Rachel Roddy

1st February 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

1st February 2018

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

Usually, when we visit people for the Gannet, we ask for three hours of their time, to allow for chatting, cooking, and the various acts of nosiness – rummaging around kitchen cupboards, rifling through address books – that make up these interviews. Rachel Roddy gives us three entire days. Granted, we’ve travelled all the way to Rome to see her, and we’re factoring in a food tour of her beloved Testaccio as well as this interview at her home – but still, three days is mightily generous. We resolve to make the most of every last minute.

It’s not as if Rachel is at a loose end. Author of a very popular Roman food blog since 2008, she has published two award-winning cookbooks – Five Quarters and Two Kitchens – and now writes a much-loved weekly food column for the Guardian. At the heart of her work is Testaccio, where she lives with her Sicilian-born partner Vincenzo, a drummer, and their young son Luca. She has been absorbing the culinary traditions and rhythms of this close-knit working-class community for a dozen years – receiving informal cooking lessons from the old women across the hall, getting to know all the local shopkeepers and restaurateurs – and it continues to fascinate her and feed her writing.

Yesterday, amid a packed itinerary that extended way beyond midnight, we picked up the ingredients for lunch at Testaccio market, where Rachel shops on a daily basis. This morning, in the much more relaxed environs of Rachel’s airy third-floor flat, with a bottle of sparkling wine on the go, we set about preparing them. I’m tasked with rolling pasta for the borlotti bean soup (I’ve never made pasta before). Meanwhile, Rachel assembles pollo alla cacciatora and blanches cicoria – that most popular of Roman vegetables – to go on the side. She also deep-fries sage leaves, because what’s a languorous weekend lunch in Rome without a plate of fritti to snack on?

 

It takes us hours to get the meal on the table – poor Vincenzo looks half-mad with hunger by the time it finally arrives. But we’ve been having such a nice time, talking about Rachel’s culinary education with her grannies in the north of England, and the makeup of her average day in terms of cooking, eating and writing. And anyway, the slowness is kind of the point: recently Rachel’s been trying to decelerate in the kitchen and do everything with extra care and attention (that said, she did forget to put the crucial vinegar in the chicken dish, and my pasta efforts are more than a little misshapen).

It’s an immensely pleasurable lunch, both the meal and its making. Afterwards we wander up the Aventine Hill, pausing at the Orange Garden to take in a view of the city, then meander down through the Ghetto and return via Trastevere. It’s dark by the time we’re back in Testaccio. Our long second day with Rachel is drawing to a close, and there’s still more to come1.

Continued below...

Why did you come to Italy?

I was 33 and working as an actress in London. I’d just finished a big job at the National. A very long relationship ended, I sold a house, and I just thought, I’m leaving England. This was in 2005. I remember someone saying to me, “You can’t run away.” I thought, yes I can. I went to the airport one day with absolutely nothing, looked at the indicator board and thought, where should I go? I flew to Naples and arrived with no Italian, no baggage, absolutely no plans. It was just what I needed. I was in Naples about a week, just walking, eating, looking. Then I took the night boat to Sicily and spent about six weeks travelling around. I thought, I could live here. Then I came to Rome to learn a bit of Italian but didn’t want to stay – I always thought I’d go back to Sicily. But a friend of mine who wrote for Elle Online said “Start a blog”. I didn’t really know what a blog was, but I started writing.

What compelled you to write?

I’ve always really liked cooking, I’ve always liked eating. And coming here to Testaccio, I was struck by the way people ate, what people ate, and the way people lived. I just started writing it down, writing stories.

What was it about the way people ate in Testaccio?

It’s incredibly traditional, incredibly tied to place. They talk about terroir in the countryside but I’ve kind of found it in the city. I couldn’t believe that the whole of Testaccio smelled like chickpeas on a Tuesday. Wood would be delivered to the pizzeria on a Wednesday. I think Italians are still very attached to ritual around food.

Was Vincenzo interested in food before he met you?

He really enjoys eating, but he can’t stand a lot of my pretensions around it. He’s the descendant of Sicilian tomato farmers on his mother’s side. His dad’s family had a bakery. Vincenzo would happily eat pasta and tomato sauce with bread on the side for every meal.

I remember someone saying to me, “You can’t run away.” I thought, yes I can. I went to the airport one day with absolutely nothing, looked at the indicator board and thought, where should I go?

A man after my own heart.

He’s a very good cook but he makes very classic things – bean soup, pasta with sardines. He really doesn’t like fussiness around food. The pasta e fagioli we’re making today is one of his favourites.

Does he cook, or is the kitchen very much your space?

