torn out


I was, for some years, a serial ripper-outer. It was in the days when the food section in newspapers was minor; a paragraph, possibly a line drawing and a good, usually un-fussy recipe that you may well make that night. And I did, supper cooked according to a column, the paper curling in the steam of it all. These torn strips, many the brilliant Lindsay Bareham writing in the Evening Standard, were as much a part of my cooking education as lessons from my mum, my cookbooks and Keith Floyd on the telly. Somewhere in one of the boxes in my parent’s garage –  that I really need to deal with – is a fat bundle, by now yellowed, the paper clip probably sunk so deeply that its rusty mark is branded. Somewhere in that bundle are the recipes for white bean humus I made most weeks for about a year, tasty breaded lamb chops (if I remember correctly there were capers in the mix, which felt racy) and potato and herb soup.

The potato and herb soup was a recipe I ripped from a newspaper on a tube, probably on the circle line. I followed the recipe in the kitchen of my flat on Paddington street, which means it was 1998 or 99 and I’d recently left Drama school with swagger and dread. I can’t remember what had gone on that day, but it required the comforting embrace and soporific effects of something warm and savory – and plenty of it – eaten with a spoon. I will have bought the herbs from one of the middle eastern shops on Chiltern street, cursed the kitchen door that opened inwards in front of the fridge several times during the cooking, and eaten the soup sitting on the rug because I didn’t have a table. A supper success, the torn strip won a place under a fridge magnet until I moved.

I still turn to potato soup, often. Actually these days it is usually pasta e patate, which is best described as a simple potato soup in which you cook a pasta, a minestra to be eaten with a spoon. This is the ideal recipe for an old style recipe column, the this is what you should have for super sort: take an onion, a carrot, a rib of celery, a bay leaf and  a couple of potatoes, chop and sweat the lot gently in olive oil, add water and simmer, add pasta and simmer more, tweak with salt, pepper and grated pecorino. I am tempted to say this soup is a sum far greater than its parts, but that makes it sound grand and it isn’t. It is neat though, the potato collapsing into a starchy, almost silky stock in which you cook the pasta, the starch of which thickens everything further. Thickens, but not too much, after all this is all about eating with a spoon. My shoulders drop and stomach unravels at the very thought of this.


pasta e patate 

You could of course add pancetta or use stock of some kind if you really want.

enough for two

  • an onion
  • a rib of celery
  • a medium carrot
  • a bay leaf
  • a big potato
  • olive oil
  • 100 g pasta (short or broken spaghetti)
  • salt, pepper and pecorino

Peel the onion and carrot and then dice along with the celery. Peel and cut the potato into chunks. Warm some olive oil in a heavy based pan over a medium low heat, then fry the onion, carrot and celery (along with a pinch of salt) until soft and translucent. Add the bay leaf and the potatoes, stir and then fry for a couple of minutes more. Add a liter of water and another pinch of salt, bring to a lively simmer and the reduce to a gentle simmer for 15 mins or until the potato is soft – you can break it up sightly with back of a wood spoon. Add the pasta, raise the heat slightly and cook for another 10 minutes or so or until the pasta is cooked, stirring and adding a little more water if it looks to be getting too thick. Taste for salt and grind over some black pepper. Serve immediately with some grated pecorino stirred in if you like.




Filed under minestra, soup

cook the farm


I have written about the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school and Fabrizia Lanza before. The school holds a place in my heart and I feel fortunate to call Fabrizia a friend and teacher, to have collaborated with her and Luisa for the first Language of Food Workshop, which we will be repeating next year. It was during the Language of Food this June over merry, boozy dinners and during long conversations at the table in the library that Luisa and I were to witness the bubbling away of a new project. This project has now come to fruition and feels like the culmination and natural progression of Fabrizia’s work as a teacher and educator. It is called Cook the Farm and will allow Fabrizia and others to work intensively with young chefs and food professionals who are keen to bridge the gap between farming and cooking. The project is beautiful and important, which is why I am writing about it here.

As a food writer who –  like many before me – has come to love the food of Italy and become obsessed with trying to find out more about it, I have always felt pulled south to Sicily. This of course is also to do with the fact I live with a Sicilian, for whom the pull home is as fierce as that for a freshly fried arancina filled with ragu , peas and mozzarella. For me Sicily is where the fundamental elements; olive oil, grapes, vegetables, wheat, honey, citrus, nuts , cheese, seem to make most sense, in a complicated way, which is why I go back again and again, which isn’t always straightforward.  Cook the Farm is a residential ten week course in the beating heart of Sicily. Each week will concentrate on one of the elements which flourish in Sicily – wheat, cheese, olive oil, wine, honey and citrus and nuts as well as garden horticulture, culinary anthropology, and a comparative Mediterranean case study on Turkish cuisine. There will be hands-on kitchen and garden workshops, lectures, local field trips, and a one-week culinary journey around the island. Guest experts include professors, culinary and horticultural specialists, local artisans, and if all goes well one of the most inspiring young winemakers on the planet, Arianna Occhipinti. I am biased I know and possibly starting to sound like a bad brochure. If you are interested – truly interested, this is serious commitment in every sense – the best thing is to go over to the site, or talk to Elke or Fabrizia. You could even drop me a note if you want to know more about the school, or simply talk about warm ricotta, tomatoes from Pachino, durum wheat bread dusted with sesame seeds, Sicilian olive oil and a glass of Frappato, nothing technical you understand, just how delicious it all is.

