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Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio

Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds: Recipes and Lore from Rome and Lazio

by Oretta Zanini De Vita

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The food of Rome and its region, Lazio, is redolent of herbs, olive oil, ricotta, lamb, and pork. It is the food of ordinary, frugal people, yet it is a very modern cuisine in that it gives pride of place to the essential flavors of its ingredients. In this only English-language book to encompass the entire region, the award-winning author of Encyclopedia of


The food of Rome and its region, Lazio, is redolent of herbs, olive oil, ricotta, lamb, and pork. It is the food of ordinary, frugal people, yet it is a very modern cuisine in that it gives pride of place to the essential flavors of its ingredients. In this only English-language book to encompass the entire region, the award-winning author of Encyclopedia of Pasta, Oretta Zanini De Vita, offers a substantial and complex social history of Rome and Lazio through the story of its food. Including more than 250 authentic, easy-to-follow recipes, the author leads readers on an exhilarating journey from antiquity through the Middle Ages to the mid-twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

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"Excellent, witty. . . . Not to be confused with your everyday cookbook. . . . It is a keeper for my own kitchen."--A Traveler's Library
A Traveler’s Library - Vera Marie Badertscher

“Excellent, witty. . . . Not to be confused with your everyday cookbook. . . . It is a keeper for my own kitchen.”

Product Details

University of California Press
Publication date:
California Studies in Food and Culture Series , #42
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.40(d)

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Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds

Recipes and Lore from ROME and Lazio

By Oretta Zanini De Vita, Maureen B. Fant


Copyright © 2013 Oretta Zanini De Vita
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95539-4


The Agrarian Landscape of the Campagna Romana

* * *

In his Grand Tour in Italy, Goethe, who saw the Roman countryside, the agro romano, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, recounts how he found it as it must have been when, in the fifth century B.C., Cincinnatus was persuaded to leave his plow and return to public life. We have no way of knowing where Cincinnatus's farm at Prata Quinctia was actually located, but it was probably along the Via Salaria, near the present-day Borgo Quinzio, and there he was, bent over his hoe, when the senators arrived from Rome to beg him to return. Nor do we know what he was growing, but surely there were onions, cabbages, and beans and perhaps a few olive trees from which to press oil for soups and to light his lamps. Goethe's point, and he was right, was that no advances had been made in the intervening millennia. Unless impeded, the waters of the marshes would take it over. During the Roman Republic, the wise administration promoted drainage projects and channeling of the waters. The Etruscans, the best farmers of antiquity, had tackled the same problem by harnessing the waters for irrigation. And in the countryside, the people lived by farming also in nonoptimal environmental situations. This was still, in Cicero's day, the agrarian situation in the agro romano, which he mentions in his orations on agrarian law.

The villas and large farms of the Roman patricians were placed on salubrious hillsides, while slaves tended the extensive holdings on the plains. With the fall of the empire, conventionally dated to a.d. 476, the countryside became an ager desertus. No one took care of the drainage, and the road system was abandoned to the brush; the ruined aqueducts were not repaired, and malaria took more and more victims. This is partly why, at the turn of the sixth century, most of the immense territory passed into the hands of the Church, mainly through donations of lands by this time unfarmed and unprofitable, or even through donations of barbarian kings, not always and not all marauders, as tradition would have it. For example, it is known that, during the third siege of Rome, the Goth king Totila invited the peasants to work in peace and bring him the tribute they would otherwise have delivered to their legitimate masters.

After the invasions by the Visigoths and Vandals in the fifth century, agriculture in the countryside briefly resumed. The Church, led by Pope Gregory the Great (590–604), the careful organizer of the ecclesiastical holdings, had three large patrimoni (assets) at the time, each of which was composed of many estates, or massae. These were in turn made up of numerous fundus (farms) that included casali, or "farmhouses," that were so important that their names have survived to this day where the buildings stood.

It was during the pontificate of Gregory that the Lombard hordes fell on Lazio and put the countryside to fire and sword. But as soon as peace was made with Agilulf, work in the fields gradually resumed. The donations registered by Anastasio Bibliotecario, following the invasions of the Goths and Lombards, describe the campagna romana as sown with farms and covered with crops and orchards.

The eighth century was the century of the foundation of the domuscultae by Popes Zachary (741–52) and Hadrian I (772–95), with the intent of giving a new breath to agriculture. Domuscultae were small clusters of houses near a main road, served by a modest church, hospice, warehouses, taverns, fountains, and barns. These villages initially appeared in the lower Tiber valley north of Rome; later they multiplied over the whole agro romano. The first domusculta was Sulpiciana (ancient Bovillae); a second was on the Via Tiburtina, five Roman miles from Rome; Pratolungo rose on the Via Nomentana; Laurento and Massa Fonteiana were on the Via Laurentina; Campomorto was established on the Via Nettunense; Antius was on the Via Severiana; and Casale di Galeria was on the Via Claudia.

