I have written fewer blogs last year for reasons that aren’t worth going into here but I do, I very much do, want to write a beginning-of-the-year post as a way of wishing all of you a very good one. It’s a bit of a long ramble and might not be to everyone’s taste so if this is where you stop reading, again: HAPPY NEW YEAR and may it herald a lot of positive things for everyone !
The photos above and below are of Frascati’s Piazza San Rocco – easily my favourite piazza there … overlooking Rome, and for good reason.
Christmas and the New Year’s festivities have come but not altogether ‘gone’ because decorations linger, including the kind that are not necessarily in the best of taste with their overblown brightness and blingyness; they still adorn our rooms, and we don’t mind any clutter they’ve ushered because the days are still short and dark. And cold. Even here in Frascati/Rome. I want to start the year on a high note, I want to think about good times, spent with family, friends and new acquaintances. And so festivities come to mind: birthdays, usually, weddings, sometimes, parties, for sure!, Christmas naturally, New Year’s, and not forgetting last-minute get-togethers that can be rustled up in no time at all. Often the latter are the most fun of all, and spontaneity and the unexpected can throw in that fillip that no planning, however well thought out, can hope to bring to an occasion. It’s then we feel so ‘alive’, isn’t it. It’s then, the day after, that we relish the memory, the camaraderie and the laughter, the high jinks of it all, often supported by tasty food and copious amounts of a favourite tipple. I don’t know about you but “wine o’clock”, the hour or so before supper, is nearly always my favourite time of day. If I am not clamouring after a glass of wine when supper is nearly on the table, I worry whether I am coming down with something. (Can’t drink wine during the day, however, makes me too sleepy.)
So, you must be thinking, can this gal have any fun without wine? Aha! And the answer might surprise you.
I have two favourite meals. One is breakfast. Only for years now I’ve not been eating breakfast, just drinking coffee. Even so, I think of breakfast as one of the nicest times of day, especially on holiday, or when staying in a hotel. A good breakfast has all the ingredients to make you want to look forward to the unfurling of the day’s events. Toast, first and foremost. Nice marmalade or jam. Eggs, bacon, sausages, kippers, salmon, mushrooms, cooked tomatoes. Fruit and fruit juice. A croissant or a cornetto here in Italy. Pancakes. Crepes. French toast. Breakfast cakes. Yogurt. Good quality loose leaf tea. Coffee. It’s a feast, and the day has only just started.
The other ‘meal’, if that’s what we want to call is, is Afternoon Tea. Yes, I used capital letters. As someone who does not have a sweet tooth and rarely has dessert, isn’t it ‘strange’ that I just cannot resist the sheer beauty, the sense of occasion, the frivolity of a proper Afternoon Tea. One tends to pick up more than one motto in life, or change it as our natures evolve, but there is one that has stuck in my chords for decades now, and that is Voltaire’s “le superflu, chose si nécessaire”. Damn right, he was, to say that the superfluous is so very very necessary in our lives. (By the way I love caviar too and can’t afford it but I think I would favour an Afternoon Tea over caviar if I had to choose. On the other hand, just think of the naughtiness of serving caviar at an Afternoon Tea, tee hee!) Who can have a long face at an Afternoon Tea, hey? Who? It’s like chalk and cheese, impossible. A normal breakfast can be just that: normal. Afternoon Tea is always special.
Cast of Characters
And so it was that three friends, Michelle, Victoria and I decided to organize an Afternoon Tea party nearly four years ago now. At a tearoom run by Giancarlo delle Chiaie here in Frascati.
Now, the first thing to bear in mind is that Frascati is famous for its white wine and the fact that we have been making wine around these parts for three thousand years or so (Frascati was the very first wine in Italy to receive the formal DOC certification in 1966). The second is that there is no such thing as Afternoon Tea in Italy. Some Italians, true, do like their tea and but most would considerate it a beverage that is de rigueur only when illness sets in. I’ll never forget when I offered my father-in-law to be a cup of tea. He looked very puzzled and answered something like, “No thank you, I’m fine.”
So imagine my surprise when Giancarlo opened a tearoom in Frascati back in 2009. Frascati is famous for its wine taverns, known as “fraschette” or “cantine” or even “osterie”, and casual outdoor eating during the warmer months of the year. It’s all very laid back and convivial and the opposite of posh. Trestle tables are set up outside in the streets and piazzas and the tablecloth is made out of paper. The wine is served in sturdy glasses, forget about stems. The wine comes in a carafe not in a bottle. The atmosphere is ‘animated’, aka pretty much loud or raucous. You get the picture.
