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Croce di Malto Temporis at Le Café Vert, Monteverde Vecchio, Rome

Croce di Malto Temporis at Cafe Verte

Le Café Vert is a small place that opened near us in our Rome neighbourhood of Monteverde Vecchio a year or so ago. It’s something of a gem actually, as it manages to be cool for breakfast, a reasonably priced snacky lunch, and for an aperitivo in the evening. They’re into KM0 too – that is, food that’s not travelled too far – and they stock a decent selection of real bottled beers.

The latter is important to me, of course, but it also indicates they’re taking their principles seriously, and extending them to not just the coffee, or the milk they use (organic), or the food, or the wine, but also to the beer. This morning we went for a coffee at the café in Villa Doria Pamphili Park, Vivi Bistrot, and while it also seems to be into natural and organic foods, it frustrates me that they don’t extend their principles as far as the beer. Their fridges are still stocked with all the generic industrial lagers favoured by Italian beer drinkers in less enlightened places (Ceres, Becks, Peroni, Tenants and whathaveyou).

I did an excellent wine-tasting last night, and talked with the sommelier, Hande Leimer, about why Italians drink so much of these acrid, metallic lagers. Sure, it’s partly marketing and mindwashing, as it was in the UK when industrial lager took over in the 70s and 80s, but here, Hande suggests, it’s also because these tastes are preferred when having a drink without eating. Italians always drink wine, on the other hand, to accompany and complement food, where the relationship calls on differing qualities of drink depending on what is being eaten. Something that tempts me to write “of course”, but many Brits just aren’t aware of this, as we don’t have a strong, traditional viniculture, and beer, on the other hand, was traditionally “liquid bread” and safer to drink than water. A practical drink.

Okay, chiaro, but there are also now Italian craft beers that can fill this niche, of something to be drunk without food: there are plenty of crisp, light options, particularly the summer golden ales (eg Baladin’s Gold One, or Birra del Borgo’s Cortigiana, or Lambrata’s Ortiga). These are in some ways akin to lagers. Except they’re generally better: they taste better and more interesting, they’re more naturally produced, not pasteurised, not filtered and, most importantly, they’re not rushed. They’re real beers.

So come on Vivi Bistrot – make that leap, be more holistic with your principles, and support your local craft brewers! (Such as Birra del Borgo, or Birradamare/ʼNa Birretta, or Turan, or Free Lions, all in Lazio.)

Le Cafe Vert, Monteverde Vecchio, Rome

Anyway, we stopped by Le Café Vert again the other night for an aperitivo. It’s just two blocks from our place, and not only that, their tabletops are decorated with a map of the neighbourhood. And not only that, when we sat down, I noticed that our very street was located just under my elbow. We’re leaving Rome in about three weeks, so this was a slightly emotive bit of synchronicity.

Le Café Vert seems to rotate its beers, after a fashion, and this time they had a whole shelf filled with bottles from Croce di Malto. I’d had one Croce di Malto beer, the English bitter-like Acerbus, at Fermentazioni 2013 the other day and was keen to try more. They’re not a local, Lazio brewery though – they’re in Piemonte*, west of Milan. Indeed, Piemonte is the Italian region with the highest proportion of craft breweries, all radiating out from Baladin, the mothership of the Italian craft beer scene.

Croce di Malto Temporis at Cafe Verte

I chose a Croce di Malto Temporalis, 6% ABV. It was straight from the fridge, so a little bit cold, but I was too impatient to leave it in my armpit warming. (Hande scolded me at the wine-tasting for holding my glass by the bowl, but I’m constantly trying to warm up beers to the right temperature, in this case 8-10C, which has resulted in bad wine-tasting habits.)

Considering it’s the end of summer  at the moment, it was perhaps not the best choice as apparently this is a beer “dedicata per la primavera” – dedicated to spring. It’s certainly a fresh, lively beer – even when drunk a little too cold. The scent is floral and orangey, while the taste is crisp and citrussy, sweetly malty, slightly herby. It’s got a medium body. It’s a bright, orange-straw colour, with some mistiness and a nicely foaming head.

