I had a somewhat bizarre experience at Rome’s Testaccio market once. The old Testaccio market, that is, the one that was razed to the ground a couple of years ago. An appointment had been made for me to meet a representative of a very reputable company dealing in high-end tours in Rome to discuss, or so I had presumed, the possibility of my being taken into consideration as an Italian culinary coach for them. We shook hands and began chatting most charmingly (about the weather, if you must know), as one days to break the ice. And then, without any explanatory preamble, I was invited to join a tour of the market led by Maureen Fant, the deservedly famous Rome-based historian, food writer, teacher and translator for the benefit of a very engaging lady by the name of Marjorie Shaw. Marjorie and her husband, I found out, ran http://www.insidersitaly.com – easily at the helm now of my favourite Italy-bound travel planners.
To my dismay, I realised that Maureen (www.maureenbfant.com) was in actual fact in the midst of “working”. I had expected an informal interview of sorts, not a tour, and for a minute I was just dumbfounded, I didn’t know how to edge my way out of this pickle. I didn’t want to disturb Maureen, that stood to reason and plain common-sense courtesy but, at the same time, I didn’t want people to think I was indulging in a spot of industrial espionage as it were, since she and I are in the same line of business. There was no way for me to voice my awkwardness in this situation. All I could do was nonchalantly tag along, butter not melting in my mouth, as Maureen went her way pointing out, describing, analysing, categorising, critiquing, illuminating and praising. I was very chuffed to see that her approach was similar to mine with my own clients. She too, for instance, introduced Marjorie to Carmelo d’Agostino who ran a stall selling tomatoes and tomatoes only, many varieties of … and who liked to style himself as the Poeta dei Pomodori, i.e. the Poet of Tomatoes (his high price, all the tomatoes cost the same, was also subject to witty commentary). Well, how could one not? He was a star attraction of the market, as was the seasoned, larger-than-life fish vendor who wasn’t shy about telling people he was the spitting image of a famous Hollywood actor of yore, and even had a black-and-white photo of the actor pinned to his stall. Neither of the two made it to the new market, but that’s another story.
Towards the end of Maureen’s market tour, the person who had greeted me initially told us she had to go now, and so I didn’t get a chance to find out from her why things had turned out the way they had … but by now I was going with the flow and feeling less uncomfortable and pretending this was all hunky dory ‘normal’. Marjorie too then left and I ended up giving Maureen a lift home. And that was that. We chatted amiably enough and exchanged opinions on food and cooking and I don’t know what she made of me since, bless her, I don’t think she knew why I was part of the tour either. I never did get to the bottom of the company’s organization of a “non-interview”, and I just chalk up the experience to a “strange day in the life of an Italian home cooking coach”.
The reason I bring this incident up is that at one point Maureen, who is a mine of information anyway, said something very interesting. And that was …. that, to her mind, the colder seasons in Italy had much more to offer as vegetable varieties went than did those of a summery disposition. Summer veggies being basically ‘only’ salad, tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes and string beans. I had never thought about it, and I agreed with her. Maureen is of course a staunch believer of eating in season.
I thought about Maureen about a month ago when I was at the Testaccio market, doing a bit of shopping this time, and espied some exceedingly out-of-season courgettes (zucchine). I don’t know whether it was Winter ennui or just plain childish hankering after what’s not allowed … but I suddently developed an unstoppable craving for courgettes. “Maureen would not approve”, I said to myself guiltily as I hesitated before handing over the money to the vendor. “Always remember what your mother-in-law says!” admonished the inner child in me. “Lord save us from the Virtuous!”. Weak as water, I caved in. I took her advice and very uncharacteristically, for me, bought me some courgettes in March. Naughty!
Before I proceed with the recipe, I have to come out and say it straight away. Maureen would have been right. The courgettes were nothing like they should have tasted, Bland and almost ‘woody’-hard despite their good looks. On the other hand, I got to try out a recipe that I think will be a big hit this summer. I got it out of a book by Allan Bay whose name escapes me now, as does the book itself (where on earth did I put it?). When I find the book, I’ll furnish the title and page number. Now, however, on with the recipe. And yes … no cheating … wait until June before you try it out!
Since I can’t find the book, I’ll have to guesstimate the order of the ingredients. I see sugar, anchovy fillets, some garlic, pine kernels and raising soaking in water. The teensy coffee cup contains some red wine vinegar. Olive oil and some black peppercorns (they are NOT mouse droppings) … Cut and trim the courgettes … Chop up the anchovy fillets … Add some garlic to the oil and turn the heat on … Now add the courgettes, the raisins and the sugar … And last, add the anchovies.The finishing touch are the vinegar and some salt. Use a wooden spoon to mix well. Taste. Taste again. Add more salt or more vinegar … or even more sugar. It has to taste nice already. Cover with a lid and cook over a low heat for about 10-15 minutes. This will depend on the courgettes, of course. Harder courgettes (wrong time of year) will take longer to cook through. Meanwhile toast the pine kernels … When the courgettes are cooked through and tender, add the pine kernels. Allow to cool before serving. In fact, the re-a-lly (really is a three-syllable word and deseves a three-syllable gravitas on occasion), the really clever thing to do is to eat this dish the following day. Aha! At room temperature. With some fresh mint or basil leaves. What do you think? And, remember, ONLY when courgettes (zucchine) are in season. Don’t be like yours truly.