Cook the Farm.


Meanwhile on another note, does anyone remember egg in a cup, or is it choppy egg? Either way I have written about this delicious thing for the Guardian Cook’s special egg supplement, also Mozzarella in Carozza, you can read both here along with lots of other good ideas for eggs. More soon. R



Filed under cook the farm, Fabrizia Lanza, Sicily, the language of food

a way round


A section of the motorway has given up, a pylon buckling and the road dipping into depression. It has been closed for months now. This means that to travel from Palermo to Gela, a journey from one side of Sicily to the other, buses have to take a mountain detour. Luca and I had already done the detour two days before, but at the back of the bus, both of us drifting in and out of twitchy sleep that managed to be both air-conditioned and hot. Last Saturday however, Luca chose the front seat and a lunch of gelato di pistacchio sandwiched in warm, doughy brioche and espresso, several espressos, ensured we were wide awake as we swerved from the autostrada up into the mountains.

Matri mia‘ said the man across the aisle from us when the driver took a hairpin curve, the bus feeling too tall and wide for such a narrow road. Then the man chuckled. He chuckled again at the next curve – which really did feel as if we were going to fly off the mountain – when Luca shouted Mamma mia. His name was Giuseppe, but everyone called him Peppe. He had been living in Milan for 45 years, had two plastic hips and a great-grandson Luca’s age. He was making the trip he makes each September to his home town of Gela for La Festa (the celebration) which I knew to be La Festa della Madonna. ‘Was I getting off at Piazza Armerina? he asked. Piazza Armerina is a particularly charming town. He really laughed when I told him I was also going to Gela, and explained it was my partner Vincenzo’s home town too, that we had partly inherited his grandparents house and were spending the summer there. ‘I love my town, but it isn’t an easy town, and Sicily isn’t an easy island. Do you know that?’ he asked. I told him I did. ‘Not easy, but beautiful’ he said, before turning to look out of the window.

As the bus began making its way back down the other side of the mountain, Ligabue woa-oh-ohing out of the bus radio, Giuseppe plays the guide, Scillato, Parco delle Madonie, Leonforte and Enna in the distance. Back on the autostada we pass fields of wheat scorched by the sun, mountains caped by dark green forest, olive trees their twisted trunks clinging tenaciously to rocky hillsides, almond, fig and carob trees, what I imagine are some sort of broccoli, verdant stripes of vines so laden with swollen grapes we can see the bunches from the bus. Bella bella bella bella la Sicilia Giuseppe seems to sing. He is right. Thrilling too, full of drama with her summits and curves, her sheer abundance, but somehow not showoffy. ‘It is rich land, but difficult land, do you know that?’ Giuseppe asks even more insistently than before. I nod, then we all nod off to Celine Dion.

Ecco‘ (here) Giuseppe says abruptly raising both his palms upwards and waking Luca and I. We look up to see the two vast chimneys of Gela’s oil refinery, one checked like a formula one flag, the other striped like Pippi Long-stocking’s socks, in the distance, behind them the sea which stretches to Africa. He asks if I know the story of the refinery. I tell him I do, a little.’ It is an important story’ he says, before catching sight of a bank of fichi d’india, exotic cactus hands covered with terrible little spikes and peachy red fruit. ‘When I was a boy I was the fastest at picking fichi, without gloves’. I try to imagine little Giuseppe, fearless in the face of the treacherous little spines – and they are treacherous – grabbing, then gorging on the sweet, red flesh and many black seeds. In that moment, I want fichi. Before long we are driving into the bleak, parched outskirts of Gela, and glad we are about it too.

We must have pulled into Gela bus station – which is actually the old train station – at about six. ‘Matri mia’ said Guiseppe as we stepped off the bus into the oppressive, clinging heat. I later learn it was one of the hottest days of the year. While we were waiting to pull our bags from the belly of the bus, Guiseppe stamps his foot – which makes me worry about his hip – and says something I didn’t quite understand, but guessed was about being home and even the car park being beautiful. We are standing next to building half of which has simply collapsed, its rubble remains now providing a home for dozens and dozens of bags of rubbish amongst which weeds reach desperately for the sky. Giuseppe’s lift arrived. ‘Did we need one too?’My sad legs needed movement after nearly four hours on a bus with a nearly four-year old draped over them, so I thanked him, but said we would walk. As the car pulled away I felt a bit bereft and wished I had accepted the lift.


