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History of Food

Italian Food and Cooking

The Culinary History of Food and Cooking in the Lazio Region and it’s main city, Rome

Authentic recipes from Rome

Quando a Roma vai, fa come vedrai  (When in Rome, do as the Romans do)

“All roads lead to Rome,” and the Eternal City dominates the region of Lazio. When we think of Roman food and cooking, we conjure movie visions of Roman feasts, of sybarites lying on their sides plucking grapes.    If we trust those cinematic spectacles, Roman cooking would be defined as orgiastic banquets, garish in their ostentation. The movies are not totally misrepresenting Rome in the days of the Empire. There were Romans so dedicated to a culinary form of conspicuous consumption that they plucked peacocks and flamingos, cooked the featherless birds, then dressed them in those very plumes.  These flamboyant Romans belonged to a very small, albeit very wealthy, group of people.  Then what is real Roman food?  What is the Roman cooking of the people?  While the rich devoted themselves to the fine art of feathers, the average Roman was cooking in poverty.   It is this cuisine from which the best Roman cooking, and the style of cooking developed.The real cooking of Rome, that of the common man, ‘la cucina povera (poor kitchen) was established out of necessity as simple cooking, but the fruits and vegetables growing in and around Rome allowed for simplicity.  There was no need to hide or disguise the vibrant ingredients. The poor Roman, living in cramped quarters that threatened flames, often ate in the streets, which later transformed into eating out while seated, and the great trattorias and osterias of Rome burgeoned. These were small family-run restaurants that served perfectly cooked, but simple dishes.  These home cooks set the tone, not only for Roman cooking, but also for Roman hospitality. Rome and its environs were primarily pastoral and agricultural.  Shepherds with their flocks frequented the byways of Roman streets, making lamb integral to Roman cooking.  The milk from these lambs produced the sweetest ricotta and pecorino cheese.  (Pecorino was and is used both fresh and matured.) The fertile volcanic soil in the hills that surround Rome produced vegetables whose savor could not (and can not) be equaled and needed no lavish sauce to disguise the taste. This was simple cooking, and like the simplest string of notes in a Mozart piano sonata, there was no place to hide. Freshness became the first rule of Roman cooking.  Since the early days of Rome, the Romans have demanded that their produce be fresh, fresh, fresh and that cooking not hide the taste. After the fall of the hedonistic empire, Rome had few wealthy people who could afford self-indulgence, and feathered masterpieces fell from popularity.  Rome was poor and the cooking reflected poverty, but there was never a lack of imagination in cooking, and there was always a source of foodstuffs. In the early days of Rome, the then-unpolluted Tiber teemed with fish, and home gardens were a popular source of fresh Roman food.  Rome had many streams running through the city, some of which overflowed, but which made green spaces possible.  (The celery and artichokes grown near the Fontana di Trevi were famous!)  Feathers fell from relevance, but those luscious home-grown vegetables have continued to be a distinguishing mark of the attitude to food:  Romans did and do insist on fresh and delicious vegetables, their good fortune being the produce that grew in the mineral-rich, alluvial soil. To anyone who has tasted Roman food, those vegetables can hardly be called poor, and are among the tastiest in the world. It should be noted that before Columbus made his voyage to the Americas, there were no tomatoes, no potatoes, no corn, no chocolate.  These were gifts from the New World, ones that that Italy would clutch so close to its heart that tomato sauce would be identified more with Italy than any country in the New World.
 Food and Cooking in Rome in the Early Days of the PapacyRome suffered centuries of decline after the fall of the Roman Empire. Not unlike other European cities, Rome was subject to plagues (bubonic plague, typhus, dysentery, malaria). The Tiber overflowed its banks, destroying whole quarters of the city and breeding illness. In 1527 Rome was attacked (the Sack of Rome), a siege that saw wholesale carnage, rape and torture, as well as massive destruction of property – Churches, monasteries, the palaces of the lofty. The city was crumbling.  One Spanish pilgrim, describing the Rome of the day, stated that, “There are parts within the [crumbling] walls which look like thick wood, and wild beasts, hares, foxes, deer and even so it is said porcupines, breed in the walls.” At this time cows wandered, grazing through the ancient forums while sheep roamed over several of the hills. The Palatine hill was covered with vineyards and the Circus Maximus was a market garden.The early popes, more given to political guile than mysticism, were frequently more corrupt than the laity they ruled. Rule is the correct word, for the early popes had secular power as well as spiritual power, and, not only the pope himself, but the cardinals, ranked in the highest echelons of society. Both popes and cardinals were noted for their lavish banquets, the papal meals often served on gold and silver dishes. The finest cuts of meats went to the papal banquets while the poor Romans contented themselves with the innards of the slain animals. We know that the popes did not relinquish their lavish ways easily, for as late as 1480 one such banquet, that of Cardinal Pietro Riario was described as “featuring a whole roasted bear holding a staff in its jaws, stags reconstructed in their skins, herons and peacocks in their feathers, and orgiastic behavior by the guests appropriate to the Roman model.”That food was so important to the popes is illustrated by the fact that the first cookbook on Roman cooking since the early days of the empire when Apicius recorded his recipes, was written by the librarian of the Vatican, Bartolomeo Sacchi.  