I did not grow up eating Coda alla Vaccinara, the quintessentially Roman way of braising oxtail in tomato sauce and plenty of celery. I had it for the first time at my mother-in-law’s who must have learned to make it from a Roman since she herself hailed from the Marche Region, arriving in Rome as a very young bride of eighteen. I loved the dish and the messy consequences of eating it – it is considered appropriate to gnaw on the knuckles (called ‘rocchi’ in Roman dialect) in order to extract every little bit of meat, and to mop up the sauce with an unjudicious amount of bread. Once the plate is bread-hoovered clean again, one can pronounce oneself finished, sigh, wipe one’s mucky hands and lean back in the chair. Aaaaaah. So much did I like Nonna Maria’s coda, that I very often asked her to make it for us whenever we’d go for dinner to their place.
I didn’t even think to make it myself until about twelve years ago, asking Nonna Maria for instructions. She strongly recommended the use of a pressure cooker, for instance. By then, I had eaten it in various trattorias in Rome and thought Maria’s nicer on the whole – she was my coda benchmark. I had also been reading up on, and researching, all kinds of recipes and history of the Roman cuisine, and was quite taken aback to discover that raisins, pine kernels and chocolate (or cocoa) were considered ESSENTIAL to the REAL coda. Eventually, I prepared one myself, and rather liked it. I never strayed from adoring Nonna Maria’s version but put her recipe down to the fact that, technically, she had not been Roman born herself. And besides, versions are a good thing, and variety is the spice of life.
When, in 2009, I was asked to host a special dinner in honour of Giovanni Vagnoni (pictured above), the wine producer of the Le Caniette in the Marche (www.lecaniette.it) at the behest of my gourmet and wine-loving friend Paolo Gherardi, (his partner is the beautiful Cinzia, on the left in the photo) I even put one solitary pinch of green cardamom powder in it the coda sauce that I used to garner some pasta.
Paolo Gherardi on the right, friend Pierfrancesco on the left, somewhat pensive … or bemused? … at the same table.
Were we talking about coda? Who knows? Mirth was definitely abroad in the air that night …
The mirth had definitely something to do with the lovely wines that Giovanni brought us to enjoy that evening.
Let’s put it this way, I was on the brink of being Coda smug, preening over its ingredients to anyone who might ask me about the recipe. Until, that is, the day I met this chap:
In an alimentari here in Frascati; an alimentari is a shop that sells charcuterie, cheeses, some cold and frozen goods, dry goods, some veggies and fruit, and even cleaning products and loo paper. A mini mini supermarket of sorts. And I treasure this one in particular on account of being able to park right in front of it allowing me to dash in and out when in a tearing hurry to get my food shopping done (which happens much more frequent than I would like). This casually attired man and I got talking (as one does inside an alimentari and hardly never in a supermarket I hasten to add), and I must have mentioned that I was making a coda that day. Aha!, quoth he. He was most proud of the fact that he had worked in the Testaccio quarter of Rome for nearly all his life, and that the Coda had pretty much been a staple of his working life there. His wife now made a pretty good one too. And when the conversation got to exchanging ingredients, he was horrified when I mentioned chocolate, raisins and pine nuts. More than horrified, he bah!-ed Rubbish!-ed me. “Look, I worked there (i.e. in the Testaccio quarter) after the war, during the fifties. I should know! I never saw bloody raisins or pine nuts or tasted chocolate in the coda. You must be out of your mind!”. When I ventured to insist, as politely as I could, telling him that the recipe originated, actually, in the Rione Regola (near the Vatican) and that maybe that’s the way they did the coda there, as opposed to Testaccio? … He still wasn’t convinced. “All I can say is that maybe it was the Venetian workers who came to Rome who added this stuff. Bah! Doesn’t sound at all Roman to me.”
The mention of Venetian workers emigrating to Rome from up North was a very unusual anthropological take on this dish, and one that made me wonder deeply. I was, unfortuantely and however, in a huge hurry to get home and get on with making the dinner. So I asked the man to kindly give me his telephone number, and could we meet one of these days and discuss the matter further. I changed telephones a couple of months later and that’s how I lost his number, sigh. And that’s why I call him Mr Coda alla Vaccinara! I can’t remember his real name. I will definitely chase up on him one of these days.
All this to say that … I too think it peculiar that bottom-of-the-rung labourers in the Testaccio slaughter house, so poorly paid that their salary was partly made up of cuts of meat that other people weren’t at all in love with, would have been able to afford the expense of chocolate or cocoa or pine kernels. Not unless they gathered the pine kernels from those beautiful trees that yes, do exist in Rome … but who is going to go and pick ’em? Raisins? maybe. But they would have been a luxury too, to be used in cakes or on special occasions. So, it is my speculation that it was only or mainly the wealthier Romans, starting with the clergy, who added these ingredients. The rest made do with celery which was both plentiful and inexpensive. That said, it is true that spices were indeed used in traditional Roman cuisine, including cinnamon and pepper and even coriander. Raisins and pine kernels are an integral part of many a Jewish recipe… so who knows? If Mr Coda alla Vaccinara is right, and that there were indeed labourers from the Veneto who brought riasins and pine kernels as additions to recipes … rhe mind boggles. It is good to take stock of the fact that Venetian food itself owes a great deal to Jewish cuisine. And no, I am not telling tales about this tale! 🙂 Much of Roman cuisine too, if it comes right down to it, owes so much to Jewish cuisine that was brought from Sicily.
Not that any of the above matters but … don’t you agree that the origins and developments of dishes and recipes are truly fascinating?
And the proof of the pudding is in eating it. If you feel at all inspired to try a coda soon … stay tuned. If in the meantime, you think you might be tempted to take a look at other coda recipes I have made … here are some links (number 3 is the one I favour the most at the moment):