The economy of the domuscultae must have been truly flourishing: the revenues from their products could finance part of the works for the construction of the Leonine wall. Triticum (wheat), barley, wine, oil, and legumes were produced, and pigs were raised in the surrounding forests. Some of the domuscultae were huge. Sacrofanum covered an area of some thirty-nine square miles (one hundred square kilometers) and fed five fortified citadels: Formello, Campagnano, Mazzano, Calcata, and Faleria. The liber pontificalis documents how every year the domusculta of Capracorum supplied the Lateran stores with wheat, barley, wine, vegetables, and some one hundred hogs, which the Church kept in warehouses adjacent to the Basilica of St. John Lateran. Each day, under the loggia of the basilica, it was the custom to distribute to the poor fifty loaves of bread, two amphorae of wine, some bowls of soup, and some rations of pork.

The domuscultae survived between 750 and 850; most of them were destroyed by the raids of the Saracens, by internal struggles, and by the spreading malaria that made the lands unlivable for much of the year. Some of them survived beyond the ninth century, perhaps because they were built on the more salubrious and defendable hilly areas.

With the disappearance of the domuscultae begins the metamorphosis of the campagna romana: the people who took refuge in more defendable positions built fortified villages, as at Mazzano and Calcata, both also true castra, as at Castelgandolfo, Castel Malnome, Castel Romano, and Castel Fusano, which preserve their history in their name.

At the dawn of the second millennium, the campagna romana was fairly well populated. There were castles, but there were also churches with farmhouses next door, with both placed near the castles in more easily defended positions. These arrangements allowed significant improvement of the vineyards, olive orchards, and especially the vegetable gardens, which were usually located next to the walls of the built-up areas, giving the peasants greater security. The foundation of the Confraternity of the Vegetable Men and that of the Oil Men, which, in addition to helping the working members of the organizations, also provided assistance for the sick and for burial of the dead, date to those years.

Meanwhile, the numerous Roman monasteries, which had extended their holdings outside the walls with the intent of boosting their production of grapes and vegetables, proceeded to cut down large expanses of forest, replacing them with canes useful for supporting the vines. They abandoned the ancient drainages to create wells of irrigation water, thus inevitably encouraging the recrudescence of malaria. The numerous watercourses that ran down the hills were often deviated to carry water to the gardens within the city's walls, with the old aqueducts demolished in the process. Such was the case when Pope Callixtus II (1119–24) redirected water to the Porta Lateranense (Lateran Gate), where a watering trough was to be built. Altering the routes of the watercourses also allowed for more work at the numerous mills that operated in the city and the hinterland.

It was at this point that the lands used for pasture began to predominate over the ever-less-profitable agriculture fields. And thus the animal rearers, the boattari, began to pull ahead of the farmers. The Ars bobacteriorum urbis was already active in 1088.

The numerous towers that still punctuate the campagna romana were built during the sixteenth century, together with casali, or large farmhouses, almost all fortified, of which every trace has generally been lost. They include the casali of Olgiata on the Via Cassia, of Lunghezza on the Via Tiburtina, of Crescenza on the Via Flaminia, and, south of Rome, of Torre Astura and the fort of Nettuno. Michelangelo designed Tor San Michele at the mouth of the Tiber. The list continues with the towers of Olevola and Vittoria, the Torre Flavia, Tor Vaianica, and the tower of Maccarese. Little by little, something in the agro was moving, slowed by the marshification of the lands, in turn aggravated by the neglect of the owners and the floods of the Tiber, which left stagnant water everywhere.

The roads, almost nonexistent and especially unsafe, did not permit the regular supply of food to the city. For this reason, over the centuries, the popes tried to help agriculture any way they could. For example, Julius II (1503–13) prohibited both the passage of armies over cultivated or sown fields and the buying up of foodstuffs by farm owners, and imposed severe penalties on anyone who impeded the passage of goods across their property. Between the end of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the seventeenth, the situation was grave. To make it even worse, the plague arrived, accompanied in the summer of 1581 by a heavy new outbreak of malaria. It sent almost one-third of the farm population to the cemetery, leaving the countryside without manpower. The situation, which worsened further over the next two years, convinced the few survivors to leave the fields and withdraw into the less pestilential high hilly areas. At the end of the 1600s, these debilitating circumstances, along with the slow but unstoppable spread of the latifundium (large farming estate), meant that only one-tenth of the lands would be cultivated. Pasturage gave good revenue and few worries to the land owners, and therefore the trading of farmland for pastureland continued until the end of the 1800s. The situation began to improve only after World War II.

