Megan Abbott

At Home With: Rachel Roddy

Megan Abbott
At Home With: Rachel Roddy

Originally published on food52.com

One morning in 2005, Rachel Roddy arrived at a London airport with a handbag and a passport, looked up at the departures screen and chose a one-way ticket to Sicily. She had recently seen a Caravaggio exhibition, and longed to see Mount Etna. “So it seemed like the perfect choice.” She travelled around the island “clockwise”, “going to bed early, getting up early, walking lots and having about six meals a day”. Six weeks later, her oldest friend (an architect) invited her on a trip researching Rome’s public housing. It was then that Rachel discovered Testaccio, an area “shaped like a piece of cheese”, filled with gridded streets, tenement blocks and stark nineteenth-century buildings. It does not have the grand basilicas or medieval alleyways of other quarters of the city, but is somehow the most Roman of them all. It is a living, breathing microcosm of all that is maddening and wonderful about Italy’s capital. It is coarse and chaotic, scruffy and warm, filled with markets, old women loudly gossiping on street corners, washing lines draped with floral dresses and faded linens. Rachel decided, “rather reluctantly” to take her friend’s advice and stay in Rome awhile to learn Italian. “When I first came here, all I wanted to do was go back to Sicily. But my friend knows me well, so I listened to her.” Days after first setting eyes on it, she had signed a contract for a tiny apartment above a bread shop in Testaccio, beside the old market where we meet her today.

Once she had moved to Rome, Rachel fell deeper and deeper into its intoxicating cracks. She began exploring the city through its “fiercely traditional” food, and launched a blog called Rachel Eats. She met a jazz drummer from Sicily, who she had a son with. “I didn’t think I’d have a child.” Rachel tells us, “So it was a surprise. A lovely one. It all was, really.” She has since written a multi-award winning cookbook, My Kitchen in Rome; Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking, which reads less like a recipe book than a love letter to the city. She writes recipes and articles for a host of magazines and newspapers, shining a light on simple, comforting Roman fare. “I really fell for Rome.” She tells us, “It tripped me up.”

We arrive at Nuovo Mercato di Testaccio, with its loud din of voices – children, vendors, old friends – and see Rachel straight away. She is standing at a little espresso bar. The morning sunlight streams through the vaulted ceiling, while a dog yaps loudly a few feet away. She waves us over and the barista slides three white porcelain cups of coffee over the counter. We immediately talk about Testaccio, and how she came to live here. It is an undeniably romantic story, we think. But Rachel does her best to dispel that. “I feel like that story has become very glamorized, because I have told it so many times. In fact, it was really banal.” She says, as we drain the last drops of coffee. “I was 32. I was an actress; I was in a relationship. We had a house, we had a car. I thought that was what was happening. And all of a sudden, it just finished. It didn’t ‘fall apart’, it just finished. It was a lot more boring than drama.” She takes off in the direction of a fruit and vegetable stall, where piles of cabbages, aubergines and plump, leafy fennel lie beside bunches of fresh herbs and gleaming tomatoes. “I had nothing with me. I went to the airport with no idea where I wanted to go. I just needed to get away.” She continues. “You know when you walk out of the door without your bag, it always feels very nice? It was like that every day for six weeks.” I ask her if all of this soul-searching really healed her. “I don’t want to come over all ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ about this,” she laughs, “but I did feel so miserable in London back then. It was just so wonderful to go to this new place, with difference tastes and smells, and warmth. Sicily is mad and wonderful. People always ask if I met amazing people or had amazing experiences. And truly, the answer is no. I travelled around the place and I was a bit sad about things. I slept loads. It was lovely. I’d have about three breakfasts, be quite wired on coffee, have a lovely lunch, and then in the evening I’d buy a picnic. It was all quite pedestrian. I wasn’t doing anything particularly daring. But I absolutely loved it.”

Rachel fills up a few brown paper bags with vegetables, chatting and laughing in (what seems to us) perfect Italian. She leads us over to a stall to buy a loaf of bread, and the vendor hands us each a little panino oozing with cheese and salty ham. While we were on the topic of cheese, I tell her how I love stracciatella (the milkiest, creamiest cheese imaginable, sort of like a burst burrata) and she leads us to her local deli, which she describes as “a jewelry shop for food”. It is stocked with cheeses, dried meats and tinned fish. The man behind the counter ladles the sloppy cheese into a container for us. We stroll towards Rachel’s apartment, our arms full of bags.