To get to Via Mazzini from the station, you have to pass Gela’s modest football stadium, on the wall of which is painted a mural. Brash, but pleasing, the mural tells the story of this ancient city in Southeast Sicily, one of the oldest continually inhabited, a story which twists like a mountain road. There is a picture of the boats bringing the colonists from Rhodes and Crete in 688Bc under whom a newly founded city flourished. Another of the Carthaginians sacking the city into ruin. Columns reminds us of the Roman domination and the fact the Arabs called Gela the city of Columns. There is a picture of Frederick II – looking a little like Paul Newman – who refounded the city in 1233 as Terranova, beside him golden fields of wheat and vines. There are allied forces landing on beaches during Operation Husky in World War II. Next a picture of Enrico Mattei, the head of Eni who drove the industrial expansion plan which saw the building of a vast oil refinery in the plainly beautiful bay of Gela, which was meant to help the economy of the region. Which it did, very briefly, but in the long-term caused an unmanageable swelling of the population and terrible social problems. There is a picture of a soldiers and sandbags reminding of the measures needed to try and rid the area of violent mafia presence in the 80’s, something Vincenzo and his parents remember all too well. The last section of the mural are words, in English, ‘Looking to the future’.

I wonder if I should feel sheepish about mentioning a mural, superb graffiti on the side of a football stadium in a backstreet of Gela. Surely I should be writing of the scholarly things that helped me to think about the city with which I now have a connection. But it was the mural we passed most days in our Fiat Panda, in front of which three lads sell peaches out of a van, which gave me the best sense of the great sweeping story of Gela this first visit. This sense was what I needed in a city I so keenly wanted to love, but found confusing and upsetting at first. The bold pictures had me thinking about a land so desirable to colonists and industrialists, nudged us to seek out the ancient city wall in the narrow, claustrophobic heart of the old city – which is quietly beautiful and intriguing if you give it time – to explore backstreets, shops, hidden churches. It was the mural that ignited my curiosity about Frederick II (who in my mind looks exactly like Paul Newman) of the bespectacled and brilliant Enrico Mattei, to think and then talk with Vincenzo’s cousins and people I met about the past and future. I have to keep reminding myself this is the first trip of many.


Sweeping histories and the everyday, which involved cooking in Vincenzo’s Grandmothers kitchen, which is as it was when it was built by his grandfather in 1934, bar some 1960’s cupboards, and an early 90’s radiator. It is a room full of memories and stories that live on in cracks and weary hinges, floor tiles so trodden the pattern is all but gone, in the plates and pans that really do come from another time. Before cooking though, there was shopping. Gela no longer has a central market, simply a dispersed one, that plays out on corners, pavements, from people’s front doors and garages. Like many of the world’s most abundant, overflowing, richest markets, Gela is one where the sprectre of poverty hovers. Vegetables dense with flavour and character, and deeply coloured fruit of back-breaking labour are sold by the kilo or case and cost almost nothing. In August, a searingly hot one, we find late tomatoes, crates and crates of them, that taste so resolutely like tomatoes it is disconcerting, figs that taste like honey, and aubergines, some pendulous and black as night, others round and pale purple, that are dense and creamy. There are small trucks and car boots full of peaches whose sweet flesh is the colour of a desert sunset, meter long cucuzze, great floppy bunches of squash greens with tendrils and onions the size of cricket balls. By September there are grapes and more grapes, the kind that burst in your mouth and almost taste drunken. Even without eating grapes,  I feel drunk on it all. It all seems ideal, until Vincenzo’s cousin reminds me that it isn’t, between the good farmers, workers, middle men and opportunists, the good and the not-so-good-stuff, you need to know where to go.

Vincenzo’s grandfather was a farmer who cultivated grapes, tomatoes, artichokes and cotton. He was proud and good farmer, one of the few who didn’t abandon the fields to go to work for the oil refinery, who survived relatively well off his land. He was proud of what he grew honestly. It was fitting then that we were to find to Rosa, whose husband farms land almost precisely where Vincenzo’s grandfather did, near the border of Vittoria. It was like being let in on a secret. It isn’t a really a shop, but the garage under her house from which Rosa sells what her husband grows. Rosa is plump and lovely, her blue eyes accentuated by the thick stripe of pale blue eyeshadow. She invites proximity. At 9 o clock the garage is full, as keen-eyed Gelese wait for Rosa’s husband, another Giuseppe, to arrive from the fields and unload what he has just picked. The shop smells deeply of vegetables and faintly of the bleach Rosa uses to slosh the floor clean each night. I take to visiting Rosa most mornings, coming home with bags of joyous, vigorous produce that needs taming – but not too much – into lunch.

Then it feels like dominoes. In Rosa’s garage we meet the brother of the shepherd who with a nod from Rosa opens up the boot of his car to sell warm sheep’s milk ricotta that flouts EU rules that would prefer we bought pasteurized stuff from the supermarket. It is the cheese guy who tells me about the bakery under a house in Via Garibaldi were we find the durum wheat flour loaves dusted with sesame seeds of Vincenzo’s childhood. It is the baker who tells us where to get the best late night Arancine, and so it goes on. There are lots of stories.

