There was a staircase off the main bar of the Gardener’s Arms pub. It had thick, red carpet with swirls and led to the flat where the landlady, Alice Jones, our granny, lived with Grandpa, and where we stayed when we visited. When you’re nine years old, being sent to bed is like being banished. Even more so when you’re sent at precisely the moment things are getting interesting: as the pub was filling with regulars whose habits seemed as much a part of the place as the brass fittings, and as Robinson’s bitter rushed into glasses. My younger brother, sister and I would plead for extra time, two more songs on the jukebox, then we’d go upstairs, although rarely to bed. Rather, we’d sit at the top of the staircase and watch the increasingly boisterous scenes through the banisters. Who would notice us first? If it was our parents, we would scatter like marbles; if it was Granny, we knew we had another 10 minutes. We always hoped it would be Colin, our deep-flared, rock’n’roll uncle, who, if we were lucky, would bring us bottles of Schweppes lemonade and bags of crisps.
I like to think I can still remember the prickle of the bubbles and the sting of the crisps. I certainly remember the smell of the pub: an intoxicating mix of beer, bodies, carpet, cocktail cherries, smoke, Brasso and spray polish, and Granny’s perfume. Also, onion or bacon in a hot pan, meat pies, vegetables boiling, chips frying in dripping, or roast lamb – all the things that came out of the kitchen behind the bar of that Oldham pub.
Now, more than ever, when I catch a combination of any of the above, I think: “There you are.” And maybe because I am getting older and the past is getting more cavernous – or because I am a food writer looking for a story – I meet them more and more. In Rome, a thousand miles and 35 years from Oldham, in a trattoria with a TV that smells of roast lamb, roast potatoes, wine, bodies, Covid-precaution disinfectant, the lady on the next table’s hairspray, and thick strips of roast peppers filled and rolled into swirls like the pub carpet.
Another thing I remember from the pub, and something I have mentioned here before, was the oven bottom cakes, so called because they were baked at the bottom of the oven and had floury tops that stuck to the roof of your mouth. Always in search of similarities, and extra time, I find the milk buns in Rome have a similar texture and are ideal vehicles for one of these red pepper rolls, squashed firmly together, also with a few crisps and a good pint of bitter or a bottle of lemonade.
Involtini di peperoni – stuffed red pepper rolls
Serve as a starter, or as a main course with potato and green beans mixed and dressed with olive oil and vinegar.
Prep 15 min
Cook 1 hr 30 min
3 large red or yellow peppers
1 red onion, peeled and very finely diced
1 small aubergine, very finely diced
1 tomato, peeled and crushed
Salt and black pepper
1 tbsp capers
2-3 anchovies, chopped
100g mozzarella, finely diced
A little fresh parsley, minced
About 2 tbsp soft breadcrumbs
Put the peppers on a baking tray and into an oven heated to 200C (180C fan)/390F/gas 6 and bake, turning once halfway, until blackened and blistered all over, which will take about 30 minutes. Put into a bowl, cover with a plate and leave to sit and steam for 20 minutes.
Working carefully (because you want thick strips of flesh), clean the peppers, pull away the skins and brush away the seeds. Rip each pepper into three or four wide strips, saving any scraps.
In a frying pan, warm some olive oil, then fry the onion until soft. Add the aubergine and continue frying, stirring, until golden. Add the tomato and any pepper scraps, and cook for a bit longer.
Season, then the next bit is really up to you: add capers, anchovies, mozzarella, herbs. Now, add enough breadcrumbs and, if necessary, more olive oil to make a stuffing.
Put a spoonful of stuffing at the top of each strip of pepper and roll it up into a neat package. Arrange the pepper rolls in an ovenproof dish brushed with oil and bake at 180C (160C fan)/350F/gas 4 for 10 minutes. Serve as a starter, or as a main course with potato and green beans mixed and dressed with olive oil and vinegar.
UK readers: click to buy these ingredients from Ocado