It’s no secret that Vid and I cherish (and live for!) experiences. Experiences make travelling special for us. Just last month, I wrote a comprehensive article about 10 of our favourite travel moments – unsurprisingly it is a compilation of different kinds of experiences – adventurous, romantic, culinary, and picturesque!
Travel is rarely about the Eiffels and the Colosseums of the world – it’s always about meeting new people of the road, tasting little-known delicacies, stumbling on dilapidated ruins, or discovering a hidden beach. The experiential aspect of travel is what makes it exciting and unnerving all at once.
Travel giant Contiki’s latest video highlights exactly this aspect of travel and I love it. It’s good to see the notion of travelling changing in mainstream media slowly but surely. Take a look, THIS is exactly what the two of us love about travelling :-
The video is right – Rome is a magical city, one like no other. But it’s not the Colosseum or the Trevi Fountain that make it special. It’s the alleys and the food. To say I’m passionate about the finer nuances of Italian food would be an understatement – I love Italian delicacies. Read on to find out how a short weekend in Rome changed my perception of Italian food forever and ever…..
I will always remember biting into my first Frappe. All my life, I had associated the word with a bland ice-blended coffee but this changed one chilly morning in Rome. Frappe is a rectangular pastry made during Carneval season (February-March) in Italy. Strips of dough, made with flour, sugar, and butter, are deep fried in olive oil till they are crisp. Once cold, these rectangular fritters are dusted with powdered sugar, which settles into the crevices of the pastries like fairy-dust. One bite and the dainty pastry crumbled into dozens of exquisite fragments inside my mouth. I caught myself wondering why I hadn’t tasted this work of art at a rustic Biscottificio (biscuit factory), tucked into a tiny by-lane of Rome, before!
This wasn’t my first time in Rome – in fact it was my fifth time in the city of gladiators. I had spent my first four trips exploring The Colosseum, Palantine Hill, and The Roman Forum, walking around The Spanish Steps, and tossing coins at The Trevi Fountain. But for a traveller like me, who thrives on experiential travel, such attractions lose their allure rather quickly. It is easy to feel jaded by the crowds that throng the Roman Forum, staged proposals at The Trevi Fountain, and faux gladiators at the Colosseum. Monuments might be fascinating but only experiences have the power to be truly seductive.
On this visit, I wanted to understand the city of Rome and its inimitable culture. I decided to indulge my finer senses and partake in a culinary odyssey with a small company which conducts offbeat food tours in Rome. I spent three days exploring Rome’s hippest neighbourhood Trastevere and its working class quarter Testaccio.
We started with Carciofi Alla Giudia, a Jewish-style fried artichoke, at a small restaurant in Trastevere. From the moment the golden-brown floret was placed in front of me, I knew this was going to be fun. I spent a long time mulling over its intricate leaves and edible stem before savouring the nutty flavour of the crisp ‘petals’ and the soft earthiness of the heart.
Within minutes I found myself at the next stop on the tour – an underground wine cellar with a façade laden with ivy. Our group huddled into the dark cellar at Spirito DeVino. I couldn’t help running my fingers along the hundreds of bottles of wine that lined the walls of the cellar. The air was rife with dampness and the anticipation of a feast. As I turned, I spied a circular table laden with Roman delicacies in the dimly lit cellar. I inhaled the aroma of slow-cooked Italian food with half-closed eyes as our bilingual guide enlightened us about the importance of pairing the right wines with the flavourful lentil soup, Roman-style meat balls, and the rich pecorino cheese on offer. I spent the better part of an hour luxuriating in all the flavours at hand. The creaminess of the cheese, fullness of the red wine, and subtle tanginess of the meatballs caused an explosion of flavours on my tongue.
This exploration of flavours continued as I tried my hand at making Bruschetta the next day. Italians’ infamous hand gestures aren’t restricted to conversations; they love using them to conjure delectable food. A fifth-generation vegetable vendor, in a quaint Roman market, taught me how to use my hands to toss handsome tomatoes, crunchy basil, extra virgin olive oil, and coarse sea-salt to create the perfect topping for thick slices of crusty Italian bread. I must admit there is something rather seductive about tossing a basic mixture with your bare hands and producing something so memorable. As I bit into the Bruschetta I had just put together from scratch, I realised the allure of simple food. It might be easy to count the number of ingredients used in most Italian dishes on the fingers of one’s hands, but is the quality of those ingredients that makes Italian cuisine irresistible.
This struck me as I feasted on two basic kinds of pasta- Spaghetti Alla Carbonara with egg, parsley, black pepper, and pancetta ham and Bucatini All’amatriciana with tomato, black pepper and cured pork belly. Both pastas were cooked to a perfect al-dente consistency and surmounted with generous shavings of Pecorino Romano cheese – dead simple but tastier than any pasta I’d ever had! You will forgive me for resorting to hyperbole once you have tasted classic Roman delicacies at Flavio Velavevodetto, sequestered in a quiet area of Rome. Their dishes delivered an intense savoury warmth that I found hard to forget.
But the real stars of this show were the shop owners. I met an 83-year-old Italian gentleman who has been making pizzas for over 69 years. Word on the street has it that he retired at 65, passing on the reigns of his business to his son. But he was unable to let go. Within days, he was back at the establishment, doing what he does best – making pizzas. When I saw him, he was tossing sacks of flour with the verve of a sixteen year old. He insisted on teaching me the art of rolling the perfect pizza base. The resultant Pizza Margherita was bursting with stringy mozzarella cheese and punchy tomatoes – tantalising and warming all at once.
These adjectives can also be used to describe Lina and Enzo’s relationship, cheese purveyors who own a tiny stall in Testaccio’s fruit and vegetable market. They have been married for over 40 years and work with each other every single day. Their constant squabbles and grins are a source of amusement for their customers. Lina and Enzo pride themselves on the quality of their Bufala (fresh buffalo mozzarella cheese). Sure enough, their quivering mozzarella cheese, which luxuriates in a bath of whey till it is sold to customers, is unspeakably delicious.
I wound my culinary adventure with gossamer scoops of velvety gelato. At the end of the three days, my head was swirling with sublime images of rich olive oil, crusty breads, fresh herbs, fragrant spices, decadent truffles, indulgent cheeses, and sensual Roman food. I’ve always found that epicurean experiences help me assimilate the local culture of a new place. My culinary pilgrimage in Rome was no different. It was an adventure that warmed the very cockles of my heart. I don’t know if it was the accompanying glasses of Prosecco and wine or walking through hidden Roman alleys with ochre sunlight peeking through buildings as old as time, but the entire experience left me drunk with joy.
Are you a foodie? Then you NEED to visit this corner of Italy for the eats 🙂
Want to know what I packed for Italy? Check out this post on bohemian summer fashion