The above photo is the view of Piazza San Rocco from Giancarlo’s Tearoom
Our Giancarlo, who was an acquaintance when he opened and has now become more of a friend, is not exactly a fan of mega decibel banter and such plebeian cavorting when it comes to the enjoyment of life. And that’s putting it mildly. It’s not that he is a snob. No, it’s more like he has standards and bad rustic just doesn’t do it for him. He was outraged, for instance, by another Giancarlo (a former professional football player) who runs a wine tavern with trestle tables outside on the quaint and historic Piazza San Rocco, at the bottom of the bishop’s mansion, just across from the tearoom. (Such a delight to eat al fresco there in Summer, the atmosphere is amazing.)
Tearoom Giancarlo simply could not forgive wine-tavern Giancarlo for having placed neon lighting above the trestle tables, his disapproval was total and gave him a case of ‘après nous le deluge’ big time.
He dresses simply and somewhat soberly. His tearoom, however, belies the understated approach to his day to day attire. It is housed in a former wine cellar to the side of the Piazza San Rocco, close to our town’s historic and oldest church. It was not a large wine cellar at that (if you want to know, it belonged to my cousin Teresa’s grandmother, after whom she was named, and cousin Teresa remembers helping out her Nonna with the wine making, imagine that!).
The entrance to Giancarlo’s Tearoom
Remember the law of Physics about Nature abhoring a vacuum? If ever proof were needed, Giancarlo’s place would fit the bill with bells and whistles. This cosy-sized tearoom positively drips with gilt-framed mirrors, chandeliers and candelabras, not to mention assorted bone china plates, cups, tea pots, even a Russian samovar, various paintings and lithographs, and the paint is all about green and gold. Whilst a seasoned minimalist would suffer a serious attack of furnishing overkill upon entering, I and many others find it welcoming and full of atmosphere. There is even a piano. And that’s because Giancarlo is a musician, a professional organ player, as is his younger brother. Giancarlo runs a choir too. He will sometimes play the piano for us.
Most of the time he is too busy. He runs the tea room all by himself, making and baking all kinds of deliciousness, cakes and even small chocolates. He would have fitted in beautifully at the court of Louis IV – indeed, Giancarlo was involved in a one-day event held at nearby Villa Mondragone in 2004 where actors dressed the part as king, queen, courtiers/courtesans, musicians and servants and what have you and disported themselves accordingly. Giancarlo organized, oversaw, played and conducted all the music, and he waxes lyrical over it to this day. He pines for the mountains and the cooler weather, whereas Michelle and I, who frequent his tearoom in the evenings when it’s time for a glass of wine as opposed to a cuppa, are just the opposite. Michelle taught him how to make Pimms, by the way. He taught himself how to make scones, there you go.
Now Michelle (in the above photo) who is English and has lived in and around Rome for decades, enough to speak Italian like a native, is one of those people who are hard to describe. She does not fit into a neat category. She is a dab hand at just about anything, and a quick thinker to boot. For the purpose of this blog post let’s just say she single-handedly set up an invaluable website called “www.Easyfrascati.com” and is a trained sommelier, collaborating with the oldest wine estate in the area, the Principe Pallavicini.
Vivacious Victoria, for her part, lived in New York working for MTV; she left her fast-paced action-packed life for the obvious reason (her hubby like mine is Italian) and heads a group called “Welcome Neighbour of the Castelli Romani”. It was she, also, who set up another group called “Culture Club of the Castelli”, which includes me and Michelle (both groups are on facebook). And the three of us do enjoy organizing cultural events that will always include food and wine somewhere along the way.
And now we come to the last person in this cast of characters.
The name of the tearoom is “La Stanza del Duca”, which translates as “The Duke’s Room”. The duke in question is – or was rather, bless him he died in 1807 – Henry Benedict of the royal house of Stuart.
