easier. You must be very careful not to drink much water when you eat it.”
“Have you tried preparing it with some peperoncino (chile peppers) ? They tend to stimulate the digestion”.
And on and on the conversation went. When I came back to the stall, after going all the way down to the other end of the market, the talk was still ongoing. The poodle had sat down. The pigeon had flown away. The elderly lady was holding a fennel, some spring onions, a bottle of wine with a bottle cap (homemade by the husband) and a bunch of peperoncino.
Once again I marveled at the marvelous country that is Italy, and how the world slows down when food is involved.
In late December I was at a lunch party with 11 friends, all Romans. Talk was animated and varied and jocular. We sat down at a sunny long table. The pasta arrived, steaming and fragrant. Conversation — precipitously — dwindled. The hostess served the fettuccine, golden ribbons steaming in the winter sun as the pasta was raised from the serving bowl. The friends remarked on the fragrance, the appearance, past experiences with this same dish, but using few words. Their eyes never left the pasta. Soon talk ceased entirely. Wordlessly, we all dipped into our primo piatto. A few seconds of silence. Then everyone had a remark to make, a praise, a comment, a reaction to share. Even the quietest among us had things to say. And slowly, as the second and third bites were twirled, and we reached for the bread, the parmesan and our wine glasses, animated conversation began once again, swelling to the high volume levels that always accompany these friends’ lunches.
One of the principal delights of visiting Italy is that food — and the experience of enjoyment at the table — is central to life. The enjoyment of food is central to me too.
Food cannot be other than central to the Travel Plans I write for you.