Alarmed by the situation, many newly elected popes enacted provisions, but their solutions soon fell into the void. Their measures were tediously replicated and the content of the dispositions monotonously repeated, which shows how widely they were ignored. Much of this failure was due to the excessive power of the barons, who could do much as they liked, with well-armed militias in their employ. Deaf to any imposition of law and impervious to any change that might improve the situation of the countryside, the large landowners were, in the centuries to follow, those truly responsible for the crisis of the agro. A land register from the end of the seventeenth century records that the more than 500,000 acres (205,000 hectares) of the campagna romana were divided among 362 estates, 234 of which, for a total of nearly 311,000 acres (126,000 hectares), were owned by 113 nobles. The remaining 195 acres (79 hectares), more or less, were in the hands of religious institutes, monasteries, churches, and the like. Small farmers owned practically nothing. Of all of these farmlands, fewer than 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) were in agriculture at the end of the eighteenth century.

Meanwhile, corn arrived. From the middle of the eighteenth century, its market prices were competitive, and as a result it was also used to make bread: a gabella (tax) on flour meant wheat cost eight giuli per rubbio, while a rubbio of corn cost only two giuli. In this situation, it is obvious that the gardens and the vineyards just outside the city were intensely cultivated to satisfy the demand, as were the lands on the banks of the Tiber. Curiously, to stress the fertility of the unexploited lands, the quality of what was actually produced was celebrated in Europe: from the famous romaine lettuce, celery, artichokes, and cabbages to the excellent fava beans grown on the lands of the Caffarella estate and that already were eaten with pecorino (recipe on page 220). There were also the fruits, of course: peaches, cherries, apples, pears, almost all from cultivars that today have disappeared and that amazed travelers and painters almost up to the dawn of the twentieth century.

The produce that arrives daily at Roman markets today is of exceptional quality, thanks especially to the variety and fertility of the terrain, much of it of volcanic origin. That soil makes possible the particular biodiversity that ensures that the products of the campagna romana are truly unique.


The Tiber and Fish in Popular Cooking

* * *

Of all of Rome's honorary citizens, Father Tiber merits a particularly special place. For centuries the river took an active part in city life, for good and ill, often destroying lives and homes with the devastating floods that periodically invaded the low-lying neighborhoods. That is why, when Rome became the capital of Italy and the whole city underwent a major makeover to make it look like a great European capital, the Tiber was enclosed in heavy embankments.

The river now lives, alone and imprisoned, between the stout walls that isolate it from the city's life, and the time when it was home to boats, mills, and fishermen is long gone.

In earliest antiquity, the catch was plentiful and constituted an important element of the popular diet, though fish, freshwater and saltwater alike, was considered unworthy to serve to company. Gentlemen who liked to go fishing were regarded with suspicion. Later, however, Antony and Cleopatra, as well as the emperors Augustus and, later still, Marcus Aurelius and Commodus, were passionate anglers.

Contact with the refined civilization of Greece taught the Romans to appreciate the delicate flesh of fish and the masterly preparations cooks could make from it. Demand for fresh fish, especially rare varieties, reached the point that aquaculture was introduced. Some installations were veritable masterpieces of hydraulic engineering, accommodating both fresh water fish and those requiring seawater. The fourth and fifth levels of the Markets of Trajan, in the center of Rome, containedaquariumsfilledwithfreshwaterandwithseawaterbroughtfromOstia,the port of Rome. The demanding gourmet could order salmon trout from the Moselle or Danube, or fish from the Black Sea, or sturgeon imported from Greece to be caught live by specialized slaves. The markets of Ancona and Ravenna supplied large quantities of pesce azzurro (see page 274), while from Sicily arrived the greatest delicacy of all: the moray eel, muraena in Latin, murena in Italian.

The fashion for private fish farms exploded, and the nouveaux riches outdid themselves to see who could stock the rarest fish. The largest fish farms were built in Campania, where Licinius Murena launched the fashion in about 90 B.C., to be followed by the consul Sergius Orata, the first to raise oysters (at Baiae). He was followed in turn by such famous jet-setters as L. Licinius Lucullus, who had a hole cut through a mountain near Baiae to bring the water from the sea to his fish farm. Against these characters stood the moralists—notably Cicero—who called them disparagingly "an aristocracy of fishermen" who cared more about their fish farms than about affairs of state.


Excerpted from Popes, Peasants, and Shepherds by Oretta Zanini De Vita, Maureen B. Fant. Copyright © 2013 Oretta Zanini De Vita. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Oretta Zanini De Vita is a distinguished Italian food historian. She is the author of more than forty books on Italian food and its traditions, including Encyclopedia of Pasta (UC Press).

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