Treasure Hunt

When I was in high school at St. Stephen’s School in Rome, we had an annual “treasure hunt” in which groups of students would be sent to all corners of the city, led by obscure clues. 21 years later, on the occasion of the school’s 50th anniversary, I found myself setting off on a treasure hunt mission once again.
(Please forgive the length of this post; submitting a report on our progress is the final, crucial step of the hunt and I am using this post as the group’s official submission.)
Our team, Team Purple received these clues:
1. Find the nostalgic antique shop at Via di Ripetta, 49. What seems to be its specialty? Photograph the display windows. You could price an interesting object or even buy one. One wonders what the shopkeeper thinks of the new Ara Pacis “container” by Richard Meier.
2. Go to Piazza Santi Apostoli. Admire the palace facing the church. Which family owned it? Note their “stemma” (family crest). Then enter the church and find a spectacular floor mosaic witht this same stemma, with additions showing where this nobleman fought for and against whom. Birds, sheep and banners. Then quietly enter the crypt. Who are the two apostles and who is buried in the chapel to the left (father of Pope Julius II) and at the opposite end is a fake catacomb grave. She is a girl with wo fish called __________. What room with frescoes has recently been opened to the public?
3. Go to the Ufficio della Provincia opposite the Piazza Santi Apostoli. What can one do below the building? If you are so inclined, you might want to do it.
4. You have seen the tombs of the two apostles. There is another, besides Peter, who is buried in Rome. Go to the Tiber Island and find wehre the apostle is buried. What is his name? How did his remains get to Rome? What ancient guild also has a space in the same building where the apostle is buried?
We retreated to the terrace to strategize, and decided to tackle clue 4 first, since the Tiber Island is close to the school, From there, we would continue to Piazza Santi Apostoli and finally on to Via Ripetta, not far from the Spanish Steps. “Remember,” Mr. Brouse had warned us as he handed out clues, “the churches close from 12 to 4.”
When we arrived on the Tiber Island (where I once had to go for a tetanus shot after stepping on a rusty tack), we found a wedding party pouring out of the Basilica of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island. Could this be where our apostle was?
As it turns out, it was. The body of St. Bartholomew has been laid to rest in this enormous porphyry bathtub:

This seems a fitting vessel for such an important saint, though St. Bartholomew travelled in a somewhat less illustrious manner. His remains were apparently conveyed to the church in this bowl:

Exactly who brought them there and why was less clear. Rifling through one of the books for sale in the church, I found two possible stories. One was that King Otto II brought them with the intention of later transporting them to Germany, and another suggested that King Otto III had built the church there in order to honor St. Bartholomew and a martyr by the name of Adalbert.
As for the ancient guild, it is only fitting that at a time when grain mills were often water powered, the guild of millers would have a space in a basilica on the Tiber Island.

We were feeling quite pleased with ourselves as we left the church, our sights set on clue #2.

It wasn’t a very long walk to Piazza Santi Apostoli, and it was easy to tell we’d found our mark when we were greeted by a line of saints looking stately stop their perches.



We hadn’t kept a very vigilant eye on the time, however, and ended up staring hard at the front door to the church through heavy and resolutely locked gates. Still, the palazzo across the way was still there to be admired.
The stemma proved easy to find

20140629-081857-29937647.jpg Though there was still the matter of the family’s name. The massive doors of the palazzo were open, so Lizzie and I wandered over to see what we could discover. I was just getting ready to propel Kaya forward into the cortile of the palazzo so that I might follow him in when a spectral figure stepped out to greet us. Lizzie asked her politely whether we might enter, but we were informed firmly that the interior was private and for us to go in was quite out of the question. Lizzie pressed her for the name of the family and she said xxxx…schacchi. Confused, we tried several times to repeat what she’d said to her satisfaction, but she tired of us, bared her teeth, and walked in to the private interior of the palazzo. “I don’t think that she told us the actual name of the family,” said Lizzie as we crossed the piazza to share what we’d discovered.
We needn’t have worried – this sign was displayed on the street for all to see:

This all called for a coffee break. We cooled our heels for a while in a nearby bar, over coffee and sandwiches, while plotting our next move.
We had spotted the Ufficio della Provincia before our break.

20140629-083337-30817889.jpg We wondered what it might be possible to do below the building. “I bet you can get married,” guessed Matt, and no one could top that.
Well the answer turned out to be quite different. About 6 weeks before our trip, a Leslie had written us about a museum that hadn’t been there when we were in Rome. It was apparently some sort of reconstruction of a Roman home that you could join tours to see. The only upshot was that you had to book in advance, and this we failed to do. Imagine our surprise to find ourselves brought to the door of that very museum, which is housed beneath the Ufficio della Provincia, by the hand of the treasure hunt. Matt and Leslie went in to see if we might not be able to secure last minute tickets and emerged with a reservation for the 3 o’clock tour.
It was 1:30. On to clue 1.
Evelyn fell asleep as we walked towards Piazza di Spagna, so Matt sat in the shade with her while we walked on in search of Via di Ripetta. It announced itself with the presence of the Ara Pacis museum.

