At Easter Rome is bursting with pilgrims. They gather from across the Catholic globe and descend on the Eternal City like flocks of birds returning from their wintering grounds. Nuns cluster like crows, standing in line for the wonderful gelato, then swish down the narrow streets, rosaries jostling against cornetos.
I too visited Rome at Easter on a pilgrimage and, while my quest was corporeal it was no less spiritual, for I had come in search of the Pascal Lamb. I wanted to cook Abbachio alla Cacciatore. This dish of early spring lamb can only be prepared during a few short weeks as the lamb required is but one month old. The Italian sheep are a smaller breed to those farmed in the UK and consequently the lambs are smaller too. At their tender age, the lambs have only drunk milk. The thigh bone is no longer than that of a chicken drumstick. The meat is tender beyond description.
I discovered this dish while searching for recipes to prepare on a family holiday in Rome – as the old adage suggests, ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’. My chosen recipe was from Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, a treasure trove of Italian cuisine. She describes the dish as acelebrated Rome speciality which suggested to me that to cook it in Rome was imperative.
On the morning of our anticipated feast my family set out early for the Campo de’ Fiori where I expected to find the full list of my ingredients, as the market stalls and small shops surrounding the square sell every culinary delight one could need for a happy life. On arriving at the Campo, my young sons were immediately intent on securing football shirts before my attention was diverted. For the princely sum of 10 euros apiece they each walked off in a ‘fake’ footie shirt bearing the name of Totti, Roma’s favourite son. Their attire had a magical effect as they were soon patted on the head and smiled at by every man we passed, from the local stall owner to the guards in the Vatican! The universal language of football and the passion it evokes is atleast equal to the glories of cuisine amongst Italian men. Perhaps the food served up at the Stada di Roma is an improvement on the hotdog and chips ubiquitously sold to English football fans attending a game on home turf.
But what of the lamb? The Campo hosts a butchery stall where I explained my mission. The butcher set about chopping up the meat on tiny carcasses, not a sight for the squeamish or sentimental nor for vegetarians or the virtuous. The meat delicately wrapped in greaseproof paper and settled in my shopping bag, I set off for the Salumeria in search of salted anchovies. The Italian delicatessan is an Aladdin’s cave filled with oils, vinegars and relishes of every kind, huge hams hanging like artworks from the ceiling, tiny tins containing exotic ingredients, an exhibition of pancettas, prosciuttos and other meats, fresh pasta of every hue and flavour, pesto and parmesan wheels, an endless cornucopia of delights to bring a rush of excitement to the most jaded palate. The customers discuss their requirements with the assistants who acknowledge the importance of every purchase and handle the food courteously, each item wrapped with care. My request for salted anchovies led to a debate between two assistants as to which anchovy would be better suited to Abbachio. A third assistant asked to see my recipe which I had removed from my bag to check on whether any guidance was offered by Ms Hazan herself. He shook his head gravely and announced to my fellow customers that he had never prepared Abbachio in this way and that in his opinion the anchovies had no place in the dish. I decided to have the casting vote and soon 10 anchovies were laid out . My shopping trip gave slow food a new meaning, where every ingredient was deliberated over, the assistants presented as specialists in their field who contribute their knowledge to enhance the food that will end up later on your plate.
Although described as a dish that is slowly pot roasted, the cooking time was surprisingly short due to the tenderness of the meat. The lamb was browned in batches. Then salt, pepper, chopped garlic, rosemary and dried sage were added before the meat was dusted with flour. Once the meat had been turned and it had darkened, the vinegar was added. The recipe does not specify what sort of vinegar to use but I think that balsamic adds great value to meat and so in went more vinegar than seemed sensible. The aroma that filled the kitchen at that moment was exquisite and the gathering guests were drawn to the tiny galley to discover the source. The anchovies were mashed and added at the end of cooking, giving the sauce a salty punch. Within an hour we sat to eat on a terrace up above the city, the weather warm enough, even on an April evening, for al fresco dining. The chianti flowed and the conversation was convivial but it was the lamb that stole the show. Meltingly tender, the meat was basted in its sauce which married the sweet balsamic and salty anchovies with the garlicky back note of herbs. A simple accompaniment of fave alla romana was served. It is true that food is best enjoyed when much anticipated and I had been waiting all day. It was declared by many as the best lamb they had ever eaten and who am I to disagree? Even the football shirts proudly bore the stains of a meal well savoured.
The Abbachio grows ever more delicious in my memory as the months go by, tormenting me with the knowledge that I cannot recreate it in my own kitchen. Perhaps I too will have to make an annual Easter pilgrimage to Rome. As for the football shirts, they unravelled on their first wash and Totti will someday be sold to a rival team. In a world where everything is transient and football heroes are fickle, my sons are learning that when it comes to food, some things don’t change and old traditions can always be relied on to provide enduring pleasure.
ALL PICTURES TAKEN BY MADELEINE MORROW
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