Let's Eat

Roman holiday: a flour-filled (kosher) Pesach

Why special biscuits and ‘Jewish-style’ artichokes are a Passover treat for Italian food expert Silvia Nacamulli


W ith Purim behind us, Pesach shops are opening their doors and families will be dusting down Seder schedules and picking this year’s menus.

There are plenty of new flavours to celebrate the spring festival. The colours on greengrocers’ displays will (hopefully) soon be popping with the green, pink and red hues of the season’s new spinach, rhubarb and radishes. For Italian Jews, Pesach traditions can be slightly different.
JC recipe contributor and author of Jewish Flavours of Italy, Silvia Nacamulli, will be looking forward to an ingredient with a more muted purple and green tones. A very seasonal vegetable for which she and her family wait all year.

“Come February and March I find myself longing for Romanesco artichokes. In Rome, my family cooks them almost non-stop in peak season. Our Passover Seder night would just not be the same without them, as my mum fries more than 50.”

Nacamulli, who admits to being mildly obsessed with the spiky vegetable, does not reserve this treat only for her family’s Pesach festivities. “If I can, I travel home [to Rome where she was born and raised] to satisfy my appetite for them.”

She says she loves “everything about artichokes, starting from the idea that they are actually flowers or, more precisely, thistles, that you can eat. They look fabulous when still young and closed, and I marvel at how they blossom with a gorgeous purple flower in the middle.” The parts of this elegant edible that are tender enough to eat — under the spiky exterior — are, in fact, flower buds. It has been an Italian delicacy for centuries and a firm favourite of with Jewish families.

“Although they’re expensive now, at one time they grew wild and were plentiful,” explains Nacamulli, who, in her book explains that in her country, Jews — often forced by poverty to become thrifty cooks — were known for the way in which they peeled artichokes.

Carciofi all Guidia (Jewish-style artichokes) were so-called because of the distinctive way in which they cleaned and trimmed these vegetables to get the most out of them — paring off the spiky leaves to leave just the edible heart. They are then deep fried twice — the first time to soften the leaves so they can be prised open, and the second time to fully open the leaves and crisp them up.

“This recipe is emblematic of Roman, if not all, Italian Jewish cuisine. If I had to name my favourite artichoke dish, it would be this. Its sunflower looks, crispy leaves, tender heart and savoury-sweet taste make it unique.”

Nacamulli explains in her book that “knowledge of the trimming technique still survives today among the Jews of Rome and in a few market stalls in the area around the city’s former ghetto.”

She gives me a demonstration in her London kitchen, rubbing lemon onto the pared vegetable and squeezing lemon into the water into which they’ll sit until being cooked. “You do this to stop them discolouring,” she says, donning disposable gloves to prevent her hands being stained.

If the fiddly prep makes them a special-occasion food, so might the price tag. In the UK, you can only source the types needed to eat them “alla Guidia” (or braised, boiled or raw in salads) from specialist greengrocers, and they are not cheap.

“I found mine on Ocado,” says Nacamulli, who has bought them to prepare for a catering client. She explains that the globe variety that you find here contain too much inedible “hair”.

“You need Romanesco artichokes, which are also known as Mammole or the Violetto di Sant’Erasmo, which were popular in the Venetian ghetto.” Artichokes aren’t the only favourite Italian Pesach family food that differs from English Jewish menus. Another traditional treat the Nacmullis bake are ginetti biscuits (pictured below), which are flour-based Passover biscuits. I double take when she tells me this. For Pesach?

“The use of kosher-for-Passover flour for Pesach baking — and Rome is indeed an Orthodox community — is quite a curiosity for the foreign eye, and it may be different from other Jewish customs.

“Over Pesach, you can go to Boccione — the kosher bakery in the Jewish Quarter in Rome and buy their ginetti biscuits made with flour. It’s not flour that isn’t kosher over Pesach, it’s the fermentation — which is why matzah is OK. Until 2009, Roman bakeries were permitted to sell kosher-for-Pesach flour for people to take home to make biscuits.”

At this point, she explains, the Israeli Rabbinate decided this practice was too open to abuse and it was banned. “There were huge demonstrations by Roman Jews saying keep the flour free!” Nacamulli explains it had developed as part of the Italian minhag (tradition) in the same way the tradition of avoiding kitniyot developed in the Middle Ages for Ashkenazi Jews.

Since the ban, Roman Jews have not been allowed to bake their own flour-based Pesach biscuits at home but are permitted to visit a communal oven where a mashgiach watches to ensure the biscuits are prepared within the time frame allowed before the flour is said to ferment. “That must be done before Pesach. Italy’s kosher bakeries clean for Pesach ten days ahead. They do a deep clean, then bake their kosher for Pesach biscuits for a week before stopping for Passover when they only sell the pre-baked cookies.”

She recalls baking them at home when it was still allowed. “Most Roman Jews make round ciambellette doughnut biscuits, but in our family we always made ginetti, which are roughly rectangular in shape,” she says, recalling how she and her mother, Miriam, would clean the kitchen thoroughly then bake late at night before they burnt their chometz. “We’d make the ginetti as a family. Mum would make lots of small quantities of dough so we can make them within the time frame.”

Find the recipe for Ginetti di Miriam and a step-by-step guide to preparing Jewish-style artichokes in Silvia’s book Flavours of Italy (Green Bean Books)

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