I couldn’t imagine the proprietor of a fusty antique shop having much good to say about the gleaming white museum, but unfortunately we will never know what they might have thought. For although we walked the length of Via di Ripetta, we could find no sign of the shop in question. We thought this might have been number 49:

but it was hard to tell because the numbers jumped from 44 to 60 to either side of it.
Thankful that we hadn’t dragged a sleeping child on a wild goose chase, we headed back to regroup and catch our tour.
The museum was very interesting. The highlight for me was a narration of all of the events depicted on Trajan’s column which the Roman houses we visited would have looked out upon. During the section of the tour in the ancient homes, they used lots of light effects to illustrate how the houses might have looked, including one particularly striking one where they used light to complete a mosaic floor.

20140629-085308-31988482.jpg And although they were a tiny bit heavy handed with the “going back in time” narrative and the tour proved slightly too long winded for the children, we had a good time.
Back outside in the blazing sun, we decided to take another crack at the church.
CLUE 2 continued
We found the crest in the floor

20140629-085638-32198657.jpg but failed to interpret it.
We found the saints in the crypt (which smelled of the underworld)

20140629-085754-32274865.jpg but lacked the energy to chase down the rest of the bedfellows.
The room that had recently reopened turned out to be a recently restored chapel

20140629-085912-32352868.jpg that we were unable to enter. It was after 5 and we were at the ends of our ropes. So we parted ways, not exactly victorious but certainly feeling that we’d had a few adventures and uncovered a gem or two. And it brought back to me how much I’d always enjoyed St. Stephen’s treasure hunts. There’s the puzzle of it all and the putting our heads together, but most of all I think it’s something that shows you how rich the obscure at destinations in the city can be and it reminds us to unearth these hidden gems wherever we may find ourselves.

Go Team Purple!

Grape flowers… and leaves!

The first time I visited the land that was to become our garden, I remember walking past a tall pine tree with a wild grape clambering up its side. There were red grapes on the vine, ready to eat, and we picked some. It seemed like such a lovely, generous thing to be presented with. I remember the heat of the day, the chanting cicadas, the sweet grapes.

We have planted a number of grape vines since we moved to the garden, mostly vitis vinifera (the variety of wine grapes, hence its name) but also one vitis labrusca (ours is a seedless Concorde grape). That one, also known as fox grape (which will make sense to anyone whose botanical Latin is ticking along nicely), was not very happy for the first few years, which is not so surprising considering that it is a native of the Eastern United States. It seems to be coming into its own this year, though, which is good news for me because those grapes are my favorites, since I did some growing up in their native land. In addition to the ones that we have planted, there are wild grapes springing up all over the place, and as our watering routines have improved, they seem to have proliferated further.

I have mentioned before that Ali is very interested in the scents of our plants, and we love to sit on the porch and breathe it all in. Recently, we noticed a new smell, a slightly sweet and yet also sharp scent that we hadn’t noticed before, that was distinct from the honeysuckle, the mock orange, and the jasmine that were also in bloom. Lying in the garden bathtub, staring up into the tangle of wild and cultivated grapes overhead, Ali put his finger on it — we were smelling the grape flowers.

grape flowers

I’d never given much thought to what a grape flower looked like, let alone that it might be scented.

At around the same time, I noticed that a lot of people were selling grape leaves in the market and this made me want to make stuffed grape leaves. There are two kinds of stuffed grape leaves that I am familiar with. One is the olive oil dish, grape vines stuffed with rice, currants and pine nuts. These are eaten cold at family gatherings, most notably at new year when my mother in law will put a button in one and a coin in another – eating one of these ensures good fortune in the new year. Every year I stuff my face with grape leaves and come up empty, but they are very tasty, so it is hard to have sore feelings about it. The other kind of stuffed grape leaf is filled with meat and eaten hot, with garlic yogurt. That’s the one I wanted to make.

I called up my mother in law and told her about the leaves and she said, “Oh well it’s very easy. Just get your minced meat and add some salt and pepper, roll it up and cook!” I hung up the phone and waited. About 30 minutes later, she called. “There’s a bit more to it. Let me explain.”

