I am teaming up with Rachel Roddy for two spring Testaccio jaunts. They are on Wednesday 18 April and Friday 25 May (booking details in links). This time it’s the season for quite the Roman-est of all spring vegetables, carciofi. Artichokes will play a big part in the day. As well, of course, as the broken pots or cocci, of Monte Testaccio. Cocci e carciofi.
Rome was famously founded on seven hills. Just outside the boundary of the most ancient incarnation of the city, beyond these hills, my geological map of the city shows a curious area of cross-hatching. A hill made not of the volcanic detritus of the seven, but of junk: a by-product of the human activity of Rome’s ancient past. This is the Monte Testaccio, or the Monte dei Cocci. Its names come respectively from “testae”, the Latin name for the pottery shards which make it up, and “cocci” the modern Roman term for the same.
By the first century, Rome had a population of over a million people. With this unprecedented population came the same practical concerns of modern cities: water supply, housing, public order, and of course what to do with the rubbish.
It was at the river port, just down river from the city proper, that imports were unloaded, and that amphorae were emptied of their wares in their millions. One of the major imports was olive oil, largely imported from Roman provinces in modern day Andalusia and Libya. Used not only in cooking, but also as fuel for lamps, and for personal hygiene, it arrived at the metropolis in vast quantities. The terracotta pots in which it was transported were disposable. This ancient landfill site is testament to Roman ingenuity, and to the practicalities which underpinned the much celebrated grandeur of the Imperial city. They had rubbish to dispose of too.
Like so much else, the area which had once had been so central to the city’s digestive system would be abandoned after the collapse of Empire. It would, once again, become essential to the city after the Unification of Italy in the late 19th century. Rome eventually fell from papal control and was decreed capital of the new Italian nation.
The new capital was seen as an opportunity to create a modern city, liberated from the shackles of its own ancien régime. Boulevards were cut through the higgledy-piggledy tangle of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance streets. Cutting edge technology was embraced, and along the river south of the city centre, where once the ancient port had been, an electric power station, a gasworks, and, at the foot of the ancient rubbish dump, a state-of-the-art abattoir were built.
Testaccio would once again feed the city. The abattoir moved to new premises in the 1970s, but the area has firmly remained at the heart of Roman cuisine, especially the quinto quarto, the “fifth quarter”, so beautifully described by Rachel Roddy in her award winning book Five Quarters (published in the USA as “My Kitchen in Rome”).
Testaccio is still home to one of the city’s finest food markets and is a fabulous place for us to explore the entrails of the city, both ancient and modern. Rachel and I shall be leading you through the modern market, visiting Rachel’s favourite stalls and learning some technical tricks on preparing every Roman’s favourite vegetable, relieving the carciofo of his carapace and thistly choke.
We shall discuss the area’s social and culinary history and wander through the former abattoir. We also have specially arranged access to the usually closed Monte Testaccio, where we shall crunch our way over the pots for a unique view of the city and a chat about what lies beneath our feet, and what they tell us about Imperial Rome.
We shall nibble on fried artichokes with a glass of something fizzy and, our appetites suitably sharpened, we will repair to a small trattoria for a slap-up lunch with a specially chosen spring menù, including (of course!) those artichokes, and for those who wish some of the offal for which Testaccio is so famous (alternatives will be available!). Much chatter and wine guaranteed. The day will begin at 10am and lunch will conclude at about 3.30pm.
Any dietary restrictions can of course be accommodated, please mention details when booking.