On our last night in Sicily was September 8th, La Festa della Madonna dell’Alemanna, the patron saint of Gela, We walk to Vincenzo’s cousins house on Via Magnuco, the family name, and one of the streets down which the procession passes. As a rule this street is strung with faded cotton and washing which whips in the breeze. Today there is not even a dishcloth to be seen, and everyone seems to have scrubbed their bit of pavement.  We had already seen the Madonna in the church earlier, a Byzantine painting of Madonna and child at the center of a gold frame with cut-out heavenly rays and moulded cherubs. Having been carried from the church by a group of chosen men, who run disconcertingly fast down the steps, the Madonna is propped up on platform with a motor and steering wheel. She is then is driven round the town, preceded by three altar boys, two carabineri with plumes and three priests, one almost singing prayers into a microphone. A lengthy procession of the faithful follow behind. Those who have a house on one of the blessed streets, watch from their balconies. You can feel the excitement and anticipation in the air, but people move with quiet purpose, this isn’t Naples. Vincenzo’s cousin is very proud of the light he has set up from the balcony to illuminate the already illuminated madonna. I understand so little about it all, about the sequence of blessings all over the city, to new-born babies, citizens, farmers, fishermen, mills, industry, the land. I hardly understand a word of the prayers through a speaker phone and the collective response, but find the whole thing extremely moving. Just behind the Madonna, I see a figure wearing a dark suit and white shirt waving, at me. It takes me a minute. Then I realise the man waving with one hand, his other hand on his heart, is my bus companion Peppe.


Zuppa di Tenerumi e Cucuzze –  Sicilian squash and squash greens soup.

adapted from a family recipe, with help from Fabrizia’s Lanza’s book Coming to Sicily and La Cucina di Calycanthus

serves 4

Cucuzza is a long, pale-green, thick-skinned, Sicilian squash, which has a creamy, extremely mild flavour, in fact the Sicilians have an expression which says something along the lines of you can dress it up all you want, but it is still only cucuzza. Tenerumi are the greens of the cucuzza (stems, leaves and tendril like shoots) which have a tender, slightly sweet flavor, like peas shoots and hairy grass. The idea is simple. You cook the tenerumi briefly in lightly salted boiling water, which produces a green-tinted, gently flavoured broth. You then sauté onions, garlic, diced cucuzza, potato and tomatoes in plenty of olive oil to which you add, first cooked the greens, then the broth, and then some broken spaghetti. The result is a simple, brothy minestra. It is undoubtedly plain, a good example of what the Sicilians describe as cucina povera (poor cooking), but I think it pure tasting and delicious, and now understand why it is one of Vincenzo’s favourite things. While we were in Gela, Vincenzo’s cousin served this soup without spaghetti but over bread and topped with a poached egg, which was dead good and reminded me of the Acquacotta from Maremma. Sicilians serve this soup, not hot or cold, but lukewarm, possibly with a little more olive oil on top.  An alternative to cucuzza and tenrumi are courgettes and their greens. I am convinced this would also work with other greens and now I am back in Rome will be experimenting away. As always, treat this recipe as a template, not a set of rules, and taste as you cook.

  • a large bunch of Tennerumi or squash greens
    1 cucuzza or 2 courgettes
    a large, mild onion
    a clove of garlic
    6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for pouring on top
    a large potato
    6 medium-sized flavoursome tomatoes or 20 or so cherry ones
    200 g broken spaghetti
    salt and pepper

Trim the tenerumi/squash greens of all their tough stems and largest leaves so you have tender manageable pieces with only the smallish leaves. In a large pan, bring 1.5 litres of lightly salted water to a fast boil then add the greens and boil for 2 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the greens and set aside. Bring the water back to the boil. Plunge the tomatoes in for a minute, remove with a slotted spoon, cool in cold water at which point the skins should come away easily. Chop the tomatoes roughly on a plate to catch juices.

Peel and dice the onion, Peel the garlic and gently crush it with the back of a knife so it remains intact. In soup pan, or deep saute pan, warm the olive oil over a medium/low flame and then add the onion, garlic and a pinch of salt and saute gently until the onion is soft and translucent and the garlic fragrant. Peel and dice the potato and cucuzze/courgette and add it to the pan. Stir so each piece is well coated with oil. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring then with a wooden spoon so they break up. Now add the tenenrumi or squash greens, stir before adding approx 1 litre of the green cooking water and a good pinch of salt, Bring to a lively simmer, then reduce to a blip blip simmer for 25 mins. Taste for salt.

Bring the soup to the gentlest boil, add the broken spaghetti and cook until the spaghetti is tender. It should be nice and soupy so you may want to add more greens water if you feel the spaghetti is absorbing too much water as it cooks.


