In the front porch this morning were a couple of bills, a wedding anniversary card and a large padded envelope. The card was nice, but it was latter that really got me excited. It contained a copy of Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome by Rachel Roddy, a must-have food book published today by Saltyard Books.
Anyone who knows me or reads this blog will know Fran and I lived in Rome for a few years, moving there in August 2011. Recently, as we’ve struggled with the adoption process and a cold English spring, it’s been tempting to reminisce about Rome – the sunshine, the food, friends, the fascinating city itself. But I have to keep reminding myself to not don the rose-coloured spectacles. Our first year in Rome was hard. Fran’s job was challenging, I was floundering around on various writing projects, I didn’t speak Italian, I missed my own house, I didn’t know what I was doing there, we felt a long way from friends and family. And it took five flippin’ months to connect the internet in the mausoleum-like Roman flat we were renting.
A marked improvement to our lives in Rome came one day in Autumn 2012, while me and Fran were walking through Testaccio. We had stopped to use an ATM when an English voice mentioned that it was dodgy, and recommended we use the other one across the piazza. We mumbled some very English thanks while a tall woman with a small child strapped to her chest strode away. Something passed between me and Fran along the lines of “she looked cool, let’s say hello.” Fran says we stalked her, I like to think we just overcame our English reserve.
This was Rachel Roddy. We became friends outside Volpetti on the corner of Via Alessandro Volta and Via Marmorata in what, we would learn, was the heart of Rachel’s turf. She was even living on Via Marmorata at the time, and took us to her local cafe, Barberini. It was a friendly and gracious gesture and the start of a new stage of our life in Rome.
We made other friends, but I particularly clicked with Rachel, which was such a relief after a fairly lonely year. We had things in common – we’d left London for difficult or sad reasons and ended up in Rome; we both had family from the north of England but had grown up in the south; both had a speedy way of conversing; and – of course – both had an obsession with food. I was blogging at the time, a bit about my baking, a bit about my general experiences of living in Rome, but it was Rachel, with her successful Rachel Eats blog, who encouraged me to start a new blog, focussed on the baking and beer. This blog in fact, which I launched in November 2012.
Over the months until we left Rome in October 2013, we saw a lot of Rachel, hanging out a lot at Tram Depot, just over the road from Volpetti and a perfect place to rendezvous on warm evenings, with Fran getting off the train home from work at nearby Ostiense station. Rachel became a great friend. She helped us get to know Rome, empathised as we slogged through our attempting-to-start-a-family saga. She encouraged me to try for the internship in the kitchens of the American Academy in Rome, I gave her the occasional baking lesson and raved at her about my latest favourite birra artigianale (“artisan beer”). We got to know her boyfriend Vincenzo, and watched the half-Roman Luca grow out of his baby-sling and start running around the piazze and mercato. And Rachel told us about her book deal, which we discussed enthusiastically as she poured energy into what would become Five Quarters.
It’s been an exciting process, and I’ve been thrilled to be involved as a sounding board, occasional recipe tester and even, at one thrilling point in June 2014 (I believe), a hand model. Vincenzo’s hands appear fairly often in the book but those are mine on p358 holding a bowl of dough, and my wrist on p357, with a young Luca looking upwards with a mischievous sense of anticipation about the tray of proving maritozzi. These are Rome’s sweet breakfast rolls, which I blogged about here; Rachel includes a version of the recipe in Five Quarters. She also uses a version of my recipe for frappe, deep-fried sweet pasta treats eaten for Carnevale.
Although I read various bits and pieces of the book while Rachel was writing it, tried some of the recipes and talked about the progress, frequently via Skype, it’s a great to be holding the finished book. Blogs are all well and good, but a book, especially a handsomely bound book full of great photos and inviting text, is deeply pleasing.
I struggle with a lot of recipe books – they’re just recipes, and perhaps a photo of the dish, overly styled and not looking terribly like something you’d produce from your humble home kitchen. The recipes are often so lacking in context. Five Quarters, on the other hand, is a book all about context. It’s about the Testaccio quartiere, and Rachel connecting with that quarter. It’s about food, and Rachel learning about it, exploring it, interpreting it. It’s about real food, made in a real kitchen – and photographed in that kitchen. Rachel’s kitchen is nothing fancy, it’s small and modestly appointed; it’s not some fancy professional kitchen or cookery studio with disingenuous props. As such, it’s a built-in reassurance that you too can make these dishes, you too can learn about Roman food.
She covers a broad sweep of Roman food, so much of the things I crave now while living in small-town England. From the joys of the deep-fried antipasti, to the reassurance of the classic pulse-and-pasta dishes than span the gap between soup and stew, to vegetables and dolci (my area of obsession, obviously).
The book may also introduce readers to the food of Testaccio, which gives the book its name: the quinto quarto, “fifth quarter” – the meat and the offal dishes developed by the workers in the local slaughterhouse (used c1890-1975). Rachel doesn’t get too hardcore here, as such dishes are a far cry from the so-called Mediterranean diet people might expect of all Italian food (it’s an abiding misconception). But they do connect nicely not just with the nose-to-tail eating ethos, and also, as Rachel points out, with many traditional dishes of northern England. Rachel often makes these connections, or gives an anecdote – some context – for how she first encountered a dish.
As such Five Quarters is a book that’s a good read, a book that’s pleasure to learn about cooking from, a book that’s an aesthetically pleasing object, with Rachel’s own pictures of food production accompanied by pictures of Testaccio, the neighbourhood, its streets, shops, market, restaurants and denizens by Nick Seaton. I’m trying to keep on top of my sentiment, but it’s also a book that’s making me pine for Rome, and meeting Rachel to go for a grattachecca and an obessive rant about the latest recipe we’ve tried or foodstuff we’ve bought. *sigh*