Inside, she flings open the doors to the kitchen balcony. Outside, the leaves on the trees are red and rustling. The room is small, even smaller than I imagined from reading her work. But it is practical, and impossibly homely. Within moments were are clutching a glass of sparkling wine and leaning against the rails of her balcony, our heads tipped towards the sun. She has few kitchen gadgets, only the most necessary tools; a good copper pan, a Moka pot, a pestle and mortar. “I did come to Rome with nothing.” She confesses. “A lot of the things in here is stuff I’ve found on the street.” On the wall above the little stove are a few scraps of paper scribbled with recipes. “That’s book two!” She laughs, emptying a bag of artichokes into a bowl in the sink. Beside them, a cluster of postcards are tacked to the wall. They show various book covers; Elizabeth Craig’s Wine in the Kitchen and Jeifer Wayne’s The Day the Ceiling Fell Down. “I’ve been writing stories for most of my life, and I’ve always been surrounded by books.” Rachel tells us. “I’ve always read a lot of food writing - Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson, Laurie Colwin, Lindsey Bareham.”

Rachel’s first foray into Roman food came with a meal at a local restaurant. She drank wine and ate modest, hearty food late in the eveing, surrounded by chaotic families. “The thing about Roman trattorias is that they are very ordinary eating places. There isn’t really an equivalent anywhere else. It is often just a relative in the kitchen making simple food for their family.” She says. “I came here 11 years ago and allowed myself to learn the Italian way of cooking. And of life, I suppose. I hope with what I do that I am tapping into that Italian celebration of good ingredients. And I hope to make it accessible.” Rachel’s approach to food is thoroughly Roman. Moving to the city, she began to observe the culinary rituals of Roman life – espresso, fresh bread, pasta, wine, families, late night gelato. Her recipes are informed by the seasons, and by the simple home cooking that is the staple of the Italian home. “The food of Rome reflects 2000 years of history.” She tells us, “The food of Testaccio is based on the cooking of the poor. It was about what was available - huge amounts of pulses, wild greens, chicory, ricotta. Guanciale is the cheapest cut of pork, and it is often used as a fat and a seasoning. Pecorino functioned as a seasoning. And, of course, salt. Salt used to be money, it’s how people were paid. You still buy salt in Rome in tabacconists. Classic Roman food is about making things taste as good as they possibly can, and adding nothing more. It is incredibly resourceful, and kind of brilliant.”

Growing up in a small town just outside of London, Rachel says she learned about the “tiny celebrations” of the seasons. Her mother is a “great gardener”, and would “make a big fuss” of freshly grown vegetables and herbs. She would cook from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book, a poetic bible of recipes and anecdotes. “Again, I don’t want to romanticize. I grew up on crisps and caramel bars. But I do remember there always being new potatoes from the garden, or peas or rhubarb. There was always a lot of excitement around homegrown food.” As we talk, Rachel gives us the job of slipping fava beans from their furry pods into a bowl, and removing the inedible parts of the artichokes with a curved knife. “I used to think artichokes with butter in France was the most wonderful thing. So when I came to Rome and saw people whittling them like this, it seemed quite brutal.” Rachel laughs. She is making vignarola - a precious, springtime vegetable stew. It uses “the last of the artichokes and the first of the peas, which means you can only make it this way for about a month each year.” As the vegetables crackle and spit in a pool of olive oil, Rachel opens a bottle of wine with a pop; a cloudy, natural white. “I think Italians really coax the best out of vegetables.” Rachel tells us, “I learned about braising them very slowly in lots and lots of olive oil, and that was quite a revelation for me.”

We take a seat at the little kitchen table, where Rachel fills our plates with soft, pearly green vignarola, fresh tomatoes, ricotta, fresh bread and my beloved stracciatella. She dowses it all in green-gold olive oil and salt. “I’m interested in this whole idea of idealizing food and making it beautiful, but also making it really approachable.” She says, topping up our glasses. “When I got my book deal, people were telling me to move house or get a studio. They thought I couldn’t do it in this funny little kitchen. But if you love food, you get such pleasure from the ingredients and the process. Even washing vegetables and podding peas - all of those nice tasks. It’s for everyone, in any space.” Just then, her partner Vincenzo walks through the door, whistling. “I’m late!” He says. “We’re early!” Rachel replies. He joins us at the table, pouring himself a glass of wine and spooning the steaming stew onto his plate.

After lunch, Rachel takes us on her favourite walk. We wander past orange trees and playgrounds full of children on our way to Mattatoio al Testaccio, the district’s former slaughterhouse. The web of industrial buildings - with their meat hooks and iron frameworks still intact – stands beside the ancient Monte dei Cocci, a hill made entirely from broken terracotta pots that once carried olive oil. “It’s like a beautiful 2,200-year-old rubbish dump.” Rachel says as we look up at it. We grab a sour espresso from a stern old woman in a kiosk, before wandering back towards the market. Rachel points us uphill towards The Aventine Keyhole, where St Peter’s Basilica can be viewed through a tiny hole in a door, perfectly framed by a path of trees. “While you do that, I’d better go and write about sardines.” She laughs, disappearing off into her very own corner of the city.