Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Notes on Olive Oil and Trastevere - Essay


"...You can’t go two feet in Italy without encountering the miraculous, so let me recount a miracle that happened in Trastevere..."

Notes on Olive Oil and Trastevere

As consolation for not being able to see Trastevere’s crumbling plaster, I made a fine olive oil mix with lemon juice, fresh garlic, basil, thyme, rosemary, salt, red pepper flakes, parsley and oregano. I actually put two brands of Italian olive oil in the concoction, hoping to achieve the thickness of olive oil I tasted in Sicily.

Excess is good. Pour an abundant serving of oil mix over a slice of rustic Italian bread.

Here I'm borrowing from the Latin “rusticus” which denotes “of the country, plain, simple, rough, or, coarse.” Food writers say that Italian food is country food.

More than medieval architecture lures me back to Trastevere. The neighborhood's history links back to Rome’s earliest beginnings. Ponte Sublico's wooden-post prototype dated to 600 BC. In the Archaic Era, the Romans who lived there in the miserable swamp on Tiber's banks ousted Etruscan tyrants, a bloody expulsion which according to Livy inaugurated the Roman Republic in 510 BC and ended 244 years of monarchy begun by Romulus.


You can’t go two feet in Italy without encountering the miraculous, so let me recount a miracle that happened in Trastevere. In antiquity, a fountain in the location of the fountain which now sits in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, filled up with olive oil, a foretelling of Christianity, it is said. If you find sacred olive oil absurd, remember that oil was commonly used ritualistically in ancient times.

The church connected to the miracle, Santa Maria in Trastevere, is worth a visit. Along with the typical saintly body parts and relics, it has impressive 13th century mosaics and marvelous nave columns with capitals taken from ancient Roman baths and temples.

I intended no condescension when I mentioned crumbling plaster, the words simply suggest that Trastevere is less grand than other parts of Rome, in fact rarely does a contemporary travel or memoir writer fail to mention the laundry that hangs above some of its narrow streets. Rome’s palaces “palazzi” and classical ruins are immensely satisfying, but I'm drawn to her more plebian elements, and can lose my composure over ordinary things - cracked ocher walls covered with dark green ivy - and I know what Goethe meant by knowing Rome through small details.

Some architectural facades in Trastevere are decorated with the wrought iron balconies that are prevalent in Sicily, and it was in a small restaurant on the southern coast of Sicily, where Donnie and I ate mussels, that I encountered thick olive oil with a dark green color. Here are a few interesting facts about olive oil: Archaeological evidence points to the extraction of oil from olives as early as 5000 BC. The olive oil industry was an integral part of Minoan culture in 2000 BC, I observed enormous oil storage jars when visiting Minoan excavation sites in Crete. Olive cultivation was introduced to Italy when the Greeks colonized Sicily in 700 BC. The best olive oil in Sicily comes from the Valle del Belice.


Image: Trastevere Street from civitacchia.portmobility

Image: My Donnie near the fountain in front of the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere


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