“We are not used to this weather,” my guide Chiara shared underneath layers of pullovers. Rome was indeed chilly that morning as we walked by ancient ruins and modern day convenience stores. It may have been cold, but the sun was shining and few people were out, making it feel as if we had Rome all to ourselves. It was nice to be bundled up though, it helped add to the holiday atmosphere and that was the reason why we were meeting outside a coffee shop so very early in the first place. It was 4 days before Christmas, I was in Rome following the end of a wonderful Mediterranean cruise with Viking Oceans and I was excited to join a Rome holiday food tour with Context Travel to learn about the city’s unique traditions, tasting as much as I could along the way.
For the last year I have been working with Context Travel to highlight some of their tours around the world, but I’m certainly no stranger to their walking tour experiences. I’ve been patronizing them for years because, unlike so many other companies, they offer walks that are completely different from anything else offered. As one of their Deep Travelers, I’m proud to say that Context and I both agree that travel is an education, one born from a natural cultural curiosity.
A Very Roman Christmas
Following the end of my Viking ocean cruise from Barcelona to Rome, I decided to spend a couple of extra days in the Eternal City. I love Rome, and to enjoy it during the holiday season was an experience I couldn’t pass up. Staying at the luxurious and well-located Aleph Hotel, I couldn’t wait to see how the city prepared for the big holiday. When I learned about the special Context tour though, that was also an experience I couldn’t say no to, and with good reason. Food is how we best learn about new places, peoples and cultures. Food tours are fantastic ways not just to enjoy tasty food, but to well and truly understand the local community. That was my goal in Rome, to learn about Rome away from the major tourist sites and instead to see what it’s really like to live there. I couldn’t have asked for a better guide in Chiara. A lifelong Roman, she knows the city as well as anyone and her many years experience as a chef and culinary expert made her the ideal leader into the food traditions that are unique to Rome during the holidays.
Rome’s Jewish quarter is a beautiful and ancient part of the city and, not unlike the rest of Rome, very quiet early in the morning. Except for one place that is, a small non-descript bakery on a corner, which was bustling with people coming in and out at breakneck speed. They were lined up at the Pasticceria “Boccione” Limentani to pick up their orders of fresh and delicious crostata. These double-baked and over-flowing pies are popular throughout the year, but when folks are hosting friends and family for holiday get-togethers they become one of the hottest commodities in town. Like all great food, they’re delightfully simple and come in a variety of flavors including ricotta and chocolate and ricotta and cherry. A little messy to eat on the sidewalk, it wasn’t a problem for long as I wolfed down my generous slice. The bakery is also famous for its cookies including the dense but delicious pizze, biscotti-like pastries with nuts, raisins and candied fruit. Best when dipped into a steaming hot cup of coffee, I quickly understood why these are also important to stock during big holiday meals.
It was the ideal way to start our culinary odyssey through Rome and while I won’t share everything we ate, I do want to share some experiences that were a little more special than others. Most of the bites we enjoyed are perennial Roman favorites, from small little pizza bites to delicious Mortadella sandwiches. But others, others are seasonal and Christmas is when they shine. The star of the holiday show is one you probably know well, the panettone. This sweet bread cake originally started in Milan, but is now widespread throughout Italy and of course the world. I was familiar with the Christmas cake, but had never found one I liked. The ones in the US are shipped over and intensely dry. Not bad, but not great. In Rome though my opinion changed as we walked through the doors of Forno Roscioli for fresh and delicious pannetone. The bakery was swamped with people, some enjoying a breakfast pizza oddly enough but the vast majority were buying Christmas pannetone. Roscioli features the classic recipe along with their own versions, including a chocolate cake I bought to share with my family on Christmas. When I finally did open it I was amazed at its taste and consistency. Far from dry, it was moist and delicious and then and there I understood why the cake has become so popular. When made by one of the best bakeries in Rome, there’s nothing else like it.
Finishing the tour near the Pantheon with an icy and sweet coffee granite, I bid my ciaos to Chiara and sat there thinking about the tour. We covered a lot of ground that morning, meandering through neighborhoods I never would have found on my own. Accompanied by a Roman, I was given access to local shops and cafes not normal haunts for tourists, learning a lot about the city and her people along the way. Sure, I ate a lot that morning and loved every minute of it, but the tour was so much more than that. It was about being an active participant, learning about and appreciating Christmas traditions unique to Rome and having fun in the process. I love Context tours because they’re not at all an average travel experience, the tours are immersive, they’re fun, they’re educational and they provide truly memorable experiences like the one I enjoyed in Rome.
Rome is always a good idea, but during the Christmas holiday season there are even more reasons to visit the city, and to join a Rome holiday food tour is I think the best way to understand the city during this festive time of year.