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
- 4 slices of day-old country or sourdough bread
- 300 – 500 g good, flavorsome, ripe tomatoes
- a few leaves of basil
- 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.