Image by Elena Heatherwick

Food writer Rachel Roddy grew up in a town outside London, one of three, and trained as an actress before moving to Italy in 2005, from where she now writes her hugely successful blog racheleats.wordpress.com. Roddy lives in Rome with her partner and son, Luca. Her forthcoming book ‘Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome’ will be published by Saltyard Books on 4 June

Tell us about your childhood
When I think about growing up, family meals are at the absolute heart of it all. Constant, noisy, nourishing, at times exasperating: some of my most vivid memories are at the table, at home, at a camping table in a windy field in Wales, at one of the long brass tables in my granny’s pub. My mum is a good cook so we always ate well, but it never felt precious. She was also good at involving us all, taking us to the butcher and encouraging us to choose, dragging us all out blackberry picking and then letting us help make the pie, knowing when we all needed to get the hell out of the house and go for fish and chips.

When did you begin to cook?
As for many small children, cooking and playing were inseparable for me, rolling the ends of the pastry into the plastic tablecloth, counting cornflakes for the crispies. I was pretty little when I first cooked, or rather baked, by myself, scones I think. By about eight I would help quite a lot and had decided – in the emphatic way you do when you are eight – that cooking, along with climbing trees and plaiting hair, was something that made me extremely happy, even if it did make me cross at times. I still feel this way.

What prompted the move to Italy?
As an actress I worked, and then I didn’t work, at which point I became a waitress who preferred helping out in the kitchen rather than ferrying plates. Then I worked as an actress again, finally getting sort of jobs I had always wanted, but by then I realised acting wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had an idea I wanted to write, but nothing certain. I had some money saved so decided, impulsively, to travel. Naples was the starting point from where I traveled down to Sicily and then up to Rome, where I intended to stay for a short time before moving further southwards again.

While staying in Rome I visited Testaccio, a distinct, relatively modern part of the city but with ancient foundations. It is quarter shaped like a quarter, or large wedge of cheese, and has an almost village-like atmosphere. Initially I found Testaccio, the ex-slaughterhouse district, disconcerting; it was so different from the classical Rome I had been exploring. However after a long day spent wandering and getting lost in its ordinarily beautiful backstreets and atmospheric old market, and then a bloody good supper at a lively local trattoria full of locals, I was won over. It almost felt as if Testaccio had tripped me up in order to grab my attention. A few days later I took a year-long contract on a flat. 10 years later I am still here.

How did Rome influence your decision to write about food?
Roman food culture is extraordinary in that it seems to permeate every aspect of life, in the most ordinary way, especially here in Testaccio. The market tells you what season it is as well as any calendar and local, seasonal ingredients are taken for granted. Local trattoria, some better than others, serve traditional food with particular dishes on particular days and you smell the same dishes bubbling away on domestic stoves as you walk around the quarter. Living In Testaccio above a breadshop and across the courtyard from a trattoria I found myself cooking and then writing as a way of making sense of where I was.

It was in Italy that you had your son. How did this change your life?
I am, and will always be, a straniera, a foreigner. Even after 10 years of living in this village-like part of the city, I am referred to as such – with affection, I think – by locals. I don’t mind this, after all, I am. Luca isn’t, he is half-Roman and born here, this is his city. The way people treat him differently is fascinating, for his mum at least. Interesting too is watching him grow up with habits I came too much later and try to write about, the rituals of the local bar (the cafe sort) and gelateria, the knack of winding pasta round a fork and folding pizza, the habit of talking in hand gestures, all these seem part of his DNA. Through him I have a different perspective on life here. He is also, at three and a half years old, starting to correct my Italian.

How have you found balancing your work and motherhood?
I got an agent and a book deal when Luca was nearly one and we were still in the midst of the all-consuming, sticky chaos of those early days, which felt both ridiculous and made absolute sense; after all, I was writing about Italian family food. I wrote the book over the course of a year, shopping at the local market, cooking and writing with a little boy crawling, toddling and then running round me. The process was rather like the family meals of my childhood: constant, noisy, nourishing, at times exasperating, but essentially good. Until he went to school, I had lots of support, from my partner and family and rather than finding a perfect scheme or balance, we make it work week by week.  I’d like to think I am more efficient since becoming a mum, but I am not sure that is true. I have learned to get up at 5am to write, a habit I keep up even though I have more time now he is at school, because it is when I write best. I then go back to bed at 7 and sleep until Luca wakes at 8 and we have breakfast.

RECIPE: Spaghetti alla puttanesca (Spaghetti with tomatoes, anchovies, capers and olives) Serves 4

Spaghetti alla puttanesca – Spaghetti with tomatoes, anchovies, capers and olives – is one of my favourite things to eat. It’s a useful and practical dish, too, because we always have the ingredients in the cupboard, and because the sauce takes about the same time to make as it does to bring the water to a fast boil and cook the pasta. A pasta with such strong and particular flavours has to be a very personal thing, so this recipe is a loose guide and not a set of rules; you can experiment. If you like anchovies, you might like to add more; if you find capers overwhelming, add less or leave them out completely. How salty are your olives? How hot is your chilli? You know better than me.

Ingredients:
1 garlic clove
6 anchovy fillets packed in oil, drained
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small fresh or dried chilli
1 tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed
6 ripe tomatoes, or 400 g tinned San Marzano tomatoes with
their juice
100 g black olives, ideally Gaeta or Taggiasca
500 g spaghetti
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Instructions:
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and warm a serving bowl if you’re going to use one.

Finely chop the garlic along with the anchovies. Warm the olive oil in a deep frying pan over a low heat and add the chopped garlic and anchovies, mashing them gently with the back of a wooden spoon so they disintegrate into the oil. Chop the chilli and add it to the pan. Cook for another couple of minutes. Roughly chop the capers, olives and tomatoes and add them to the pan. Stir and cook over a medium heat for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, salt the boiling water, stir and add the spaghetti, fanning it out and pressing it gently into the water (without breaking it) with the back of a wooden spoon. Cook, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente (check the cooking time on the packet and start tasting at least 2 minutes earlier). Drain the pasta and, having pulled the sauce off the heat, toss it with the sauce, sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately. Alternatively – and more correctly – transfer the drained pasta into a warm serving bowl, tip over the sauce, toss with a spoon and a fork, sprinkle with parsley and serve.

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