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Words from Rachel Roddy

"sgargarozzare, which my wine-selling friend Antonio defines as: “To consume or throw back with joy, and with no intention of stopping.” Rachel Roddy

Rachel Roddy imparts joy and a love of place, food and family. Well to me anyway. By now you will realise that I pillage her column in The Guardian - A Kitchen in Rome - frequently for ideas, and words. If not always the recipes. Not that her recipes are bad at all, I guess it's more that they are often of dishes we all know and which we may well have made ourselves at some time. Something that she herself acknowledges when she talks of:

"the joyful anarchy of home cooking, in which there are as many recipes as there are cooks."

No, it's her words that draw me to her, and those words about joyful anarchy are the ones that started me off today, because I had written them in my 'Ideas' notebook a few weeks ago. I was just going to extemporise on just that - and I will, a little - but then I thought that I had never done an 'A Word from...' piece on her. Indeed it's a very long time since I have done one of those writer's block pieces.

I do not own any of her cookbooks, but I do keep looking for An A to Z of Pasta - her latest one, which seems to have been critically well accepted. Her former two were Five Quarters, and Two Kitchens - although you can also buy a combined volume I think. I only know her through her weekly column A Kitchen in Rome. I actually also had her listed in my websites to look into page, for prior to writing in The Guardian she wrote her own blog Rachel Eats. You can still find it on the web but she has not written anything on it since 2019, when she was working on An A to Z of Pasta. That and The Guardian column may have been the reason the blogs stop but it may also have been COVID. I think her young son was just a toddler at the time as well, so no wonder it ceased.

There are also a few articles on The Happy Foodie website - the Penguin cookbook site. These are meant to publicise the pasta book I'm sure. One of them includes the recipe for this beautifully simple dish of Capelli d'angelo with prawns and lemon.

Today, for the purposes of this article I read a couple of interviews with her just to find out a little more about how she came to be in Rome, and the story also gave me, not exactly joy, but certainly a wishful, mildly envious sort of admiration. Back in 2005, after a moderately successful few years as an actress,t a long-term relationship and a spell at the National Theatre in London, came to an end, so on an impulse she just upped and lef - went to the airport with nothing - although I assume some money and a passport - looked at the departures board for inspiration and booked a one-way flight to Naples. Deep down inside of me I would love to have that spirit of adventure. I think it must be a deeply suppressed leftover from a long line of travellers and seafarers on my mother's side of the family. She roamed around Naples for a couple of weeks and then went to Sicily where she spent another six weeks. By now, reasonably enamoured of the country she somewhat reluctantly went to Rome to study Italian, but when a friend encouraged her to visit the district of Testaccio she once again fell in love with the place, and stayed, working at first as a waitress, and then in the kitchen of a local trattoria where she met her partner Vincenzo - half Roman, half Sicilian. Having always wanted to write, and by now in love with the food and history of Rome, she began writing. And she is still there.

The following quote resonated because, as I said earlier, it is her words and her stories which attract me to her column, not necessarily her recipes:

“I think some books have so many images, we stop reading. That’s why I like cookery books without pictures, because actually, you have to be transported by the words and you do paint your own picture, and then you enter a different realm, don’t you?”

Mind you I'm not sure I entirely agree with her. Back in the day, of course, most cookbooks did not have pictures and the best of these - those by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson - for me anyway - certainly transported you with their descriptions of the recipes, and the stories of multiple kinds that they offered up. Robert Carrier did not do this, and neither did many of the other cookbooks of the time. They were just collections of recipes, and so you had to have a certain persistence when choosing something to try. In a way you were just imagining from a list of ingredients.

For me, these days anyway, the best cookbooks are those with fairly lengthy pieces of writing, that tell stories - whether they be personal memoir, description of the food, sociological background, historical background. But accompanied by pictures. Pictures are helpful, especially if they show a particularly difficult process, but they are also a hook. Something to entice you to give it a go. Pictures and recipe on their own are not that enticing however. I definitely think you need the words as well.

'The joyful anarchy of home cooking' quote was written in support of a recipe for Chicken with peppers (Pollo alla Romano), which struck a chord with me for two reasons.

The first is historical. I learnt from Rachel that this is a dish that is often eaten on Ferragosta - 15th August - a public holiday that dates back to ancient Roman times. The emperor Augustus decreed that 1st August should be a holiday for all, to celebrate the end of the harvest - a combination of two festivals for the gods of the vines and the harvestand he introduced a number of games, particularly with horse races to add to the festivities. The Catholic church later took it over and changed the date to the 15th which celebrated the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Today it is just like a holiday for all when everyone goes to the beach. The start of the summer holidays. Why would Ferragosta strike a chord? Well we talked about it in our Italian lesson last week. Coincidence.

The second struck chord is a reminder of a dish of Robert Carrier's that I have often made in the past and loved. Well not a dish. The same dish - Pollo alla Romano con peperoni as he calls it. I always thought of it as one of those dishes that you might not actually try if you had no picture - which I didn't - because it sounded so simple and had so few ingredients. But it is always so surprisingly delicious that I always wonder why I haven't made it recently. It also is one of those dishes that has as many recipes as cooks, and illustrates how a few words can add so much to a picture - even stand in for a picture if you like:

"It is a dish that tastes of Roman summer: sun-soaked, fullsome and a bit much if you are not in the mood. But if you are, it is gorgeous, the stewed tomatoes and peppers like a well-matched couple, balancing each other out, acidity tempered by sweetness and vice-versa, smothering the chicken."

A second recipe illustrating her way with words that take you into much wider territory and thought than a recipe for a snack is Focaccia sausage rolls. The picture is useful but actually not that enticing. Shouldn't the finished rolls look a little crisper and browner? The words, however, are so much more than a description of a dish:

"The Chinese tradition maintains that for food to be perfect, all of the senses must be stimulated. Now, while I am cautious about using the word perfect, today’s recipe with bubbles is proof of this theory, with all five senses at work in the best possible way: the smell and sizzle sound coming from the oven (not to mention the pop of the cork and fizz in the glass); the sight of the golden carapace with sausagemeat inside; touch as you grab a roll with your fingers and burn your tongue; and the taste of oil-slicked focaccia and sausage and sage stuffing. Sausage rolls, but not as I knew them, until now.

You'd be tempted to give them a go wouldn't you?

So there you go - words from Rachel Roddy, interspersed with a few much less poetic and joyful from me. Because joy and enthusiasm, and knowledge are what you get from her work - and from her as a person too - I mean look at the hair. It says it all really.

"I do find cooking a creative process every day. I like that it can be beautiful and ugly and it’s everything, isn’t it? It’s life, really, cooking. And I mean that whether you’re eating a bag of Monster Munch or a plate of cappellacci.”

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

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