Filed under Cucuzze, Gela, minestra, temerumi, Two kitchens

another kitchen


Hello. We are in Southeast Sicily in a town called Gela. I have written a piece about this for the FT Weekend magazine, which is beautifully illustrated by Luke Best. If you would like to read it, here is the link. More here soon – R




Filed under Uncategorized

slightly different


After seven weeks in England – the longest trip back since I came to Italy –  it was good to come home. Even the relentless heat, which clung to our skin as we walked down the plane steps and has refused to let go ever since, hasn’t dented my relief at being back in Testaccio. Relief though, is one thing, settling back another. I have felt a bit like a snow-globe in the hands of a hyper-active toddler, thoughts about time away, work, writing a book, promoting a book, family, home in England which isn’t home anymore, and home in Rome, a city in profound crisis, all swirling around. Swirling which trips into surreal during restless nights in our small, hot flat, the droning urumm urumm urumm of the knackered floor fan offering a soundtrack to my anxious half-sleep. Of course everything with settle, eventually, somethings different, some the same.

If I have felt like a snow-globe, then writing here has felt trying to jump on a moving roundabout as a child. Wanting to, lurching forward, only to watch the handle rush past, Whoosh. The book launch dinner made by some of my favorite cooks in one of my favourite places, I tried to write about that. Whoosh. There was the trip within the trip to Sicily for the food writing course, from which I returned inspired and overwhelmed in equal measure, surely I would write about that? Whoosh.  I’d write about cooking with my sister, one of the nicest things about my time in England, hours and hours spent in her kitchen, kids running riot in the garden, the two of us talking and drinking wine and talking as if to make up for lost time (which we were). Whoosh.  I’d write a book review or something more sophisticated than a snow-shaker metaphor. Or maybe I wouldn’t, not yet at least. For now, in order to jump on, I will write about lunch.


Turn on the radio. Fill a big pan with water, light hob, plonk pan on the stove. Stop, first move the coffee stand from the hob and burn fingers, and then put the pan on the hob. Pull milled tomatoes from the fridge and wonder where the hell the water under the fridge is coming from. Cut aubergine into cubes, don’t worry about being too precise, no-one is watching and don’t bother salting unless you want to. Fry the aubergine in lots of extra virgin olive oil until tender and golden and sweat steams down the nape of your neck (it is 38° even without the boiling oil). Use a slotted spoon to lift the cubes into kitchen towel. Cooking can be lots of things, today it is a task, but a welcome one. Is the pasta water boiling? Yes, add salt, plenty, stir and throw in the pasta and stir again. Add garlic to the aubergine pan, then the tomatoes and cook until saucy (I like saucy, and find it a better note than specific timings), return aubergine to the pan and cook a minute longer. Add lots of torn basil (inhale deeply) and the drained pasta. Toss properly. Finish each plate with lots of ricotta salata. Simple, generous and richly flavoured: this is the sort of food I like to eat.

I am not going to call this pasta alla norma, a dish typical to Catania in Sicily. It is however very much inspired by it: short pasta mixed with fried aubergine, tomatoes, lots of fresh basil and topped with Ricotta salata. It is important that you use good extra virgin olive oil, and don’t skimp on the quantity, the pleasure is in the taste of properly fried aubergine, rich and plump, softened and sharpened by tomatoes, lifted by the fragrant basil and finished with the soft, salty-sharp ricotta. If you can’t find ricotta, parmesan or pecorino work well too.

It’s good to be back. More soon.


Pasta with aubergine, tomato, basil and salted ricotta.

Serves 4

  • 1 large /2 small aubergine (approx 600g)
  • extra virgin olive oil.
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and gently crushed
  • 500 g fresh tomatoes, peeled and roughly chopped or passed through mouli or 500 g tinned plum tomatoes roughly chopped
  • salt
  • fresh basil
  • salted ricotta, pecorino or parmesan
  • 500 g short pasta (Penne, rigatoni, caserecce, mezze maniche all work well)

Cut the spiky cap from the aubergine and then cut into 1cm square cubes. Cover the bottom of a frying pan with 1 cm of olive oil and warm over a medium/high flame. Once the oil is quite hot, add a single layer of aubergine and fry until tender and golden, then remove with a slotted spoon onto kitchen towel. Continue frying the aubergine in batches until it is all done.

You should still have some olive oil in the pan, if not add some more (you want about 4 tablespoons). Once the olive oil has cooled significantly, add the peeled garlic and fry until lightly gold and fragrant – do not let it burn or it will be bitter. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring often and pressing gently with the back of a wood spoon, until thick and saucy but not dry. Add salt to taste. Add the aubergine to the tomato, cook for another minute or so, then pull from the heat and add a handful of fresh torn basil leaves.

Meanwhile bring a large pan of water to the boil. Once the water is boiling, add salt, stir and then add the pasta and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and add to the sauce and stir. Divide between plates, top with plenty of grated salted ricotta and serve.



As many of you know, I have been happily contributing to the Guardian Cook Batch Cooking series and the latest one is all about tomato sauce.

I want to bring the warm and generous words about Five Quarters that have been written on personal blogs together in one place, here. Thank you so much Emiko Dan, Evie, Kath, SimonIndia Knight, Margaret, Gemma, Molly, and the inimitable and wonderful Gareth Jones who very sadly passed away earlier this month and is missed terribly.