We cook together – he’s the nicest person to be in the kitchen with. We really do keep it simple. And we follow this nice informal Roman recipe calendar: rice and bitter greens on a Monday; pasta e ceci on a Tuesday; fish on a Friday, maybe baccalà and chickpeas; on a Saturday, tripe or spezzatino with peas; on a Sunday, lasagne or fettucini with ragù or roast lamb.

You really stick to that calendar?

I quite like it. It’s very old-fashioned, it’s what my grandparents did. At the start I asked neighbours if I could cook with them. I wanted to learn all those techniques.

How did the neighbours respond?

We were living in a block of flats where there were a lot of old ladies. Italians are insatiably nosy, like my northern relatives. It didn’t take them very long to say, “Cara, what are you doing?” They couldn’t work me out. “You’re too old to be here without children” – I was 33. I just used to ask them, and if you ask somebody to show you how to make something they always say yes, even if they give you a funny look. As much as I love learning to make fancy things with great chefs, I much prefer to go and cook with a neighbour. That’s what I did and it’s what I continue to do. It started with a blog and it became a book and then it became a column.

We really do keep it simple. And we follow this nice informal Roman recipe calendar: rice and bitter greens on a Monday; pasta e ceci on a Tuesday; fish on a Friday…

The destinations for your writing have changed but your approach has stayed the same.

Exactly. I think food is a lens through which you can look at everything and talk about everything and understand a place and community. The first thing people in this area tell you is, “I’m not Roman, I’m Testaccini.” The dialect is very strong. But then there’s a big Chinese community, a big Bangladeshi community. We talk a lot about the problems of that in Italy but actually it’s very well integrated. I would like to write about the fact that in restaurant kitchens here, there are lots of Bangladeshi chefs.

When you were growing up, did your family have an interest in food?

We’ve always liked to eat well. My grandma Roddy was not a particularly good cook but she made some things very well: egg and chips, tripe, she made a really good pressed tongue, so whenever we arrived in Yorkshire we’d have that. Food provided a great sense of consistency and repetition when we came together.

Then my mum’s mum, Alice, had a pub in Oldham. (I’m very like my granny I think – she also ran away when she was in her 30s.) The food at the pub was very traditional, she used to make cheese and onion pies.
My mum’s a really good cook, but she was forced to cook very young because her mum ran away. They were later reunited and the pub was where everything was okay. I remember very happy times there. We used to eat big Sunday lunches – Alice made a lovely Sunday roast. The pub would close at 2.30, the food would come out, lots of friends and other cousins would pile in. Those are some of my happiest food memories.

Where did you grow up?

We were in Hertfordshire. It was a life of fish fingers and peas and fennel gratin and cod Portuguese and Josceline Dimbleby’s aubergine pate. When someone writes that their mum made Josceline Dimbleby’s aubergine puree from the Sainsbury’s Christmas book, I find such deep reassurance in that. It’s human isn’t it? I understand that criticism levelled at middle-class food writers all writing about the same fucking thing, but I find it very reassuring. Also it’s much more complicated than that, because we all have different lives. But it’s the domestic detail that I like, more than anything – and then at the end give me a recipe. There’s great humanity in the very best food writing2.

On The Menu

Lunch with Rachel Roddy
Rome, September 2017

To eat:

Parmesan chunks (as a nibble with sparkling wine)
Deep-fried sage leaves »
Pasta e fagioli (Pasta soup with borlotti beans) »
Pollo alla cacciatora (Hunter’s chicken) »
Cicoria with garlic
Mini cakes from Barberini

To drink:

Lammidia Sciambagn sparkling wine
Lammidia Crick sparkling wine
Sancho Panza, Fiano 2015

Were you helping out in the kitchen from an early age?

Yeah, I was helpful. I rebelled when I was 16, really rebelled, but other than that I was very good. I learned a lot from Alice – I’ve got good memories of making a Sunday lunch in the pub. Also we travelled a lot. Summer holidays in the south of France.

Did you go to Italy much?

Not as a child, I didn’t go till I was 18. It was always France and then Greece. That’s where I remember having good food: Greek salad and feta and olives and figs off the tree – I thought I was quite exotic. Even though my mum cooked really nicely, we still joke about the hummus years, the baked red peppers years. There was always shepherd’s pie, always chicken soup, roast chicken, roast lamb…

In Rome, do you ever cook dishes that connect you back to England and your family?

Lots of things. I often do roast chicken and bread sauce (Vincenzo doesn’t eat chicken but he loves bread sauce). Ratatouille makes me think of my mum. I make a really good cheese and onion pie – Simon Hopkinson’s recipe.

Tell me about an average day. When do you wake up? What do you have for breakfast?

I usually wake up really early – 4.50am when I’m writing. I might sleep through my alarm, but yes I wake up really early, when it’s quiet, and that’s my favourite time. I drink two little moka pots of coffee, really strong but lengthened with water, and I read something. If I look at my phone I’m done for – I sometimes do and get very cross with myself.

