Chapter 1 – Once upon a time…
Ox-tales. Flashback to February 2008 to dinner in a trattoria in Trastevere that no longer exists to the night when I met her, ‘coda alla vaccinara‘. I say her because coda (tail) ends in ‘a’ which makes the noun feminine in Italian. The tables are draped with cream tablecloths with fine burgundy dotted lines, not the classic Lady and the Tramp large checkered ones but more subtle. The lighting is subdued.
The corner table it is, near the window facing a backstreet glowing with pale yellow light that only comes from Rome street lamps. Pull up a chair and peruse the menu. We order bruschetta, cheese, salami, amatriciana, cacio e pepe, puntarelle for 2, ricotta pie, tiramisu and then her. After the starters, pasta and dessert, Natalia, friend, chef and adventurous eater, proclaims “I’m still hungry. I’m not one for sweets so how about coda alla vaccinara?” I protest, a bit squeamish at the thought of eating tail and hence began my love affair with this tender, unctuous Roman specialty.
Chapter 2 – Waste not want not
Coda alla Vaccinara or Roman oxtail stew is good value. It lists amongst the traditional Roman recipes that use tougher cuts of meat in Rome. It also falls into my approach to food and my way of cooking. I use a main ingredient and turn it into many dishes or courses in this case. The sauce is tossed with pasta while the tail is an entree. Waste not want not.
She is cooked with loads of celery, parsley, carrot, onion, garlic, sometimes lard, sometimes olive oil. The oxtail pieces simmer away with wine, tomatoes, and water. There are many versions which is not surprising. My butcher insists on adding cacao. My neighborhood trattoria excludes cacao claiming this is a peasant dish. Chocolate in any form is a luxury which is saved for special occasions. Some versions include raisins, pine nuts and dark chocolate while others add thyme, marjoram and bay leaves. The end result is meat that falls off the bone, swimming in a dense, dark brown or brick red sauce.
Chapter 3 – silver linings
Coda alla vaccinara is a dish that I enjoy eating in trattorie. It’s not one that I usually make at home. Nearly a year has passed since I had my last coda alla vaccinara at Agustarello with a side of puntarelle salad. Nearly a year has passed since we’ve been outside of our kitchen with friends. I took this luxury for granted.
The silver lining is that I cook even more often than I did before. I didn’t think that it could be possible but it is. Dishes from my “order in a restaurant list” now appear in our kitchen: cacio e pepe, home made scialatielli pasta, Neapolitan ragu, frittura di pesce (fried fish), arancini (Sicilian rice balls), and coda alla vaccinara.
Chapter 4 – tutti a tavola!
Back to the tail. Although it’s served year round in Rome, I love it most in winter for Sunday lunch. Partially for the ritual of making it. I wake up early, pour myself a coffee and cook. The smell of sweet tomatoes fills the air. Spit, spat, bubble, crack fills our kitchen. She simmers for hours. She is well worth the wait. She gives us a first course; pasta served in her rich sauce and a second course; luscious oxtail. Like I said waste not want not. We open a bottle of Cesanese wine which was made to be drunk with her. Tutti a tavola! Sunday lunch is served.
P.S. Would anyone like to make coda alla vaccinara with me?