His book was titled Platine de Honesta Voluptate, giving Sacchi the perennial nickname, Platina.Though less than exemplary in their own morals, the establishment of the papacy in Rome (1376) attracted pilgrims, and Rome became a city of taverns, inns, osterias. 
The Essence of Roman Food and CookingRoman food and cooking reflects the Roman personality. Luxury-loving, life-loving, food-loving, the Roman temperament is earthy and emotional.  It should be noted that when Romans raise their voices to decibel levels that startle more restrained temperaments, the Romans are having fun: Romans enjoy all their emotions and the dramas they create.  They express their passions in life, in cooking and in eating. In Rome cooking is a pleasure and eating is a lusty affair.  The Romans love pepper and bold spices.  Mint is among their favorite tastes.   The great wines of the region, such as Frascati and Castelli Romani, have always been part of the cucina Romana.The region in which Rome dominates is the Lazio region of Italy.  This area encompasses the northern areas of Viterbo province, known for its use of olive oil, for its production of Sambuca and the famous wine Est! Est! Est!.  From the Sabine mountains come cured pork products such a mortadella .  The region has vineyards and olive groves.  Frosinone is a pastoral area given to meats and hams, olive oil, white and black truffles, mushrooms, cheese, cured meats and prosciutto. The Romans make good use of these products, though traditionally they have been produced outside the city walls.Within the Province of Rome are the Castelli Romani (Roman castles).    Located in the Alban Hills, the castles are Frascati, Genzano, Velletri, and Castel Gandolfo which is the summer home to the Pope.  This area has traditionally been the getaway area for Romans and they have been known to call strikes that shut down the city while they escape to this countryside area.  Lake Nemi is located here.  The ancient Romans called this Diana’s mirror and would hunt deer.  The strawberries from Lake Nemi are said to be the best. In the overlapping of the Italian culture and geographic boundaries, the Etruscans played a great part in developing foods.  An ancient people living in Norcia (Umbria) long before the founding of Rome, they domesticated wild boar. Norcini are Rome’s pork butchers from Umbria, and they hold a special status in the sales of the finest cured meats.  From the norcini, comes the finest guanciale and pancetta and other pork products.  Today in Rome, there are centuries-old norcinerias, still esteemed for quality.What foods do the Romans use?   Among Roman foods you will find artichokes, asparagus, fava beans, peas, zucchine, mint and rosemary. From pastoral Rome there is a love for abbachio, tender baby lamb,  and agnello, lamb aged up to one year.  There is great use of veal, of oxtail and of the innards of animals, though these have fallen out of favor. From sheep milk come ricotta and pecorino cheese.   Many are startled to learn of strutto or lard which was used before olive oil dominated. Jewish Peoples in Rome
Jews have been in Rome longer than Christians.  The first to arrive were a group sent as a delegation to make a treaty between Judea and Rome.  Attracted to the magic of Rome, many settled, and the section on the Tiber known as Trastevere became the Jewish area.   Through the centuries, more arrived, driven by bias and by natural forces, such as the black death, but the large wave of immigrants, the Sephardim, arrived after 1492.  These were the peoples expelled from Spain (and from Sicily which was then under Spanish control) when the Spanish took full control of the southern area of Spain (Andalusia).  Immigration was so high that Pope Clement Vii received appeals to settle disputes between ‘Italian’ Jews and the ultramontane newcomers.  While most Jewish peoples are considered either Sephardic or Ashkenazi, the Italian Jews are called Italkim.In Rome, as elsewhere, the Jews were forced to live in their own quarters.  This was a low-lying area of the city and subject to flooding. The cooking of the Jews was simple and evolved from inexpensive ingredients.  The dishes marked as ebraica or alla giudia indicate Jewish origin.  The most famous of these, of course, is carciofi all giudia.  Frying was the most popular method for cooking among the Jewish peoples.  Fish was readily available from a fish market housed in the ghetto, and fish dishes were popular.   Lamb was available and readily used during the Passover celebrations which required symbolic lamb.  Because of the isolation of the Jews and their adherence to kosher laws, their cooking remained among the purest in Rome.continue to: roman foods and ingredients  
classic roman dishes  
  the satyricon – ancient roman indulgences  
“the blessing of the house” – easter in rome 

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