I think food is a lens through which you can look at everything and talk about everything and understand a place and community

What do you read?

The same things again and again. I’ll pull open Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Claudia Roden. I’ll read some Seamus Heaney. Something really good to set the bar high. The most effective for me is poetry: it just transports me somewhere else. Then I write.

You haven’t eaten at this stage?

I might have a cracker or a biscuit. But mostly coffee, lots and lots of coffee. If I’ve got a Guardian column to write, I often leave it till the very last minute, so that I have to do it. It has to be handed in by midday on Tuesday the week before. That’s never a great writing day. I’m not a good typist, I’m a bit dyslexic. Once I’ve got the first bit, I just write rubbish, to get the ideas down.

Then the pressure comes off.

Yeah. By then it’s half past seven and a little person’s come in and said “momma” and covered me in kisses and that’s the best thing ever – although he doesn’t actually do that. And then Vincenzo gets up and growls and we have breakfast together.

What would you have for breakfast?

I might have made a cake or something – Vincenzo loves it if I make a ciambella, a ring-cake – but more likely it’s cereal. I’ll have muesli and milk, Luca would like to have chocolate crispies (I’ve always bribed him with chocolatey cereal). Vincenzo has coffee and very Italian dry biscuits – they’re hard work, you have to dunk them in the coffee to make them edible. Then we get ready and I take Luca to school up the hill. Then I go to the markets.

Vincenzo has coffee and very Italian dry biscuits – they’re hard work, you have to dunk them in the coffee to make them edible

Every day?

Yeah pretty much every day. I’m not highly organised, but I have a schedule. Whatever I’m writing about for the Guardian, I will probably make it three times in that week. For example next week is a pasta recipe with chickpeas and tomato and almonds, it’s a bit Spanish. So all that week there will be chickpeas soaking. That’s usually our lunch. Meanwhile, Vincenzo will sit and read the paper in the piazza for two hours in the sun.

Nice.

He does know how to take care of himself, better than I do. While he sits and reads the paper in the piazza, I’ll cook a couple of things – something for lunch and something for the evening. Then Vincenzo and I will sit and have lunch together and talk. Maybe there’s someone else here. Often there are quite a few people here, especially when I’m testing.

Do you rely on friends to hoover up all the stuff you’ve been working on?

Yes. Or, if all else fails, Johnny Boy, the roadie for Vincenzo’s band, comes around and eats everything. He’s unbelievable. [laughs] At least once a week we’ll probably have spaghetti alle vongole, which is my favourite thing to eat.

I don’t like using the word ‘best’ very much, but I think this is the best sandwich in the world
Rachel walks us around her favourite food places in Rome

It’s your actual favourite dish?

Yeah, I absolutely love it. I love making the same things again and again. I like pasta with broccoli. Pasta with beans. I love making pasta with tomato sauce and seeing how the sauce changes through the seasons.

What’s your favourite tomato sauce recipe?

I really like when tomatoes are really tasty and ripe, so probably the very lightly cooked one: really nice tomatoes peeled and deseeded, anything hard and white taken out. Crushed with your hand rather than chopped. Loads of good olive oil. In the pan with garlic. Fry gently.

I love the sound of that. What happens in the afternoon?

I’ll pick up Luca from school and go to the bread shop and get some bread. I don’t have many things in my fridge because I tend to shop every day, but that suits my life with a small child. I found that change of rhythm, having a little person to take care of, quite hard at first, but I really like it now. I try and switch off. We might go to the Ghetto, or up the Aventine Hill – you can bob around Rome.
Then we come back and we eat. I pretty much always have a cocktail or martini in the evening. We really enjoy a lot of wine, though I try not to drink three days a week. Sometimes I have a whole week off and I feel fantastic – and I hate it. Vincenzo drinks with every meal, a little bit of wine with his lunch, he doesn’t like eating without. Once a week we go for pizza at Da Remo, one night a week to La Torricella [see Address Book]. Eating out, I like going to the places I know.

You don’t scour the city for the hot new restaurant?

No, at all at all. I wish I did a little bit more. Then we come home, I go to bed in order to get up early. That’s it, it’s not very exciting.

Sounds pretty good to me!

For Rachel’s regular Guardian column, click here 

Buy Five Quarters and Two Kitchens

Follow Rachel: Instagram | Twitter | website

  1. On the third day, Rachel takes us to visit her friend and mentor Carla Tomasi on the outskirts of Rome – that interview will be online very soon
  2. She singles out Simon Hopkinson here. “I find his writing incredibly touching. The stuff about Lancashire and his dad and the man with a custard-yellow Rolls-Royce.” See Rachel’s favourite food books for more

Posted 1st February 2018

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Sophie Davidson

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