Although it’s a saison, it’s at the more drinkable, accessible end of that spectrum – complex, but subtly so. As one critic says on Beeradvocate, it’s “lacking in saisony funk” – but that’s fine by me; there are plenty of other more challenging saisons, and this was a perfect accompaniment to Le Café Vert’s delicious aperitivo snacks. Blimey, their panelle (Sicilian fried chickpea pancake) is good. One of the many things I’m going to miss about Rome. Fried chickpea goodness and a crisp saison two blocks from home.

Addendum:
Went back again the other night and tried another Croce di Malto beer. This was Triplexxx (7.8% ABV), a slightly unfortunate name with connotations of dodgy Australian lager and, well, porn.

It was a slightly strange beer too.

I was intrigued as the three Xs refer to its use of barley, oats and wheat, as well as “spices” and zucchero candito (“candied sugar”, presumably candi sugar) but overall the abiding smell and taste is banana. Isn’t chemistry bonkers? How can those incredients, when combined and brewed, produce molecules that give such a strong flavour of a totally unconnected fruit? Though I’d say the smell also had some bubble gum too, and the taste some toffee: so maybe it’s bubble-gum-banoffee-pie beer. Strange.

Info:
Via Anton Giulio Barrili 47-47/a, Monteverde Vecchio, Rome
+39 06 588 0065 | lecafevert.it | info@lecafevert.it

Croce di Malto brewery
Coros di Roma 51A, Trecate, Piemonte
+39 0321 185 6101 | crocedimalto.iti | info@crocedimalto.it

* Why do we anglicise this as Piedmont? Are anglophones so lazy we can’t say “pee-ah-mon-tay”? Is saying “pee-ed-mont” really any easier?

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Baladin’s Nora at Le Café Vert, Monteverde, Rome

Thursday night, difficult week. Me and Mrs BC&A, aka Fran, decided we deserved a drink. Though we couldn’t be bothered to range beyond our Roman neighbourhood, Monteverde Vecchio. It’s not a best hood for a beer, but one café-bar-bistro has a reasonable selection of bottled craft beers (or whatever you want to call microbrewery fare. It’s called birra artigianale here in Italy – artisan beer). This is Le Café Vert, which opened not much more than a year ago, demonstrating how Italy’s urge to eat and drink continues to defy The Global Depression. As King Silvio said back in November 2011, “The life in Italy is the life of a wealthy country: consumptions haven’t diminished, it’s hard to find seats on planes, our restaurants are full of people.”

Quite why this bar has French name, and the lady serving us kept saying voila not the Italian equivalent ecco, I don’t know, but rest assured it’s in Rome, with great Italian beers and aperitivo snacks included in the price of the drink for a period every evening. According to their site, they stock beers from four Italian microbeweries: Baladin (which is Piedmont, NW Italy); Birra del Borgo (which is in Lazio, the central Italian region around Rome); ‘na Birretta (which is also in Lazio); and Birra di Fiemme (which is in Trentino, NE Italy).

We entered, glanced around, and I saw Baladin’s distinctive labels. I’ll be honest and say I don’t really like Baladin’s design style, which pervades Open Baladin bar in Rome and the labels on the bottle. It’s kinda scrappy, cartoony, vaguely Keith Haring, vaguley hippy, like someone’s mate did it, someone who’s not a professional designer. But remember kids, don’t judge a beer by its label. Baladin beers remain among my favourites, in part because Open Baladin was my entry point to birre artigianale. It’s not cosy like a nice British pub, its food is middling (especially if you’re not a fan of beef burgers on brioche buns), but its beer selection is stupendous, with dozens of craft beers, mostly Italian, on tap, and there are some very knowledgeable, helpful staff there too.

Anyway. We chose a Baladin “Nora” – we had to, as it was our friend Nora’s birthday, so we could drink it in her honour. This beer was named after another Nora – the wife of Teo Musso, the founder and master brewer of Baladin. Musso is a big name in the Italian beer scene, and for good reason. Baladin is apparently the biggest microbrewery by volume-produced in Italy (according to my chum, who is the brewmaster of the second-biggest, Mastri Birrai Umbri). Baladin brewery produces around a dozen varied, fascinating brews. Musso and his colleagues aren’t afraid of experimenting, of unusual ingredients, and Nora is no exception.

