Rachel Roddy's recipe for Roman-style oxtail stew
Rachel Roddy's recipe for Roman-style oxtail stew
Beneath the shadow of an ancient mountain of terracotta shards, Testaccio's old slaughterhouse has been given a new purpose, but its past is writ large in the menus of the nearby trattorie. This braised oxtail dish is the king of the hill
Now the trees are leafless, from our narrow balcony you can just about make out a statue of a winged god punching out a bull. The sculpture sits above the main entrance of the Ex-Mattatoio, Rome's old slaughterhouse. The place was the bloody, beating heart of Testaccio until it closed in 1975. These days, the sprawling complex is part university, part art gallery, part ruin. It's also home to an organic supermarket, music school, old people's association, gypsy camp and stalls for the weary horses that drag carriages over Rome's cobbles. These new factions exist around the defiant remains of the past: circular runners punctuated with meat hooks, metal pens and troughs. An individual building may be full of dancing OAPs or modern art, but it is still called La Pelanda - the place the animals were skinned. For my son, like other local kids, the open space at the far end of the complex is a place to run riot, or look up at Testaccio's other landmark, the Monte - an ancient Roman rubbish dump, a massive hill built around AD200 from broken terracotta amphorae that once contained olive oil.
Until the 70s, kids would play up on Monte Dei Cocci, the hill of broken pots, which had it all: slopes to slide down, jagged terracotta weapons and seven centuries of wilderness to hide in - which meant it was also a place for lovers. These days the Monte is closed, except for rare guided visits, with are worth seeking out for the astonishing walk as ancient fragments clink like clay bells under your feet, and for the panoramic views over industrial and classical Rome. Walking the circumference of the Monte gives you perspective. It is quiet though, and scruffy, its base home to some rather temporary looking nightclubs, mechanics and trattorie. These offer a glimpse inside the Monte, their back walls and wine cellars offering a cross section of the carefully constructed layers of broken terracotta. It is also in these trattorie, alongside the quartet of Roman pastas, braised artichokes and crisp curls of puntarelle salad, you can eat Testaccio's quinto quarto cooking.
Quinto quarto is the offal that makes up a quarter of an animal's weight. It became known as the "fifth quarter" to distinguish between it and the other, more desirable cuts that would have gone to the rich and the clergy. Workers from the slaughterhouse often had their pay subsidised with quinto quarto, which they took home to their wives, or into local trattoria, where it was inventively and resourcefully turned into meals. It is a style of cooking born out of necessity, but is continued for prosperity, and because it can be bloody good - true nose-to-tail eating: oxtail braised in wine and tomato, tripe simmered with tomato, wild mint and pecorino, tongue with piquant green sauce, grilled sweetbreads, lamb offal with artichokes.
The king of these dishes - I think - is coda alla vaccinara: oxtail cooked in the style of the vaccinari, the men who slaughtered and butchered the cows. It is easy to fall down historical and folklorish rabbit holes with dishes like this. Elio and Francesco at local restaurant Checchino dal 1887 told me their great grandmother invented the dish. I told my butchers this story and they pinched their fingers as if to say: what the hell? It was their grandma who invented it - then winked. Everyone has a story. The coda at Checchino is, like everything at this historic, formal-with-a touch-of-Fawlty-Towers place: expensive. It is also glorious, the pieces braised for five hours, by which point the meat is so silky and gelatinous it has stopped clinging and just falls from the bone, the celery the very definition of savoury. At the rather more down-to-earth Agustarello, the coda is finished with lots of cocoa, making it so dark and glossy it seems to shine like polished chestnut. It's a dish that seems far more luxurious than its slaughterhouse origins, but a wonderful one.
My butcher Roberta insists that oxtail with tomato and celery is coda alla Romana; when finished with raisins, pine nuts and cocoa/chocolate coda alla vaccinara. My version can't decide what it is, as it includes wine, tomato, celery, pine nuts, and maybe sultanas, but no chocolate .
These are days suited to long, slow braises, and oxtail requires it. Both Roberta and Elio are of the mind you don't need to boil the meat first, simply wash it. Brown the pieces until they are burnished - you are laying down foundations. Be patient and work in batches. The wine should bubble for a while before you add the tomato. Some versions suggest adding the celery at the start, but I think it gets too tender, so prefer to add it after 3 hours, so it remains distinct. The simmer should be a low, steady blip-blip, and keep an eye on the liquid levels. By the end of cooking the sauce should be rich and glossy. Coda is best made the day - even two days - before, in which case it will set to a jellied wobble and you can lift off some of the fat before you reheat it.
When serving, you use the sauce to dress pasta and then eat the meat, or simply serve it with bread to mop up the sauce. My Lancastrian and Mancunian grandparents taught me the best meat is close to the bone, and with oxtail bones, that their convenient knobbles demand to be picked up and sucked. I love oxtail in all its incarnations, but cooked as they do it in Testaccio, oxtails manages to be both a mother and a diva of a dish; one that links a slaughterhouse to an ancient hill, and the past to the present, in the most delicious way.
Roman-style oxtail stew
1.2 kg oxtail, cut into sections
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced
4 tbsp olive oil, for frying
250ml red wine
800g tinned plum tomatoes, chopped
Salt and black pepper
200g celery, cut into 5cm batons
30g pine nuts
Dark chocolate or cocoa powder, to taste (optional)
1 Wash the oxtail in cold water, drain and pat the pieces dry. In a large, heavy-based or enamel pot, that can later contain all the ingredients, fry the onion in the olive oil over a medium heat. Add half the oxtail and brown on all sides, making sure the onion doesn't catch. Once the oxtail is brown, transfer on to a plate. Brown the remaining meat.
2 Return all the oxtail to the pan, raise the heat and add the wine. Let it sizzle and partially evaporate. Add the tomato, 100ml of water, salt and pepper. Turn the meat, making sure it is covered with sauce. Bring the pot to a steady simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Half cover the pot and cook for 3 hours. Every now and then, turn the meat and add a little more water if the sauce is looking too thick.
3 Add the celery, sultanas and pine nuts to the pan and stir. Cook for 2 more hours. By then the meat should be incredibly tender and falling from the bone; the sauce, rich and dark. If you don't have time to let the stew rest overnight, spoon away some of the fat that is resting on the surface. If you wish, add grated chocolate or cocoa, taste, and add more salt, if necessary.