Tag Archives: Roma

Pass the dolci

Italians love their dolci: sweets, desserts, ice cream and pastries, or pasticceria. I always assumed the French had the last word on patisserie, but living in Rome, I’m not so sure any more. In Monteverde Vecchio, our neighbourhood, indeed within about 100 metres of our flat, there are at least three pasticcerie (as I understand it, the word can mean the outlet, the trade and the product), as well as a bakery/tavolo caldo (“hot table” – meaning then sell hot snacks) that also does pasticceria. Two of these places, and another one just down the hill on Viale Trastevere, have counters around 4-5 metres long utterly packed with biscuits, pastries, chocolates and sweeties that you buy by weight. And none of them are chains.

That’s one thing I love about Italy – it’s got an incredibly strong business culture of independents, of SMEs (small-medium sized enterprises). As well as all the independent pasticceria, which are also cafés, there are umpteen independent cafés, which also sell pasticceria. Although I’m an oddity in this culture for my dislike of coffee, I’m more than happy to frequent these places and indulge in pastries and, as it’s the winter (hey, there was a frost last night), I can get away with drinking lots of the cioccolata calda without breaching too much strict Italian food and drink etiquette. Well, I say “drinking” but it’s frequently half-way to eating as Italian hot chocolate is generally thickened with cornflour, making it a thick, gloopy thing that’s almost like a hot chocolate mousse.

My current obsession is for castagnole and frappe, which started appearing in the pasticcerie shortly after Christmas, specifically at Epiphany; that’s 6 January for heathens. These are seasonal sweet treats for carnevale – carnival or Mardi Gras season. The Christian tradition is that Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, aka Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, is the day when you use up all your rich food products, fats and sugars to initiate Lent, the period of abstemiousness that leads up to Easter. While us Brits, and others, might have a pancake blow-out on just one day, here in Italy it looks like we’re getting weeks of the aforementioned treats.

So, castagnole are small, deep-fried dough balls, a bit like doughnuts, but the dough isn’t leavened with yeast, but with chemical raising agents, ie baking powder or equivalent, according to both the ingredients taped up on the counter at Pasticceria Dolci Desideri (“Sweets you want”!; our local, on Via Anton G Barrili) and the recipe on this blog. The word presumably relates to castagna – chestnut – though they have no chestnut flavouring. Instead you can get them semplice (plain) or filled with crema (custard) or ricotta. Frappe, meanwhile, are basically thin rectangles of crisp, slightly puffy pastry, like a sweetened pasta, baked or deep-fried, and sprinkled with icing sugar, or sometimes flavoured with honey. The name itself (singular: frappa) is a bit confusing, as the similar word frappé means shake, or milkshake.

According to the above-mentioned blog, they’re also known as cenci (the plural of cencio, rag – not very appetising), stracci (shreds; stracciare is the verb to tear or rip up) and lattughe (lettuce) in other parts of Italy. We’ve been treating ourselves to castagnole and frappe, well, pretty much every day this week. It can’t go on, for obvious reasons, but not only are they delicious, there’s just something inherently lovely about going to a pasticceria and getting some treats wrapped up like a gift (eco concerns about over-packaging notwithstanding.) Really, Brits have a long way to go to make the patisserie experience as charming as this. Sure we have some wonderful independent bakeries these days, but their patisserie can still seem meagre by comparison, even if they have an array of poncy cupcakes. And for people who still don’t even have access to real bakeries, some foul mass-produced “Toffee Flavour Yum Yum” from “Greggs The Home of Fresh Baking” [sic] just doesn’t cut it.

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Filed under Baking, Food misc, Main thread, Rome

Lewes to Rome in seven stages

After three or so years of deliberating, my wife Fran and I decided to move out of London to Lewes, in sunny East Sussex. Then,  would you Adam and Eve it, Fran was offered a job – a dream job – in Italy. As Fran had always said she wanted to live and work in one of Europe’s other grand capitals, ideally Paris or Rome, I could hardly quash her aspirations.