At first glance and sip, Nora’s a wheat beer, relatively pale, aromatic, slightly sickly-sweet (in a good way – if that’s possible. I’m not a big fan of wheat beers, so maybe that’s just me). But it’s not made with wheat, or at least it’s not made with a modern wheat strain. Instead, it contains both malted barley and “Kamut”, which is a branded version of Khorosan wheat (Triticum turanicum), an ancient strain. (I discuss wheat strains here.)

There are other ingredients too that make their presence felt in a certain spiciness and perfume: ginger and, get this, myrrh. Now we all know the latter was one of the gifts the Baby J got in Bethlehem, but did you know it’s a resin from the thorny shrub Commiphora myrrha. It’s an ingredient more commonly used in medicine and for incense (ah, memories of being the thurifer). As such Nora, is a beer that’s both sweet, citrussy and easily drinkable, and complex and slightly confounding. It’s also quite strong, if you’re British, but not that strong if you’re Italian: 7%ABV.

Final geek detail, it also alta rifermentata in bottiglie, which literally means “high-re-fermented in the bottle”, but I believe we’d say it’s top-fermented and bottle conditioned. Though I need to double-check that.

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Docking the bay

Villa Sciarra, our delightful local park, remains locked up. It has been since last weekend. Rome had its atypical dump of snow last Friday and overnight we got about 10cm. Apparently this is the most since 1986, when they got 20cm+; substantial snow apparently isn’t a common occurence, and the city doesn’t really know how to cope with it, much like much of Britain (but that’s another story). Panic ensues, schools and offices are closed, trains and roads become even more chaotic (and simultaenously less chaotic – with emergency rules that decree you can’t ride a scooter, or drive unless you have chains). For dedicated pedestrians, like myself, the pavement, the day after, was largely ice.

On the Saturday itself though, when the snow was fresh, Rome was beautiful. The ancient ruins and innumerable churches and monuments are always handsome, but an icing of snow gave them even more magic. The snow also beautified things by temporarily hiding all the little, dogshit and disintegrating roads and pavements.

The snow’s mostly gone now, bar some stubborn piles of ice. There’s more forecast for tomorrow and Saturday, but we shall see. In the meantime, I’m disappointed I can’t take my normal walking routes through Villa Sciarra, a lovely little place that nestles in a bulge in the 4th century AD Aurelian Wall. Throughout the year it’s an oasis of calm, away from Rome’s absurd traffic, and a place to enjoy some sun – or much-needed shade in the summer.

On Saturday, before the lock-down, it was a peculiar winter wonderland, the palms incongruously decorated with snow. It wasn’t all wonderful though, despite the exuberrance of the play. Alongside the palms, the park also has a substantial population of mature bay trees (bay laurels; laurus nobilis). I frequently help myself to the alloro leaves for cooking. And there were plenty to spare after the snow – as the bay population was reduced, I’d estimate, by about 10-20%. It’s hard to say, as I’ve not been able to get back in since the the lock-down. I assume it’s due to emergency tree surgery, to prune the trees with broken boughs and chop up the trees that were completely uprooted, or suffered from broken trunks.

 

It reminded me a little of the south of England after the Great Storm of 1987, which devastated a lot of the chalk downlands’ distinctive beech hangers. Of course, the bays aren’t quite on the same scale as the beeches – I’d say they grow to about 6m here – but it’s still sad if you’re a tree-lover, like me. Bays clearly aren’t designed to bear the weight of snow – like, say, firs or certain pines with downward sloping branches that slew off any build-up. Not all pines are designed for snow either though – the umbrellas, pinus pinea, also lost some branches here. Another park I walk through – Resistenza dell’otto Settembre – is also closed, though it only lost a few branches from its pines. It’s kinda over-zealous. Who’d have thunk Italy would have a health & safety culture that could out-daft Britain’s?

