Monday, June 9, 2008

rome week begins! pizzas and the pantheon

hello all history fans, and welcome to the first day of Rome Week. i hope you're all as excited as i am by the prospect of all of this roman history and culture! a history lesson and a cooking lesson every day for the next seven days. do i know what i've let myself in for? do you? well, probably not on both counts, but let's go. it could be fun.

today is pizza and the pantheon. i trust you all have a vague idea what a pizza is, so we'll start with the pantheon. i know some of you will be thinking: but the parthenon's in greece. it is. this is the pantheon, and it's one of my favourite buildings anywhere. but most history lessons get confused and tangential, so bear with me.

In 31BC there was a battle at Actium, between Cleopatra and Mark Antony (who i'm sure you've all heard of) and Octavian (later to become emperor Caesar Augustus), whose forces were led by Agrippa. as part of the celebration of the victory in Actium, Agrippa built the Pantheon (greek for temple to all the gods), around 27 BC.

Now, like most roman buildings, the pantheon was modified a lot, primarily by the emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. At this stage it went from being a fairly standard roman temple, to a round one with a magnificent domed room, as you can see from the picture below. this was largely due to the improvement in the production and pouring of concrete. now ancient concrete technology is of particular interest to me, but apparently not everyone (i have had people run screaming from pubs after a few minutes standing next to me at the bar), so we shan't go into this particular facet of the pantheon today.

however what would have been incredible about this building, aside from the concrete of course, is that in the second century there would have been other buildings butted up against the temple, unlike in the picture above, so when approaching it, it would have looked like a normal temple, but once you got inside you would have been greeted by this amazing domed roof, open to the heavens. for people who were used to seeing only angular architecture, this must have been totally amazing!

of course it's been fiddled with endlessly over the years, by Hadrian and then Septimius Severus and Caracalla in the ancient world and then by a secession of popes. it is now a church, with decorations by renaissance artists and tombs of prominent italians.

however it's a great, great place to visit, (although the oculus, or hole in the roof, makes it a bit damp in winter), and it's free - which can be quite unusual when touring Europe. there are also ripper gelati joints nearby.

but here are two extra panethon facts. the original agrippan building had caryatids (columns in the shape of women) out the front - see also the erechtheum in athens. secondly is the inscription on the porch of the second century building - M·AGRIPPA·L·F·COS·TERTIVM· FECIT which all latin buffs will know is short for Marcus Agrippa, Lucii filius, consul tertium fecit, which translate as Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, built this in his third consulship. This was made of bronze, as was some of the other decoration in the building. this was nicked by the artist Bernini in the seventeenth century to go towards the construction of the baldachino, for canopy over the tomb of St Peter in the basilica in the Vatican City.

and you thought history was boring.

of course wikipedia is a good source of basic information on all of this. i have some serious boring history books i can recommend too. or you could just come back tomorrow and see what i'm prattling on about.

but now the food. thank god i hear you all say.

mmmmm.... pizza.

pizza is dead easy. providing you've got some really basic ingredients and an hour or so you can get together a great pizza for about 50 cents. ok, maybe slightly more than that, but a great deal less than you'd pay for it in a pizza shop. and unlike places like pizza hut and dominos, yours will actually contain real food. hurrah!

for enough pizza for a couple of really hungry guys, you'll need:
  • 4 cups plain flour (or pizza/foccacia flour if you've got it)
  • 1 sachet of dried yeast (8gm)
  • approx 200ml tepid water
  • 1 tspn sugar
  • a glug of oil
  • salt
dissolve the sugar in the tepid water and sprinkle the yeast on top (it is important that the water is not too hot, or it will kill off the yeast, but it does need some warmth to activate the fermentation process). place it somewhere warm until it starts to bubble (approx 10 mins depending on how warm it is at your place).

on a clean bench top get the flour together and make a well in the centre, with good strong, high walls. add the other ingredients to the well and slowly mix in flour from the outside of the walls to form a dough. once it has a good consistency (you may need to add more water) knead for at least 10 minutes. people who say they can't make pizza dough are probably not kneading it long enough. or hard enough. get some strength into it people, why do you think calabrese nonne have such strong arms?????

once the dough is well kneaded and elastic (when you stretch it out it should spring back) put it in a large bowl, covered with either cling film or a clean tea towel and place somewhere warm to prove until doubled in size (a car parked in the sun is good for a quick prove. if you're making it in the morning you could even leave it in a cool part of the house until you come home in the evening).

for the sauce just fry off a clove of garlic and a can of pureed tomatoes until it's well reduced, adding stock, wine, chili ect depending on time/taste/budget/ingredients at hand. it needs to be fairly well reduced tho, not too runny.

once the dough is ready, simply cut it into pieces and roll into your desired shape. a second prove at this stage will improve the taste, but is not totally necessary.

place on a baking sheet that has either been oiled, covered with baking parchment or sprinkled with a little polenta. add a thin layer of the sauce (NOT TOO MUCH. it will just make the base soggy), cheese, again not too much, and you're favourite toppings. i like to keep it simple. bacon, red onion and chili is my fave. grilled eggplant is another.

bake for about 15mins in a 200 degree oven. then scoff your face!

having rabbited on about how easy it is to make, here is one i bought last night. it was late, i'd been to the movies and it was my birthday god damn it, so we bought the sodding pizza! it was from Good Life pizzas, tho, so it was organic and very very expensive. this one was roast duck with spring onions and ginger jam. very very nice.

but please have a go at making your own, once you get the nack of the dough it really is simple. so delicious, so cheap, so easy. yummo.

more history and italian food coming to you soon. Tuesday is the gracchi and zia graziella's killer roast chicken spaghetti. don't miss it!!!!


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Jud said...

I must be of a similarly odd bent; I even have on the bookshelf a book of Roman inscriptions.

I do miss college some times.