One morning in 2005, Rachel Roddy arrived at a London airport with a handbag and a passport, looked up at the departures screen, and chose a one-way ticket to Sicily. She had recently seen a Caravaggio exhibition, and longed to see Mount Etna.
She traveled around the island “clockwise”—“going to bed early, getting up early, walking lots and having about six meals a day.” Six weeks later, her oldest friend (an architect) invited her on a trip to research Rome’s public housing.
It was then that Rachel discovered Testaccio, an area “shaped like a piece of cheese” and filled with gridded streets, tenement blocks, and stark nineteenth-century buildings. It does not have the grand basilicas or medieval alleyways of other quarters of the city, but is somehow the most Roman of them all—a living, breathing microcosm of all that is maddening and wonderful about Italy’s capital. Coarse and chaotic, it has the markets, the old women gossiping loudly on street corners, and the linen-draped washing lines you imagine when you imagine Rome.
Even though Rachel wanted to go back to Sicily, she decided, “rather reluctantly,” to take her friend’s advice and stay in Rome to learn Italian. And that’s how she found herself, only days after first setting eyes on Testaccio, signing contract for a tiny apartment above a bread shop and beside an old market.
Once she had moved to Rome, she began exploring the city through its “fiercely traditional” food and launched a blog called Rachel Eats. “I really fell for Rome. It tripped me up.” She met a jazz drummer from Sicily, who she had a son with. “I didn’t think I’d have a child,” she told us. “So it was a surprise. A lovely one. It all was, really.”
Since then, she has remained in Testaccio and written a multi-award winning cookbook, My Kitchen in Rome: Recipes and Notes on Italian Cooking, which reads less like a recipe book than a love letter to the city. She also writes recipes and articles for a host of magazines and newspapers, shining a light on simple, comforting Roman fare.
Rachel’s approach to food is thoroughly Roman, her recipes informed by the seasons and by the simple home cooking that is the staple of the Italian home.
“The food of Rome reflects two-thousand years of history. The food of Testaccio is based on the cooking of the poor. It was about what was available: huge amounts of pulses, wild greens, chicory, ricotta. Guanciale is the cheapest cut of pork, and it is often used as a fat and a seasoning. Pecorino functioned as a seasoning. And, of course, salt. Salt used to be money, it’s how people were paid. You still buy salt in Rome in tobacconists. Classic Roman food is about making things taste as good as they possibly can, and adding nothing more. It is incredibly resourceful, and kind of brilliant.”
Despite how undeniably romantic her narrative seems, Rachel does her best to dispel that impression: “I feel like that story has become very glamorized, because I have told it so many times. In fact, it was really banal.”
She was 32 when she left for Italy: “I was an actress; I was in a relationship. We had a house, we had a car. I thought that was what was happening. And all of a sudden, it just finished. It didn’t ‘fall apart’—it just finished. It was a lot more boring than drama.”
“I had nothing with me. I went to the airport with no idea where I wanted to go. I just needed to get away. You know when you walk out of the door without your bag, it always feels very nice? It was like that every day for six weeks.”
And even though her catapult to Italy might not have been fit for the big screen, the soul-searching really might have healed her. “I don’t want to come over all Eat, Pray, Love about this, but I did feel so miserable in London back then. It was just so wonderful to go to this new place, with different tastes and smells, and warmth."
“People always ask if I met amazing people or had amazing experiences. And truly, the answer is no. I traveled around the place and I was a bit sad about things. I slept loads. It was lovely. I’d have about three breakfasts, be quite wired on coffee, have a lovely lunch, and then in the evening I’d buy a picnic. It was all quite pedestrian. I wasn’t doing anything particularly daring. But I absolutely loved it.”
On a recent visit to the market near her apartment, we watched Rachel fill up a few brown paper bags with vegetables as she chatted in (what seemed to us) perfect Italian. Once she had stocked up on breads, cheeses, dried meats, and tinned fish (and stopped for a panino oozing with cheese and salty ham), she took us to her apartment—even smaller than we imagined from following her blog, but practical, and impossibly homey.
She has few kitchen gadgets, only the most necessary tools: a good copper pan, a Moka pot, a mortar and pestle. “I did come to Rome with nothing. A lot of the things in here is stuff I’ve found on the street.” On the wall above the little stove are a few scraps of paper scribbled with recipes. “That’s book two!”
Beside them, a cluster of postcards are tacked to the wall. They show various book covers: Elizabeth Craig’s Wine in the Kitchen and Jeifer Wayne’s The Day the Ceiling Fell Down. “I’ve been writing stories for most of my life, and I’ve always been surrounded by books. I’ve always read a lot of food writing: Jane Grigson, Elizabeth David, Simon Hopkinson, Laurie Colwin, Lindsey Bareham.”
Growing up in a small town just outside of London, Rachel says she learned about the “tiny celebrations” of the seasons from her mother, a gardener who would “make a big fuss” of freshly grown vegetables and herbs. She would cook from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. “Again, I don’t want to romanticize. I grew up on crisps and caramel bars. But I do remember there always being new potatoes from the garden, or peas or rhubarb. There was always a lot of excitement around homegrown food.”
As we talked, Rachel made us vignarola, a precious, springtime vegetable stew that uses “the last of the artichokes and the first of the peas, which means you can only make it this way for about a month each year."
“I think Italians really coax the best out of vegetables,” Rachel told us. “I learned about braising them very slowly in lots and lots of olive oil, and that was quite a revelation for me.”
Rachel filled our plates with soft, pearly green vignarola, tomatoes, ricotta, fresh bread, and stracciatella, all doused in green-gold olive oil and salt. “I’m interested in this whole idea of idealizing food and making it beautiful, but also making it really approachable,” she explained.
“When I got my book deal, people were telling me to move house or get a studio. They thought I couldn’t do it in this funny little kitchen. But if you love food, you get such pleasure from the ingredients and the process. Even washing vegetables and podding peas, all of those nice tasks. It’s for everyone, in any space.”
If you could pack your bags and move to one city in the world to learn about its cuisine, where would you go? Tell us in the comments!