Rachel Roddy’s recipe for chicken with rosemary, tomatoes and olives

I once saw a woman pull a plant from a bed, then put it in her handbag. I must have been about eight, and visiting a garden – probably one padding a National Trust house. Either my brother or sister had fallen over, because we were all crouched on the gravel, and Mum was examining a knee. While she pulled things out of her bag on one side of a flowerbed, so did a much older woman on the other side. Namely, a small trowel, which she used to dig up a plant and its wispy roots, and a plastic bag to receive the plant, which she then dropped into her open handbag. Now, I probably wouldn’t remember anything about this particular incident were it not for what happened next. As the woman snapped her handbag shut, she looked up, and straight at me. She held my eyes for a few seconds before breaking into a small smile that was both sheepish and victorious. I found myself smiling back and, as I did so, I understood that she was stealing the plant and that now I was her accomplice! After all, I, too, had a handful of leaves and gravel in my pocket.

It is human nature, I know, that of the billions of memories stored and indexed in our frontal lobes, it is the ones with high emotion that repeat on us most often. In this case, it is both guilt and excitement at having witnessed a garden crime, and also admiration at how brazen it all was, to bring a trowel and a bag, and to dig in broad daylight. Later, we would see the same woman in the coffee shop eating coffee cake, her bag hanging on the chair just metres from a National Trust volunteer.

The memory is compounded by another incident in another garden, when a friend snapped off a shoot and defended herself by saying it is theft only if you use garden clippers or dig, and that, by pinching, she was actually helping by pruning. Which is how I like to think of my own habit of pruning a stalk of rosemary from the garden in the kids’ playground.

It’s for use with a chicken, and a recipe from Oretta Zanini Di Vita’s The Food of Rome and Lazio: History, Folklore and Recipes, and the section about the cooking of the Ciociaria, the name given to the Roman countryside that extends from the south of Rome to Cassino. The recipe is one of dozens of variations on the hunter’s-style chicken theme, but in this version, rosemary – pungent, resinous, bitter and beautiful – is queen, hence the name, pollo al rosmarino.

I used to think of it as pruning, until the other day, when my eyes met another woman who held my gaze, but did not smile. So I pretended I was just rubbing the stem of rosemary for scented fingers. Then I went and bought a plant from the market, which is why the memory of the trowel woman rushed up. This also proves that rosemary really does stimulate the mind and memory, especially if the memory is both guilty and thrilling.

Chicken with rosemary, tomatoes and olives
Having browned the chicken, don’t drain away any fat, because it enriches the tomatoes, and tempers the rosemary’s more volatile side, and means the dish has a fat-induced, soft, orange glow.

Serves 4

4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1.6kg chicken, jointed into 8 or 10 pieces (by cutting breast pieces in 2), or 8-10 chicken thighs
2 garlic cloves
3 bushy rosemary sprigs
1 big glass white wine
1 x 400g tin peeled plum tomatoes, chopped with scissors
1 pinch red chilli flakes
2 tbsp black olives

In a deep saute pan, warm the oil over a medium heat. Working in batches, lay in the chicken pieces skin side down, cook until the skin forms a golden crust, then turn them over and do the same on the other side. Remove and repeat with the remaining chicken.

Return all the meat to the pan with a pinch of salt, one peeled garlic clove, crushed with the heel of your hand so it splits but stays in one piece) and two rosemary sprigs.

Pour over the wine, leave to bubble for a few minutes, add the tomatoes and chilli, cover and turn the heat down low. Cook for 40 minutes, then remove the lid and cook for a further 10-20 minutes, until the chicken is tender and the sauce rich and thick. If at any point the pan seems a little dry, add a little more wine.

Chop the second clove of garlic and the picked needles from the third sprig of rosemary, and add with the olives for the last minutes of cooking, stirring so the flavours blend.