The streets in our neighbourhood, Monteverde Vecchio, are lined with another type of shrub-tree, which I can’t identify. It may be in the same family as privet, Ligustrum, but I’ve no idea. They lost a few branches too, but, again, nothing like the damage in the park.

As tragedies go, the damage to Villa Sciarra is minor, but it’s still sad. Let’s just hope if it does snow again, it’s not as much, as quickly, and the trees weather the storm.

Quick update, 20 Feb 2012. The park is now open again, and still looking handsome. But there’s still plenty of work being done clearing up dead and damaged bays.

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Old geezers with the horn

One of our Sunday routines in Roma is going to the Mattatoio – the old abattoir in Testaccio – to the producers’ market. Wandering home yesterday, laden with veg, cheese, eggs, walnuts, chestnut flour and cose, we headed off Viale di Trastevere, up a snicket we’ve discovered, under looming apartment blocks, towards to our hilltop neighbourhood, Monteverde Vecchio.

Further up, through the labyrinth of looming walls liberally decorated with graffiti (extremist politics and/or football mostly), navigating the perennial Roman pavement adornments c/o sundry cani and their inconsiderate owners (seriously, it’s worse than Paris), we passed along Via Giambattista Marino, behind an ecclesiastical establishment. There are many in the neighbourhood, but this one’s particularly grand. Not sure what it is – a school? A monastery? Anyway, both Fran and I assumed there was some sort of event going on, as music appeared to be emerging from within burly stonework. Except that when we turned the corner at the top of the street, the acoustics changed radically and the music was revealed to be a brass rendition of ‘Strangers in the Night’. Not part of the Church’s typical Sunday program.

Heading up our street, the sound got louder, and clearer until we spotted due vecchi, two old geezers, seemingly serenading an apartment. If serenading is the right word. It looked like they had a small amp and backing track, and while one was giving it his all with a battered old French horn, the other was clutching a trumpet. This chap, a decidedly lively little chap, was so digging the tune, he kept stopping playing to dance, among the giant wheelie bins and closely packed parked cars.

We wandered past, and further up, two other, very different old geezers, were packing their rifles and gear into their car, presumably for a spot of hunting in the hills of Abruzzo.

The day before this scene, we’d watched Fellini’s Roma, a 1972 film that, via a series of loose sketches, recounts some autobiography. We see the young Fellini arriving in 1930s Rome from his native Rimini, and immediately becoming embroiled in a vigorously communal way of life, getting a room in a sprawling apartment full of large woman, squalling kids, a sunburned mammone (mother’s boy) and a selection of eccentric tenants. Going out to dinner, meanwhile, the local community (is it supposed to be Testaccio?) convenes to eat at long tables outside a restaurant, joking, arguing, critiquing the food. This includes, I believe, pajata, a delightful, typically Roman dish of veal intestines, which congeal somewhat on cooking, much like rennet from cows’ cuts is used to curdle milk for cheese-making; and snails, which prompt a few saucy comments about how mastering the art of eating them can educate a young man in how to please a woman.

A little kid sings a dirty song about how the new young man, Fellini, is going to have sex with, well, basically everyone. A young man abusively beckons his haughty sister down from where she’s posing on a balcony. Middle-aged women vie for Fellini’s attentions.

The film cuts between such scenes and scenes of contempory Rome, which is now dominated by traffic. It seems to be suggesting the exuberant, social street life of the 1930s has been destroyed, disappeared. Certainly it’s true that the streets are now overwhelmed by Rome’s very tangible car problem* – not just a traffic problem, but a problem with the sheer scale of ownership. Streets are packed with parked cars, and the character of innumerable venerable piazze and piazzale is utterly compromised by them simply having become car parks. Old neighbourhoods didn’t evolve with car-parking in mind.

These days it’s frequently hard to even walk along the pavement as it’s often appropriated for parking. Not ideal for wheelchair users or people with kids in buggies. Our personal favourite is when cop cars from the station up the road block the zebra crossing.

