Would you say Italy is the foodiest country in the world? More than France, even? I’ve never been to the Far East, so maybe Viet Nam or Thailand is as obsessed over what it eats. At the least, I’ll claim that Italy is the foodiest country in Europe. Please argue your case if you feel differently. Rome is no more or less foody than the rest of Italy, but it’s the part I know best. From the women using a special tool for preparing puntarelle in markets in the Spring, to the stalls laden with squash in the Autumn, the business of eating surrounds you. If you go to Volpetti, even as you stand with your mouth open at the choice and quality of what’s for sale, an assistant will be urging you to try some salami, some cheese. At the norcineria, in the Campo de Fiori, you will lift your head like a baby bird as the assistant lays a slice of lardo, thin as tissue, to melt on your tongue.
Rachel Roddy is an Englishwoman who lives in Rome. If you don’t know her blog, do take a look. You’re likely to sign up to follow it. She now has a book about the city and its food called Five Quarters and it is fair to say I love it. She writes so evocatively I only have to stop reading and close my eyes to be taken back to the streets and shops, the sounds and smells. She tells us about place and food and people in exactly the way I enjoy reading about all three. Look at this:
…if Parmigiano reggiano is a smooth, sophisticated type with a history of art degree and a flat in Kensington, then pecorino romano is a bit of a rogue with an accent as thick as treacle, a great record collection and plenty of charm.
You won’t need to wonder about the difference between parmesan and pecorino again.
She describes Roman food as simple, clever, homely, rooted in popular tradition and really sensual, exactly how I want my dinner to be. And my husband, if I’m honest. Most of the recipes in Ms Roddy’s book are preceded by a passage that is part history, part culture, part memory, all engaging. Stories of her life in Rome are threaded with memories of her childhood in England. You look up one dish and there you are, sitting in her tiny kitchen, and an hour later you’re still reading. You’re drawn along, just one more, just one more. Hunger will eventually pull you away. You can come back for more book when you’ve eaten.
Her writing pulls you up time after time; ricotta should be wobbly enough to remind you not to be so serious. Artichokes are like Tilda Swinton as the White Witch in Narnia: beautiful, formidable and with an insincere sweetness. Stone fruit is as flushed as self-conscious teenagers. She spends three pages discussing bread and butter, adding anchovies, then radishes, that are three of my favourite pages of the book. Of course, I had to stop reading and made a lunch of it, if buttering bread can be called making lunch.
There are two whole pages on spaghetti alla carbonara, a dish I would put in my top ten of all time. I think it was the first recipe I ever followed, around 1979, from Katie Boyle’s column in the TV Times. A raw egg! My teenage self was intrigued. (Katie Boyle was a lacquered, ostrich-feathered, game-show panelist, agony aunt and sophisticate of the period. Sophistikatie Boyle). I don’t think I used the ready-grated parmesan from a tube that tasted worse than betrayal and was the only parmesan you could buy in England at the time; it would have been too exotic to be in my suburban family kitchen. I think the recipe called for cheddar. I have made it maybe three hundred times since, using freshly grated parmesan, pecorino or both, varying the cured meat. I think I have my perfect version (all cooking is a version), yet Ms Roddy brings something new to it. Next time, after I’ve fried the bacon/pancetta/guanciale, I’ll remove two-thirds of it, then add the cooked pasta to the fat left in the pan before continuing. My version will be improved, I know it.
Arguments about authenticity are dull to me, anyway, and Ms Roddy makes clear that, within certain boundaries, there are as many authentic ways to make something as there are Italians. Cooking is about choice as much as it’s about anything and Ms Roddy gives you options. You can do it this way or she’s seen it done that way but she prefers doing it another way. She guides us through each possibility. Even when being definitive there is much room for interpretation.
Her instructions are exhaustive and a model of clarity. You will probably know versions of many of the recipes in Five Quarters, but don’t let that stop you. They are better described here and Ms Roddy has much information to pass on to us. You will be a better cook for reading this book. She gives good advice on the wine to drink with each dish, too.
I love the picture on the cover, taken by Ms Roddy in her kitchen, although I don’t think the grey panel or the typography show it at its best. I like the pictures in the book very much, too, most taken by Ms Roddy, the rest by Nick Seaton. They are the opposite of glossy; they’re personal and intimate and suit the book perfectly, although they seem a little knocked back to me. I have been a book designer for many years so I’m probably more bothered by these things than you. It’s a small distraction amongst all the pleasures to be found here.
I suppose the real test of a cookbook is how much of it you want to eat and I want to eat everything here. Everything except the tripe, that is, and I feel disloyal for admitting that. Disloyal to Ms Roddy and disloyal to Testaccio, the area of Rome in which she lives, famous for its offal. Allow me to apologise to her and to the city for my silly, English squeamishness. I’ve tried a number of the recipes already and, of course, they work beautifully. They taste as good as I’d hoped, as I know everything else will. This is already a strong contender for my cookbook of the year. Highly recommended.
Five Corners by Rachel Roddy, published, in the UK, by Saltyard Books.
Volpetti, Via Marmorata, 47
Antica Norcineria Viola, Piazza Campo de’ Fiori, 43
Franchi, Via Cola di Rienzo, 200