I hope I haven’t forgotten anyone. If I have, please forgive me and send me a link so I can add it – R


Filed under Uncategorized

pound and pulse


I first ate pesto in St Albans. Years later, I would eat it in a rather sleek port side trattoria in Genova, the real deal, pesto alla Genovese, a bright green paste binding trofie pasta – a short twisted shape with tapered ends  – with just a little collapsing potato and fine green beans. But the first time had been when I was 14, in a town five miles nearer to London than my town, called St Albans. It was the first real date with the boy who was to become my second real boyfriend, who would later, if not break, offhandedly hurt my heart (the git.)

I can still remember him, wearing blue acrylic Adidas shorts, scraping the contents of a small jar into flat spaghetti called Lin-gwee-knee. The stuff coming out of the jar was darkish green and smelt like dried herbs, cheese and mothballs. It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. ‘It’s pesto‘ he said.  I was given the job of mixing the pasta and pesto, which clumped into a large ball. It would be another 18 years until I learned the secret of pasta cooking water. Undeterred, we untangled the ball in two, then ate our supper listening to David Sandbourne’s 1980’s smooth sax. Even with the mustiness, I thought it was one of the best things I had ever eaten. As it got dark, I balanced on the cogs on the back of his BMX and he rode me up a very steep hill to the train station, a feat I read like tea leaves. It was meant to be. When we kissed goodbye, he tasted of pesto.


Pesto comes from the Italian verb pestare that means to pound or crush, a job best done with a pestle in a mortar. The most famous of the pesto family, pesto alla Genovese, a distant manufactured cousin of that which I ate all those years ago in St Albans was – and occasionally still is – made with a bulbous wooden pestle, in a heavyweight marble mortar. Watching someone with experience and skill make pesto with a pestle is as wonderful as the final dish. To start, the garlic (with a pinch of salt) is pounded and crushed against the sides of the mortar. Once the garlic is disciplined, the basil leaves are added – ideally the small and tender leaved Genevese variety – and pounded into a bright green paste, at which point the pine nuts are added and pounded too. To finish mix of grated pecorino and parmesan cheese is then added bit by bit, each addition helped with a little extra virgin olive oil until the desired consistency is achieved. I was once told pesto should be corposo(have body) , that it shouldn’t correre (run) like a naughty child (mine), but sit like an obedient one (not my child). Later the addition of pasta cooking water will help loosen the pesto into an accommodating pasta-clinging consistency. I should stop here though, there are experts and consortia of pesto alla Genovese. I am simply an enthusiastic fan.

I have made pesto alla Genovese with a pestle and mortar, or rather Vincenzo and I did together, me instructing, him pounding. It was a laborious task , but a satisfying one and the pesto was fragrant with real texture. Laborious though. Then I broke my mortar*. These days I make it less laboriously and much faster with my only electric kitchen tool – a faithful immersion blender. Like so many Italian recipes, pesto alle Genovese is one that needs no innovation (garlic, basil, pine-nuts, grated hard cheese and extra virgin olive oil are a brilliant combination) but demands your imprint as you make it your own by making it again and again finding best method and proportions. I put the garlic, basil and pine nuts and just a dash of olive oil in a tin bowl and then with short pressing pulses reduce everything to a paste. I stir in the grated cheese and olive oil bit by bit, with a spoon, as opposed to more pulses, as I prefer the texture that gives. This is known as green sauce in our house and it is an absolute favorite. I make it most weeks. If we don’t have the ingredients, well, that brings us to other sorts of pesto.


Pesto, a pounded sauce, can of course be made with many things. Pesto alla Genovese is a good template, establishing the garlic, herb (or leaf), nut, cheese, extra virgin olive oil formula which works so well. Once you have got the hang of this basic recipe, and found your preferred way of making it, be that pestle and mortar, immersion blender, food processor or magimix, you can improvise around this theme. Think of it as a set of pesto dance steps, that once mastered can be set to any ingredient tune.  I make parsley, walnut and parmesan pesto, sage, almond and pecorino pesto, mint,almond and salted ricotta pesto (to which I often add some finely chopped tomato making it rather like pesto alla Trapanese), rocket, pine nut and parmesan pesto, pea shoot, mint and almond pesto (to which I add peas and sometimes a blob of ricotta or thick greek yogurt).

As for qualities, an initial template is useful too, until you get the hang of things and pesto becomes a pretty relaxed affair for the eye and not the scales, that comfortable q.b. My original template of quantities for pesto alla Genovese came from the same person who so expertly pounded the ingredients by hand: 2 small cloves of garlic, a pinch of salt, 50 g basil leaves, 20 g pine nuts, 75 ml extra virgin olive oil, 30 g  pecorino cheese, 70 g parmesan cheese. These days I have a pretty good sense of these quantities and I keep them in mind whatever pesto I am making.


