Food: The Other Legacy of Eternal Rome

Spend time immersed in Italian culture and learn about some of the culinary delights served in traditional Italian food as author Alicia Simcox recounts a day spent exploring a Roman market.

| Spring 2015

Shored in by the Tyrrhenian Sea to the west, and cradled by the Apennine foothills to the east, Rome has been called the center of the world. It is not hard to imagine why. Historically the seat of one of the greatest empires that ever existed, Rome still to this day retains its culture; a heritage that is the fruit of millennia.

Rome is a city that owes its majesty to not only magnanimous rulers dating all the way back to Emperors and Popes, but also to its location. With the provinces of Viterbo and Rieti to the north, and Latina and Frosinone in the south, the terrain around Rome offers a very rich diversity of landscapes. There are mountains, hills, valleys and rivers; each creating its own unique environment. In these micro-habitats luxuriate crops of all sorts. Vineyards grace the lower hills and fields; chestnuts, orchard fruits, berry bushes and forests are found higher into the mountains. In the flat plains that flank the sea, farmers tend everything from "finocchio" (fennel), to artichokes, to melons, to corn. In these varied realms farmers also raise a plethora of livestock; cows and water buffalo, swine and sheep; fowl, including partridges and peacocks; and even fish, including trout and catfish. Because of this diversity, it is easy to see how Romans have derived much of their refined culinary habits: The rustic life is literally at Rome’s gates! Farmers and the tenders of the earth using simple ingredients were and are the ones who influence the food ways of city denizens to this day.

Romans have been documenting their agricultural heritage for a long time. One of the most famous of these chroniclers was Marcus Cato, who lived from about 243 B.C. to 149 B.C. Cato wrote a treatise on farming called “De Re Agricultura” that laid out a floor map for would-be farmers some 22 centuries ago. Cato outlined in his work advice for city dwellers to start farming. Topics included the selection of a farm; how to grow trees, fruits and vegetables; and how to be profitable. Some must have read it … the commerce that Cato spoke of still is out on the streets and squares of Rome more than 2,000 years later.

It is 7 a.m. and I am up and already walking the narrow cobblestone streets leading to the famous Campo de Fiori market. “Campo de Fiori" means “field of flowers,” and is a marvelous place. As I arrive, the square is full of the hustle and bustle of the morning produce folk. The whole side to my left looks like a colorful rainbow; roses, lilies, peonies, gladiolas and sunflowers all seem to beg for attention from the passersby. I love the flowers, but the real reason I was drawn here is the food! This is arguably the best place in central Rome to find traditional vegetables, fruits and other foods. Because of this, Campo de Fiori is a culinary wonderland.

As I wove myself through the myriad of stalls, looking for delights, I stopped at a small stand that was surely a Ma and Pa operation and asked them what they had. The whole stand was ablaze with color; there were purple onions in baskets, hanging garlands of pink garlic braids, and fire-engine red chili peppers dangling from the center of the tent. I knew that I would find some treasures here. The woman looked up at me, a round little Italian woman who had rough hands from working the earth, and she held up one of her prized artichokes.

She was cleaning them by cutting off the exterior leaflets of the crown and trimming the stem. Artichokes are a delicacy; but unfortunately in the U.S. we do not value them as much as we should. The artichoke (Cynara cardunculus) is native to the Mediterranean and has been grown in the Italian peninsula as a crop for at least 2,500 years. Thus, Romans are very experienced in dealing with this vegetable. One of the classic Roman ways of preparing artichokes is "Carciofi alla Giudia" (Artichokes in the Jewish Style). These are artichokes prepared using an old Jewish recipe. If you go to one of the notable restaurants in the Jewish Ghetto (which is only a stone’s throw from Campo de Fiori), you can order one of these fantastic deep fried delicacies. There are a million other ways of preparing artichokes, from simple boiling, to adding it to soups, pastas, or stir-fry, but "Carciofi alla Giudia" is still one of my favorites.

mother earth news fair 2018 schedule


Next: April 28-29, 2018
Asheville, NC

Sit in on dozens of practical workshops from the leading authorities on natural health, organic gardening, real food and more!