So three months after moving to Lewes – three months of frantic DIY, fantastic walks on the South Downs, and pleasant socialising  – we were off to Rome. Rather than trying to take a couple of hefty bags of our worldly possessions on a low-rent, high-discomfort, feisty surcharge airline, we opted to go by train. Both of us prefer train travel where possible, and we both enjoy sleeper trains. On our honeymoon we went to Verona on the sleeper, and were even lucky enough to score a return journey on the legendary Orient Express (one of the finest coups of my journalistic career).

The standard sleeper isn’t a patch on the Orient Express of course, but it’s still a delight compared to air travel, particularly for larger people with personal space issues who can only ever afford to fly cattle class, ie people like me. The prime appeal of a sleeper train is getting a cabin – all yours, room to stretch your legs, room for your luggage,  and a locked door. Space and privacy just isn’t an option with aviation.

Of course, the reality of this kind of travel inevitably puts romantic notions to the test; particularly when you’ve seven long stages between a front door in Lewes and a rented flat in Rome. And particularly when, despite you telling your wife for long weeks that her practice packing should bear in mind the weight of her luggage, said wife ends up with heftier luggage than she can really manage. Resulting in sensible husband having to take some of the clobber in his (marginally more) sensibly packed luggage. We had a wheelie bag and a rucksack each, and I suspect the total weight was about 70kg. Fine and dandy once you’re ensconced in that lovely little sleeper, but not so hot when you’ve got a taxi to Lewes station, a busy commuter train to London Victoria, a black cab ride to St Pancras International, a Eurostar to Gare du Nord, a cab ride to Paris Gare de Bercy. Then the sleeper train…

… which was, in familiar UK-style, delayed. Not what we expected of French/Italian rail services! Outrageous. But the coup de grace was quite possibly the fact that our sleeper train, the Artesia ‘Palatino’, had a broken door for our coach, meaning we had to wrench our bastard baggage through the adjacent coach.

And yet. And yet, once we were in that cabin, and the steward welcomed us, and another steward came to ask what sitting we wanted for the restaurant coach, we were happy travellers. Or happy emigrants even.

On a side note, we didn’t sample the restaurant car as you can’t lock the cabin doors from the corridor on this particular train; there’s only an interior night lock – a shame for those lugging around sundry valuables, but more sensible travellers with manageable, lockable luggage may be unperturbed. So, instead, we picnicked on Sussex salami and Sussex cheese, crackers and two apples from a young apple tree we’d planted in the garden of our house in Lewes (it was a wedding present from a few years ago; variety ‘Scrumptious’; they were).

For those more interested in all the details of the Artesia ‘Palatino’, the cabin itself was lovely. I think it was fitted out (or re-fitted) in the late 90s, but it was in good condition, with a nifty little corner sink, replete with fresh towels, soap, a toothbrush, disposable loo seat covers and whatnot. As for the loos themselves – often the most dreadful factor of any journey – the ‘Palatino’ seemed to have four in each coach. Two were knackered. Investment in these trains seems to be dwindling, which is understandable in this era of global economic, meltdown, when, I believe, they’re still state-run, but it’s a real shame none-the-less, as it’s a gorgeous way to travel, Europe drifting by outside your private picture window before you’re lulled to sleep by the rattling rhythms.

On the matter of sleeping, the steward turns your couch into bunks, and makes them up with fresh sheets. Our cabin has fabric bunks which also made for a better night’s sleep than when we travelled Bercy to Verona (on Artesia ‘Stendahl’, which terminates at Venice), where our bunks had a plastic style mattress – unexpectedly slippery when cruising round the many corners of central Europe by night.

That’s quite a long enough post, but on the off-chance someone stumble across this looking for practicalities, here’s the English language site. (EDIT 2013: not any more – that service is defunct, replaced by Thello.) And remember – travelling light is a lot easier!

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Filed under Main thread, Rome