The pot of pesto pictured in this post was a make-do pot. The the last two cloves of garlic (note to self – buy more garlic), basil and two neglected stalks of mint that might otherwise have just been binned, the only nuts I had in the house (almonds), parmesan alone as I had no pecorino.  I feel reassured by a pot of pesto in the fridge so if I can, I try to make extra. It need to be covered with a thin layer of olive oil to stop discoloring. Pesto also freezes well if you are lucky enough to have a lot of something along with the wherewithal to stock pile.

So how to serve it. Pasta is our preferred way to eat all incarnations of pesto. I was taught to put a tablespoon per person of pesto in a warm bowl while the pasta is cooking then scoop 3 – 4 tablespoons of starchy pasta cooking water into the bowl to loosen the pesto into a creamy sauce. You then lift the pasta onto the pesto and toss, adding a little more water to loosen things further: the pasta should be silky and willing to curl around a fork, not clump together. I like pasta with pesto just so. I also like vegetables in the mix. With this basil, mint and almond I added some fine green beans and to the pan along with the pasta.

Pesto – despite what Vincenzo might tell you – is not just for pasta though. I used most of the rest of the jar as a dressing for warm boiled potatoes and green beans, and the last spoonful in a sandwich with some ricotta and mizuna. On other occasions I have used pesto at the bottom of a goats cheese tart thing, as a dressing for grated courgette salad, stirred into warm lentils. However you choose to use your potful, keep in mind that David Sanborn makes for a good and naff supper soundtrack and a bike ride (balancing and hills optional) is nice after.


basil, mint and almond pesto

makes that jar-full in the picture.

  • a big handful of mostly basil and just a few mint leaves (about 50 g)
  • salt (a pinch)
  •  1- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
  • a big handful of almonds (about 20 g)
  • extra virgin olive oil (about 75 ml)
  • parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated (about 75g)

Wash and dry the basil and mint leaves and put them in a deep bowl. Add 1 or 2 peeled cloves of garlic (you know best), a pinch of salt, and the peeled almonds. Pulse – cautiously to start –  with a stick blender until you have a rough paste. Add cheese bit by bit, with each addition adding some of the olive oil, stiring with spoon or pulsing with blender until you have a consistency and taste you like. This could of course be done with a pestle and mortar, or food processor.

Keep in a jar with layer of olive oil floating on the top to stop it discoloring.


*I am now the happy owner of new pestle and mortar, a gift from my wonderful publisher Elizabeth on publication of the book. Did I mention I wrote a book? I will be pounding pesto with a pestle just as soon as I get back in my Roman kitchen. I am – despite this misleading post that has taken me a month to finish – still in England, which is lovely, but I miss Rome and my kitchen and (slightly blocked) kitchen sink and all that represents. Thank you again and again for all your support and cheering along, for buying the book and then sending me such generous messages, for cooking and then sending me pictures, really it fills me with joy. R


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what else is there to do?


Did it take you a very long time to write? Asked my four-year old niece while balancing the book on her upturned palms as if to really weigh it up. ‘About a year‘ I answered. ‘What a long time!’  She paused for a few seconds, then began turning the pages, her fingers moving like a pro. ‘I like that picture‘ she said before pausing again and staring at me hard. ‘I don’t need pictures now you know. Harry Potter doesn’t have pictures‘. She continued working her way through the book, her fingers and eyes moving from left to right. In that moment she looked about 10 years old.

Look, look there’s that building we drove past, the one you said looks like a cake, which means your flat is here!’ She was looking and pointing at one of Nick’s pictures, a sweeping shot of Rome, in which you can just about make out the Vittorio Emanuele monument. We passed that monument, once, at speed, a few weeks ago during Beattie’s first visit to Rome. My aunty awe at her memory and orientation were interrupted by ‘Tomato, tomato, pasta, pasta, pasta.’ The nearly five-year old was back, her eyes wide-hungry. ‘Is that a sticky bun aunty Rach, a really sticky bun?’ Then she slammed the book closed, leapt down from the chair and ran off. I thought that was that, but she turned. ‘Well done, Aunty Rach, it is a good book’.


I say it took me a year to write! Which it did, technically. A generous 12 months which allowed me to write, shop, cook, test, photograph and of course eat my way through the four seasons and as much as possible keep the process in tune with our everyday life (which is all too often far from melodic). But really, I started the book 10 years ago in April, when the 170 bus swerved into via Branca and I visited Testaccio for the first time. It was that day, as disorientation gave way to curiosity in a corner of Rome where ancient and modern collide with almost banal ease, and where food culture is woven into the very fabric of the place. I unknowingly began Five Quarters.

Many of you know the story. I didn’t intend to stay in Rome. I was set on returning to Sicily to finish the clockwise journey I’d interrupted. Then I visited Testaccio, which – for want of a better description – tripped me up with its cocky charm. I decided to stay for a while and rented a flat above a breadshop, across a courtyard from boisterous trattoria and seconds from the burly old market. My front door, like the two dozen other front doors, opened onto a narrow balcony overlooking an internal courtyard which was sort of vortex of cooking smells and vigorous Roman life.