Anyway, so, yes, of course the modern world has quashed the traditional world of street life, but not completely. Summers in Rome are still defined by al fresco dining into the night; restaurants generally have walls of planters to prevent their spots being used for parking. And, well – the two old geezers with their feisty miniature brass section wouldn’t have looked out of place Fellini’s Roma. Their musical endeavours went on long after we’d got home, the brass still echoing down the street for at least an hour. Quite who they were serenading, I don’t know, but from the duration, she never emerged.

* something I’ve written about before:
Moto city
“Death on the Highway”

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Pass the dolci

Italians love their dolci: sweets, desserts, ice cream and pastries, or pasticceria. I always assumed the French had the last word on patisserie, but living in Rome, I’m not so sure any more. In Monteverde Vecchio, our neighbourhood, indeed within about 100 metres of our flat, there are at least three pasticcerie (as I understand it, the word can mean the outlet, the trade and the product), as well as a bakery/tavolo caldo (“hot table” – meaning then sell hot snacks) that also does pasticceria. Two of these places, and another one just down the hill on Viale Trastevere, have counters around 4-5 metres long utterly packed with biscuits, pastries, chocolates and sweeties that you buy by weight. And none of them are chains. That’s one thing I love about Italy – it’s got an incredibly strong business culture of independents, of SMEs (small-medium sized enterprises). As well as all the independent pasticceria, which are also cafés, there are umpteen independent cafés, which also sell pasticceria. Although I’m an oddity in this culture for my dislike of coffee, I’m more than happy to frequent these places and indulge in pastries and, as it’s the winter (hey, there was a frost last night), I can get away with drinking lots of the cioccolata calda without breaching too much strict Italian food and drink etiquette. Well, I say “drinking” but it’s frequently half-way to eating as Italian hot chocolate is generally thickened with cornflour, making it a thick, gloopy thing that’s almost like a hot chocolate mousse. My current obsession is for castagnole and frappe, which started appearing in the pasticcerie shortly after Christmas, specifically at Epiphany; that’s 6 January for heathens. These are seasonal sweet treats for carnevale – carnival or Mardi Gras season. The Christian tradition is that Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday, aka Shrove Tuesday, aka Pancake Day, is the day when you use up all your rich food products, fats and sugars to initiate Lent, the period of abstemiousness that leads up to Easter. While us Brits, and others, might have a pancake blow-out on just one day, here in Italy it looks like we’re getting weeks of the aforementioned treats. So, castagnole are small, deep-fried dough balls, a bit like doughnuts, but the dough isn’t leavened with yeast, but with chemical raising agents, ie baking powder or equivalent, according to both the ingredients taped up on the counter at Pasticceria Dolci Desideri (“Sweets you want”!; our local, on Via Anton G Barrili) and the recipe on this blog. The word presumably relates to castagna – chestnut – though they have no chestnut flavouring. Instead you can get them semplice (plain) or filled with crema (custard) or ricotta. Frappe, meanwhile, are basically thin rectangles of crisp, slightly puffy pastry, like a sweetened pasta, baked or deep-fried, and sprinkled with icing sugar, or sometimes flavoured with honey. The name itself (singular: frappa) is a bit confusing, as the similar word frappé means shake, or milkshake. According to the above-mentioned blog, they’re also known as cenci (the plural of cencio, rag – not very appetising), stracci (shreds; stracciare is the verb to tear or rip up) and lattughe (lettuce) in other parts of Italy. We’ve been treating ourselves to castagnole and frappe, well, pretty much every day this week. It can’t go on, for obvious reasons, but not only are they delicious, there’s just something inherently lovely about going to a pasticceria and getting some treats wrapped up like a gift (eco concerns about over-packaging notwithstanding.) Really, Brits have a long way to go to make the patisserie experience as charming as this. Sure we have some wonderful independent bakeries these days, but their patisserie can still seem meagre by comparison, even if they have an array of poncy cupcakes. And for people who still don’t even have access to real bakeries, some foul mass-produced “Toffee Flavour Yum Yum” from “Greggs The Home of Fresh Baking” [sic] just doesn’t cut it.

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Filed under Baking, Food misc, Main thread, Rome