Further to an adventure in house sitting that I wrote up in an earlier entry, I recently came into possession of a new cookbook. This is Rachel Roddy’s An A-Z of Pasta, which bears the subtitle: ‘Stories, shapes, sauces, recipes‘. I don’t really need another Italian cookbook, I have the encyclopaedic Silver Spoon collection, the River Cafe books, plus admirable tomes by Alistair Little, Mary Reynolds, etc. (My cooking is inexpert but, on a good day, brutally effective.) But I came to own the Roddy book by default, as it belonged to the friend in whose house I was staying and I left it lying where her determinedly chewy French bulldog could get his chops round it. The result is plain to see. So I bought a new copy for my friend and took the mauled edition home.
I was looking forward to consulting the book during the long winter nights but it turns out that I’d got Rachel Roddy mixed up with Felicity Cloake, whose Guardian food columns I enjoy very much. No, Rachel Roddy is a different Guardian food writer and, it says here, is ‘one of the best food writers of our time’, which is no small claim. But after a week in the company of this book my enthusiasm for using it as a practical kitchen guide, or indeed anything else, has dwindled; in fact I began to wish that Robin the Frenchie had eaten the whole thing. The recipes aren’t the problem: it’s the prose. Ms Roddy describes herself as a food writer rather than a chef and this is significant. Staples of Italian home cooking are given the full Guardian Lifestyle treatment, a sort of gastronomic gentrification. One recipe begins with the sentence: ‘Leeks go softly.’ (Go where? Is that an injunction to the vegetable?) Another is characterised as ‘A beige woolly sock of a dish’, whilst another features chickpeas and chestnuts that ‘get on so well, like affectionate old friends …’. A serving of pasta is a ‘soulful bowlful’, or is covered with a sauce like ‘an expensive pashmina‘; Neapolitan basil has ‘head-girl mintyness‘, whereas sage has ‘moleskin mustiness‘, and we are treated to a description of a Roman pasta shop smelling ‘hopeful and sappy, like fresh sawdust and a clean baby.’ (This last one reminded me of an old Reeves and Mortimer sketch, wherein a stand-in for TV wine guru Jilly Goolden described a wine’s bouquet as like ‘two newts holidaying in Tangiers’.) And pity the poor adjective … We are warned that garlic can turn into ‘a bitter bully’, but reassured that tins are ‘trusty’; fingers are ‘knowing’, linguine stirred into a sauce ‘tangles’ with it, whilst elsewhere sauces go ‘slumping’, and we are invited to ‘snuggle’ a chicken into a pot, etc., etc.. To employ an adjective of my own: this book is as fey as fuck.
As for Roddy’s ‘stories’, they have limited entertainment value. No-one in her book eats shellfish and gets the runs before an appointment at a swanky Milanese fashion house, thus blocking the toilet and flooding the entire reception area (as once happened to a long-lost acquaintance of mine; the poor girl was entreating the furious women on the front desk with cries of ‘Mea culpa!’). No-one lets out an inadvertent but catastrophic fart at the end of a good lunch with the girlfriend and prospective in-laws (who, as one, turned on their heels and left). No-one’s dog eats the Christmas lunch – boeuf en croute – just before it goes in the oven. The ‘stories’ in Roddy’s book are of the I sit in Raffaela’s kitchen and watch her knead the dough sort, presented with a cloying reverence in line with the aspirational tone of her project. To paraphrase a fatuous advertising slogan: this is not just food … this is Middle Class Food. (Incidentally, there is also – on page 172 – a fabulously Ill-judged Holocaust reference, a misguided attempt at gravitas that has no business in a book like this.) This would have been a far better book if she’d just stuck to the mechanics of food preparation rather than the fetishisation thereof, especially as her forays into local colour are as flaccid as overcooked bucatini. But it set me thinking: could I do better? Could I cut it as a food writer? What highlights from my culinary experiences can I inflict upon my public? Well, there’s the time I upchucked chateaubriand on the Northern line, following dinner at Chez Gerard and a bout of alcoholic poisoning, whereupon I got home in a state of near collapse and narrowly avoided setting fire to the curtains. That was an experience I will treasure, always. Or the tureen of stew lovingly prepared for the family by my elder sister whilst on holiday at a Mallorquin villa, and into which my grandfather sneezed, explosively, as it was being placed on the table. A cherished memory of generational togetherness. Then there’s the memorable night at a Battersea tandoori house where a waiter sprayed UHT cream foam all over my lamb passanda just as I was about to eat it. A truly singular serving suggestion. Or all those flickering, purple nights in Brockley, like the one when we threw a ten-egg Spanish omelette on the floor whilst trying to flip it, or the curdled romantic evening which saw me throw a frying pan in the general direction of a dinner date as she was flouncing up the stairs. (I missed.) Such quiet joy in the warm company of good friends!
One failed culinary experiment worth recounting is an encounter with game birds in a south-east London setting. I had been gifted a brace of pheasants (long story) and my young wife and myself followed the rules and hung them for a week in the basement of our small terraced house in Charlton. We’d done a deal with a local butcher; he’d draw them if we plucked them. A week passed. We went into the basement and prepared to pluck the corpses. Suddenly, the room took on the aspect of a particularly sinister crime scene. Gingerly, we pulled at a few feathers; a space of bare flesh was revealed. My beloved let out a noise, a sound impossible for me to describe, and practically screamed: ‘Why doesn’t it look like it does in Sainsbury’s?!’ We were as green – literally and metaphorically – as the pheasants in front of us. So we called Tim. Tim was a neighbour of ours, a fifty-ish 1970s relic, an ex-fashion photographer and full-time bon viveur. He knew a thing or two about game. He came round very quickly, his presence announced by his distinctive aroma: an admixture of Givenchy Gentleman and Glenfiddich. He wasted no time, he took the birds in his hands (which I suddenly noticed were enormous) and proceeded to tear the plumage from their flesh with an atavistic fury that was genuinely unnerving. In less than a minute the pheasants slightly resembled something you might see wrapped in plastic on a supermarket shelf (well, in an Albanian hyper-mart perhaps). The following day was Saturday: we left the birds with the butcher who told us to come back in an hour. When we returned we were accompanied by Tim, who was taking a close interest in the proceedings. The butcher gave us a dubious look and said ’How long have you had these?’ A fly crawled out of one of them. Turned me up, to be honest. I won’t charge you. Do you want ‘em?’ We looked a bit sick but Tim eagerly grabbed them and took them home. On Sunday we were invited over to inspect – not eat – the birds as roasted. He reported that the legs were a bit dodgy but that the breasts were lovely. ‘I reckon they were shot up the arse.’ It’s a real pity Tim is no longer with us; another one lost in action. A cookbook written by him would have been an event worth celebrating.
There is an issue with class and food here, but I will get more into that another time. For now I leave you with a traditional Roman invitation, something a shy boy might say to a blushing girl to indicate his sincere intentions: Sei mai stato da una Mietitrice prima?*
(*Have you ever been to a Harvester before?‘)
An A-Z of Pasta is published by Penguin Fig Tree.