There is a wonderful Elizabeth Bowen quote (that we were given permission to use on page 252) pointing out the injunction to do when in Rome as the romans do is superfluous: what else is there to do?  Of course I was going to eat pizza bianca just pulled from the mouth of a baker’s oven, flowers dipped in batter and fried until golden, carbonara, spaghetti alle vongole, gnocchi with tomato sauce, whole braised artichokes, bitter greens cooked with olive oil and garlic, wobbly cream puddings, wild cherry tart. Seasonal, uncomplicated, bold, and with flavours that are undisguised and definite: Roman food was a revelation. And I didn’t just want to eat these dishes, I wanted to try to understand them, to make them. I have always cooked and written, but the two met, collided really, in a small wind ventilated kitchen on Via Mastro Giorgio.

I’d left everything behind in order to travel. I adopted a similar approach to cooking, allowing myself to watch, taste, experiment and learn things all over again, especially the blindingly obvious things. Such as how to make a soffritto, the simplest tomato sauce and bean soup, how to braise vegetables and meat in wine and their own juices, to boil pasta and soak chickpeas, all things I ostensibly knew how to do, but then again didn’t. Things that, once re-learned and better understood changed the way I cook.


To start it was all about the new and different. But as a year became several, and recipes began to feel like my own, I began to observe similarities as well as differences. Roman food, I noticed, had much in common with traditional English food, particularly that of my northern relatives, the simplicity and straightforwardness of it (my grandfather would have said no fuss); the resourcefulness; the long slow braises using less popular cuts of meat; the battered cod; the love of peas, broad beans asparagus and mint; the jam tarts, stewed fruit and spiced fruit cakes. These connections were reassuring and made cooking even more of a new-found pleasure. There was another dimension too, the Sicilian food culture of Vincenzo, which felt like a bold and brilliant slap around the cooking face. I cooked and kept notes, and cooked and kept notes. In 2008 my notes found a home here on this blog, and now 7 years later a new home in a book.

Five Quarters; Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome is the title. Nick Seaton a photographer whose work I like very much, came and more-or-less lived with us – and our chaos – for a days at a time in order to capture Testaccio. His pictures, which feel like acute sideways glances at this distinct part of Rome, are honest and beautiful and add another dimension to the book. The rest of the pictures are mine, taken over the course of the year in our small kitchen as I cooked my way though the seasons and the 120 recipes.


I am now sitting at my desk holding the book, weighing it up if you like. It has a picture of my kitchen sink and a kitchen roll on the front and I can’t help but wonder what my grandma Roddy would have had to say about that. Plenty I imagine, including ‘A Kitchen Roll, by heck, you can’t put a kitchen roll…! The name on the front cover is mine, but this book is the work of many, most notably my commissioning editor Elizabeth Hallett and Kate Miles at Saltyard Books, editor Laura Gladwin, designer Myfanwy Vernon-Hunt and Dan Etherington. It is impossible to talk about Italian food without talking about wine, so I did, a lot, thanks to the advice of the woman who makes my drinking life better Hande Leimer. To everyone involved – thank you.

I also want to say thank you to you all for reading, commenting and for the real sense of community that exists here. Without you, this book would quite simply never have happened. Thank you, Grazie, cheers and more cheers. Many of you have already preordered I know – thank you.  If not, and you would like to here is the link. Alternatively you go into your local bookshop and ask if they have it /order it, you could even suggest a book signing – I will try and come. The US edition is still a few month aways yet, February 2016 if all goes to plan. However and whenever you get the book, please do send me an email as in these days of fast mail I would like to return to slow mail and send you a post card with a picture from the book and two extra recipes. My e-mail is on my about page.

So to finish, a recipe. Or rather what we happened to have the day I wrote this post. An assembly I never seem to tire of: Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and ricotta. What I like most about this lunch, is what I like best about Roman food, it is robust, inviting and uncomplicated. Also it is very satisfying to toast some good bread and then rub it with a cut clove of garlic, to pile on tomatoes glistening with extra virgin olive oil and scented with fresh basil and then finish with a big fat blob of ricotta. Then what else is there to do? You eat.


Bruschetta with tomatoes, basil and ricotta

serves 2

  • 4 slices of day-old country or sourdough bread
  • 300 – 500 g good, flavorsome, ripe tomatoes
  • a few leaves of basil
  • salt
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • a cloves of garlic
  • ricotta (ideally sheep’s milk)  or goats curd

Rince and cut away the tough stem from the tomatoes, then dice them roughly into a bowl, taking care to catch the juices. Add a pinch of salt, the basil leaves ripped into small pieces and a good amount of olive oil. Let the tomatoes sit for a 10 minutes.

Toast the bread (either under the grill, on a griddle or in a toaster). Cut the garlic in half lengthways and then use the cut side to rub the toast. Share the tomatoes and their oily juices between the four slices of bread, top with a spoonful of ricotta, a grind of black pepper and another thin drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.




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