After traveling in Italy for a few weeks it is easy to start getting a little blasé about scenes of stunning beauty. Having toured spectacular churches and piazzas in Florence, Milan and Venice, what more could they do to impress you? And yet - nothing prepares you for that first sight of St. Peter's Basilica in the Vatican.
The dome of St. Peter's and the square in front are familiar from seeing them a hundred times in movies, television and photographs, but it still takes your breath away to actually stand in front of them and take in their sheer magnificence. The interior is even more amazing - at every step you see another priceless masterpiece.
It was from the Vatican that successive popes launched campaigns to capture the Holy Land from the 11th century on, an event that had a profound effect on western cuisines and fashions. Waves of crusaders from Europe discovered Arab food and lifestyles after arriving in the middle-east. The taste of spices and the feel of silks came as a revelation to them and soon all of Europe was clamouring for these luxuries.
Venetian traders sailed to Egypt and Syria to bring back Indian pepper, cardamom and ginger, for which they found a ready market all across the continent. The pope had forbidden all trade with Arabs, but a sizable cash donation from the merchants was enough to buy forgiveness for them all. Their offerings filled the treasury of the popes and contributed to the glories of the Vatican that we see today!
After a day spent exploring the Vatican, we were ready to taste the glories of it's cuisine! Fresh local ingredients, exquisitely prepared made our meal memorable.
We discovered that you can't visit Rome in the springtime and not eat lamb! There was tender succulent lamb on practically every menu. Lamb shanks with rosemary and garlic, roasted with potatoes, were melt in the mouth tender. One of my favourites was lamb ragu - simmered with wine and tomatoes and served over fresh pasta with a generous heaping of pecorino cheese, it was addictively delicious!
This lamb ragu tastes even better the next day, so make it in advance to fully enjoy it's rich flavours. As tribute to the ancient spice trade, I have added whole spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves, which add depth and deepen in flavour as the ragu rests. Take them out before serving if you wish or leave them in to add character!
For an easy dessert to end your meal, try my Raspberry Semolina Cake!
2 tbsp oil
2 each, whole spices: cardamom, cloves, bay leaves
1/2 inch stick cinnamon
1/2 tsp each: fennel seeds, crushed hot red pepper flakes
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary
1 carrot, diced
1 stick celery, diced
1 cup sliced mushrooms
3 lb lamb shanks (about 3 medium), fat trimmed
1 1/2 cups red wine
Salt and ground black pepper to taste
2 cups pureed tomatoes or pasta sauce
1/2 cup grated pecorino cheese
Warm oil in deep heavy skillet over medium heat.
Add cardamom, cloves, bay leaves, cinnamon, fennel and crushed hot red pepper flakes. Sizzle for 30 sec.
Add onions, garlic, rosemary, carrot, celery and mushrooms. Saute for 5-7 min until lightly browned.
Add lamb shanks and brown for 5-7 min.
Add red wine, cook 2 min until it starts to bubble.
Add salt, pepper and tomatoes. Mix gently, cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and cook for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours until lamb is very tender and falling off the bone. Stir occasionally.
Uncover and cool till lamb is easy to handle. Take meat off the bone (discard bones and fat), shred gently with your fingers and toss it back into the sauce.
Warm Ragu just before serving and serve over fresh pasta such as fettuccine or papardelle, with a generous topping of grated pecorino.