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

Dreaming about Trastevere’s crumbling plaster, I made a fine olive oil mix. The lemon juice might surprise you, but do include it with the fresh garlic, basil, thyme and rosemary (seen in the photograph below) along with salt, red pepper flakes, dried parsley and oregano.  I actually combined two brands of Italian olive oil in an attempt to achieve the thickness of some I tasted in Sicily.

Excess is good.  Drown a slice of rustic Italian bread with the oil.

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

It’s more than medieval architecture that lures me back to Trastevere. When there I’m aware that the neighborhood's history links to Rome’s earliest beginnings. I cross the Tiber on the Ponte Sublico knowing its wooden-post prototype was built in 600 BC, and stand on the river’s banks mindful of the fact that the Romans who lived in that miserable swamp in the Archaic Era 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, know 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.

No condescension was intended in the above mention of crumbling plaster, the words simply suggest that Trastevere is less grand than other parts of Rome, in fact rarely does a contemporary travel writer or memoirist fail to mention the laundry hanging above some of its narrow streets. Rome’s palaces “palazzi” and classical ruins are immensely satisfying, but I find myself drawn to her more plebian elements, and have lost 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. While there in 1787 he wrote that his affections were being “purified and determined.” (Translation by Robert R. Heitner)

Some architectural facades in Trastevere are decorated with the wrought iron balconies that are so 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.

Trastevere Image: from Port Mobility

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