For my beloved Brother who introduced me to the art of cooking, who taught me how to taste and truly love food. Without him I'd never be able to be where I am today.

May 28, 2013

The Fifth Quarter

I’m always hunting for new and unknown flavours. Luckily, I’ve never been a picky eater – an asset, for sure. As long as the treat handed to me is edible, my mouth opens. That’s how I’ve been taught and that’s my motto. It’s downright the best way to amuse your taste buds. The way I see it is that each new flavor adds vocabulary and nuances to my taste grammar. The fact that I’m also awfully curious just adds satisfaction.

Ever since I moved to Italy I’ve been extra diligent with my motto. Even the most suspicious foods have to be tried at least once. Surely ignorance is often bliss when it comes to the not-so-common-rather-strange-looking-and-smelly-stuff. Growing up in Hanoi, Vietnam I’ve learned that sometimes you’re better off eating first and thinking later. Savouring a well-made testina al forno (baked lamb brain) is far easier when you concentrate on the one you have the plate and not the one between your ears. Just saying.

In Italy going to the butcher’s is a lot more exciting than back home in Finland. Whole rabbits, whole roosters, brains, testicles, pig legs, ears are all nicely chilling there side by side. And internal organs! Never did I think how refreshing the sight of offal could be. Very soothing indeed. Yep, all there; kidneys; liver; intestines; heart. A bit like counting ten fingers and toes on a newborn. Or something.

Of all places in Italy, Lazio and especially the city of Rome is intriguing for its traditional cuisine. When we arrived to the region with the class last week, my curiosity for odd bits and new flavors escalated instantly. Offal, or quinto quarto as it’s called in Italian (literally the ‘Fifth Quarter’), happen to be both an important pillar of the Roman cuisine and a personal source of curiosity.

First, a quick peak into history: Paradoxically, the ancient Roman diet was predominantly vegetarian and seafood based. Butcher’s meat was only consumed when the animals that no longer served any other purpose were slaughtered. Back then, offal was considered both prohibited and refined food. Only around the 2nd century BCE, along with the early urbanization and birth of luxury foods, did meat consumption progressively start augmenting. The high-class gourmands of those times indulged themselves with extravagant offal dishes such as fattened goose liver with figs, rooster’s testicles and crest, swan and flamingo tongue, just to name a few. A hop and a skip later, a shift took place again towards the end of the 18th century and offal got downgraded as poor man’s food. Also the slaughterhouses and butchers were moved away from the city centre to the periphery for hygienic reasons and growing discomfort of having them too close the living areas. Letting blood run down to the streets of Rome just wasn’t acceptable any longer.

It was then in the late 19th century in the slaughterhouses of a specific “rione” (district) of Rome called Testaccio that quinto quarto made its way to the Roman tables. There the “vaccinari” or “scortichini“ (slaughterhouse workers who skinned animals for living) were paid not with money but with the animal parts most people regarded as waste – a thin comfort for hard labor. On the other hand luckily they did, as this fiercely developed the local food scene that we today know of traditional Roman cuisine.

Of course behind each vaccinari there was woman. It was the housewives and local osterie and trattorie (female) cooks that were forced to make something out of nothing using the not-so-appetizing odd bits. And boy did they do it well. Ears, feet, skin, tail, liver, heart, lungs and brain were all turned into succulent, robust comfort food. For anyone who has even remotely heard of Roman cuisine the word ‘vaccinari’ should ring a bell. The finger-licking full-bodied Roman cuisine classic coda alla vaccinara (slowly cooked oxtail in tomato sauce with onions, carrots, celery, white wine, guaciale, some add pine nuts, dried raisins and bitter cocoa, it works either way) is a fabulous invention created in the pots and pans of these Roman women. This popular dish is by the way probably one of the easiest ways to get acquitted with the delicious-but-sometimes-odd-world of quinto quarto cuisine.

Calling offal quinto quarto actually makes perfect sense: An animal when slaughtered is cut in half from nose to tail. You end up with two halves that are then both divided in fore and hind parts. Result, four quarters. The fifth ‘quarto’ is all that remains of the slaughtered beast: head, tail, legs, and internal organs – odd bits. Coming from Finland, if it weren’t for all my travels, I would’ve probably never encountered most of these bits in an eating context. In fact, many people in the Nordic countries are very sceptical when it comes to offal. (Finding deep-frozen blood used for pancakes next to ice cream in the super market however is totally normal, hmm).

Offal is seriously tasty and besides that an exciting challenge for any cook, amateur or professional. The odd bits are very heterogeneous in both taste and nutritional value, also in regards to cooking times and methods. Even though quinto quarto dishes are precious building blocks of traditional Roman cuisine, it’s not something the modern day gladiators eat every day. Sure, there are different reasons for it such as the organs’ toxin content, high levels of saturated fats and cholesterol etc. It’s a pity we hear less of how offal holds many essential lipids, vitamins and mineral nutrients. Offal is also gentle on your wallet as it's still the cheapest animal protein you can get. When you trust your butcher, go for it.

The quinto quarto dishes are the classic example of how poor man’s food has become an authentic delicacy representing the local culinary distinctiveness of a specific region. The dishes are comfort food at its best – a real Roman cult – historically linked to necessity and restrictions of the daily life once upon a time. When savoring these luscious and substantial delicacies you can say you’ve tasted tradition. Nowadays many of the dishes have, however, been transformed and updated to more delicate versions in order to make them more palatable and accessible for a wider range of people. But that’s the name of the game. Back in the days these dishes were the reflection of their time. It’s only fair that today you can find fresher versions of the old, which nevertheless still respect tradition.

Even though blood no longer runs down the sidewalks of Rome, sinking your teeth into pajata, coratella, testarella or la trippa alla romana still wakes up the barbarian in you. No wonder that in many cultures offal are considered ”good for men”. But one doesn’t need testosterone to feel like the rush. As disgusting as it may sound to some, I simply love eating slightly grilled bloody liver with my fingers, sucking the skull of a roasted lamb and licking the sauce of my plate of veal intestines with enormous pleasure.

When in Rome… these are some good spots for traditional quinto quarto cuisine. In Testaccio: Agustarello, Perilli, Oio a Casa Mia and Lo Scopettaro. In other districts: L’Antica Pesa, il Quinto Quarto, Giggetto al Portico d’Ottavia, La Sagra del Vino and L’Osteria del Cannellino. Outside of Rome: Osteria di San Cesario.

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