Etli dolma (meat stuffed grape leaves)

1/2 kg. minced meat (it should be fatty or the dolma will be too dry. My mother in law recommends lamb, and I have to say I agree)

1 1/2 tsp. salt

1 tomato, 1 onion1 Tablespoon each chopped fresh dill and mint

1 Tablespoon rice

1 Tablespoon olive oil

grape leaves


1. First, you boil the leaves. This makes them pliable, and also starts the process of cooking them. You just need to blanch them for a minute or so. Their color changes to a dull green:


2. Grate your onion


and then grate your tomato. You will end up with a nice, wet slurry:


3. Add this to the meat, along with the salt, pepper and herbs, throw in the rice and oil and knead it until it is all mixed in.

4. Now comes the fun part! Get your dull green leaf and lay it, ribbed side up (smooth side down) on the table. Make a small meat log and place it on the leaf:


Then fold up:


fold in the sides:


and roll it up:


You may notice that these are not the elegant, long-fingered shape of the rice dolma. This is partly down to my beginner status, I expect, but I have usually encountered etli dolma as a more substantial, thumb-like parcel. It’s up to you how you fold yours, of course.

5. Pack all of your dolma tightly into a pot:

in a pot

Dot them with some butter, add water to the pot to just cover the parcels, and cover it all with a plate:

plate on top

Since you’ve gone to all the trouble of finding a plate that will actually sit snugly inside your pot, be a good fellow and weigh that plate down or you will end up with floating dolma buoying the plate in a most dismaying manner. I used my meat pounder, but a big tin of tomatoes or beans would also do the trick.

6. Cover the pot and cook the dolma until the grape leaves soften. In my limited experience, this takes no less than 30 minutes. Only your mouth can tell you if they are ready. It is an arduous but necessary task to sample the dolma after 30 minutes and then again in 5 to 10 minute intervals until you are happy with the results.

If you like, serve them with garlic yogurt (which is just garlic pressed into a bowl of yogurt with a pinch of salt thrown in for good measure – a wonderful, instant sauce) or plain yogurt.

I love this dish because the leaves are slightly sour and tannic, and I have read that grape leaves are very nutritious. Plus, it gives us something to eat off those vines until the grapes ripen. Then we’ll have other jobs to do!

In My Kitchen June 2014

I’ve missed a few months, in both senses of the word. I know that we all have busy lives and it is just a matter of claiming the time to do things like sit down a write. Happily, it is pouring rain in the garden today, so I am sitting in the outdoor kitchen listening to it, smelling it and savoring it, because although we will probably have the odd shower in the weeks to come, this is likely to be the last real storm we have before our long, hot and bone dry summer.
There are loads of interesting kitchens to visit; if you’re interested, stop by Celia’s blog, Fig Jam and Lime Cordial which is Command Central for IMK posts.0
This is a bit of a May and June mash-up, but never mind. In my kitchen there are:


Cut flowers! And since I never bother to cut flowers from the garden, this can mean only one thing: my mom is back in town. She spotted the snapdragons and was busy with her secateurs in no time. They are a particular favorite of mine. Ali is more concerned with scent when considering plants, and he has filled our garden with fragrant plants. But I love my showy snapdragons because they are a feast for the eyes (the variety is Madame Butterfly. They are hybrids, but these ones have come back for three years in a row, so I forgive them). And besides, if everything were scented it might become a bit much.
My mother went to Paris to visit some friends shortly after she got here, and came back bearing gifts. In my kitchen there is:

this beautiful egg basket that she found at a flea market. Who knew that such beautiful things even existed? Well, plenty of people I am sure, but not me. It is nice to have something pretty to keep our eggs in, since the ladies put hard work into producing them.
On the subject of eggs, we’ve received an exciting gift from our neighbour:

Do you see those smaller eggs in the front? They’re from his Guinea fowl! He heard we have an incubator, so he gave us 10 eggs. We’ll give him a couple of the hatchlings in return. I am very excited to have Guinea fowl, not least because I have heard that they are quite aggressive around snakes; we’ve got lots of snakes here. I like the black garden snakes just fine, but we’ve got vipers too, and poor old Lulu (our dog) just got bitten on the nose by a big one. She is at the vet, attached to a bag of serum. She seems to be getting better, but it has been a pretty miserable few days for her. She’s always been aggressive around snakes, but I bet she’ll tone down her attitude now… Anyway, hopefully the Guineas will take over the snake patrol before long!
On Friday, Ali wandered into the garden and came back with this:


We’ve been here for six years now, and the trees that we planted in those first few years have started bearing fruit in earnest. Not all of them, of course; I am pretty sure we will only eat a handful of our own cherries. But we’ve got plenty of apricots! I’ll have to think of something to do with them all, since I am sure we can’t eat them fast enough.
And that’s a quick look at some of the things in my kitchen this month! While we’re on the subject, here’s the view from where I am typing — if I stand up, I have a clear view of the tub in the rain:

Thanks for stopping by my kitchen!