His grandfather James II was the king who his lost the throne on account of being catholic, and his daughters, Mary and then Anne, subsequently and in turn became Queens. Prince Henry’s father James III was known as the “Old Pretender” to the British Throne. His brother was known as the “Young Pretender”, aka Bonnie Prince Charlie. I don’t want to bore you with too much history and the Jacobite rebellions but basically our Prince Henry couldn’t be bothered about claims to the throne and contented himself with being a jolly good cardinal. He was born a prince and the grandson of a crowned king, and was a direct relative even of Mary Queen of Scots. But he was best known as Duke of York, the title that was bestowed upon him (in the Jacobite Peerage) by his father. He and his brother were both born in exile in Rome, and both were buried for a short while in Frascati’s St Peter’s cathedral. And that’s because Cardinal Duke of York Henry Benedict was bishop of Frascati, amongst other things, and lived here for decades. He was very much loved and respected for all the good works he did – and of course, he lived in the Bishop’s palace just across the road from the tearoom bearing his moniker!
THE AFTERNOON TEA – PREPPING
Ssssh … don’t say I said but I do have to say it. Italians, or rather some Italians just to be on the politically correct side of the equation, find it hard to let their hair down on social occasions that are not within the strict perimeter of their homes or family/close friend connection. Socially speaking, they tend to be on the shy side that way. Instead, Brits, Americans and Scandinavians ‘make friends’ much more easily. Brits in particular tend to like dressing up and acting silly at parties, that’s what parties are for surely? So Michelle, Victoria and I came up with a very cunning plan. We decided to host the Afternoon Tea Party during the week of Carnival/Mardi Gras, just before Ash Wednesday when Italians find it all right to dress up (especially the children) and act silly or even be a little on the boisterous side if need be. We knew we wouldn’t be able to convince our guests to dress up but we did insist on everyone wearing a hat and set up a prize for the most ingenious or original one. We therefore called it The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party.
When people ask me why I like Italian food so much, I answer sincerely that I love so many other cuisines of the world too, don’t get me wrong. That said, every single time I cook Indian or Thai or Lebanese or even British food (think Sunday Roast), I am reminded of how quick (super quick!) it is to rustle up an Italian meal compared with other nations’ food. Thus, I knew that an Afternoon Tea was going to be mega planning, shopping, and hard work, with close attention to detail. As did both Victoria and Michelle. I am not very good in the sweet department so I invited another good friend, Italo-Australian Liz, who is easily the best home cook I’ve ever come across, to come on board.
Artistic Michelle came up with the invitation card within seconds of being asked. Victoria was all about ensuring that our ladies went home with a goody bag on top of everything else and all in all, this was one of the most arduous events I have had the pleasure to be involved in (please excuse my split infinitive).
Sandwiches, good ones, are the backbone of an Afternoon Tea and these require good butter. Liz was visiting her daughter in Oslo just days before our event so I asked her to kindly bring over some good Norwegian butter as well as – yes, please don’t laugh – cucumbers. Again Sssssh! I say this in ultra hushed tones but … If there are two, and only two, food stuffs that are sadly disappointing in Italy then these must be butter and cucumbers. The latter are often almost bitter and hard to digest. And I always buy Lurpak here because Italian butter is just so, well, ‘unbuttery’. In fact, when family or friends come over from England and ask what they can bring, I always ask for butter which I then freeze (including gorgeous unpasteurized French Butter). Oh, and … and Liz also had to bring over some dill from Oslo, because dill is really hard to come by in Rome.
Our guest list of 24 (all ladies except for one husband who loved the male/female ratio) was composed of people we knew or friends of friends and eight nationalities were present: Italian, English, German, French, Russian, North American, South African, and Argentinian (plus Norwegian salmon, butter, dill and cucumbers). We charged the token sum of twenty euros a head and everyone had a delightful, and I mean delightful time, and it was worth all our efforts. Michelle’s hat was by far the most original but we decided it would not have been ‘proper’ for the organizers to win the hat prize. There were runner-up prizes too …
Giancarlo was blown away by our organizational skills and the ‘correct’ tone of this happy party (lots of fun but done with style, none of that faux rustic nonsense). But the cherry on the cake, for me at least, since I am a romantic at heart, was the fact that a real British Duchess was amongst our guests enjoying the gathering to the hilt. At one point, with no one noticing, I raised a glass of prosecco to Henry Benedict, Cardinal Duke of York, and smiled within. I bet he was happy to see such frolicking going on so close to his erstwhile much-loved home.
That’s me on the left, having a good laugh with Victoria.
The photos (all the good-quality ones that is) of the food and people at the party were taken by Michelle Aschacher, Leanne Talbot Nowell and Diane Epstein … all of them fabulous photographers.
Again, Happy New Year Everyone !
Giancarlo donning a Cardinal’s hat … what else!