We couldn’t resist. Knowing there was a food tour of Trastevere, a neighbourhood we wanted to visit anyway, was irresistible. So we signed up for the twilight tour, as that was the one that offered wine tastings.
Trastevere is a neighbourhood on the west side of Rome, across the river from the historical centre, and the opposite side from Testaccio and the port. For millennia, this was the wrong side of the tracks/river. This is where the new arrivals to Rome ended up, where the immigrants or non-Roman citizens lived. It’s where Christianity took hold, with the Santa Maria di Trastevere thought to be the first church to hold mass in Rome. And where the Jews were forced to live, till they were relocated across the river in the Jewish Ghetto in the 16th century.
This Friday evening, though, was all about Food School, our graduate night class (though open to beginners too). We gathered on Tiburina Island, in the middle of the Tevere (Tiber) river, after crossing the city’s oldest bridge – in continuous use since around 1 BC. And as we crossed the river (Trastevere literally means “across the Tevere), we went back in time, into a unique and historic area. Here, locals will say first they’re from Trastevere, adding “from Rome” as an afterthought. Here, you find postcard Rome: narrow cobbled streets, washing hanging from the windows, ivy-covered buildings, lively restaurants, and even livelier conversations amongst the locals, frequently conducted at street level, or with someone hanging out a window several storeys up.
This tour though, was less theory and more practical, about tasting and enjoying the food, and lapping up some of the history, along with some wine. Our first stop saw us enjoy some prosecco (a dry Italian sparkling wine) along with a classic starter – melon, prosciutto, and burrata, a cheese from the south made from leftovers of mozzarella mixed with extra cream. The creaminess of the cheese, the salty prosciutto and the sweet melon were a perfect combination, as we sat with our fellow students and watched the world go by.
We wound our way through the streets to our next stop, a restaurant wine cellar in a building once housing an early synagogue (founded around 1000-1100 AD). We enjoyed a wine tasting – a Montepulciano grape (the wines from Montepulciano in Tuscany are not in fact made with this grape, but with Sangiovese). The extraordinary thing about the cellar was that it was 160 years older than the Colosseum. We were standing at the street level of 1 BC, and learned that there are several more levels beneath our feet. And that in the room next to us, some major discoveries of bronzes and marble statues made. At least one is now held in the Vatican Museum. We were standing in history, whilst sipping our red wine, and nibbling on spiced veal meat balls, and other delicious treats.
We could have stayed longer – but the bottle was empty, and we were expected elsewhere; namely a delicatessen where we enjoyed an antipasto platter, a pizzeria and bakery (where we were taken into the sauna-like bakery to view the 200 year old pizza oven – wood-fired, with an addition of hazelnut shells – and to marvel at the dough mixers and the wizened bakers stripped to their shorts in the heat), and to a restaurant for pasta and more wine for dinner. As we moved through the bustling quarter of Rome, we saw many churches, lots of restaurants gearing up for a busy weekend, and a crammed bar famous for its Friday evening happy hour with cheap Peroni.
And of course, our graduate programme was concluded with an essential gelato. This time, we were taken to a modernist gelato store, one with experimental flavours (chocolate with tobacco, anyone?), and no restrictions on choosing the “right” combination of flavours. Here we were allowed to let our creativity and taste buds run free. And so we did. (Mine, for the record, was pineapple with ginger, and lemon).