For the series TOAST Portraits, journalist Mina Holland and photographer Elena Heatherwick meet the people whose treasured TOAST pieces some archive, some new have stood the test of time. First up was Katy Brett, then Genevieve Dutton, Dawn Worsley, Kat Bazeley, Meg Brooks and Susan Hay. Now we meet the cook Rachel Roddy in her Italian home.
I am drawn to grandmas and domesticity, says Rachel Roddy, drinking her espresso. As a child, the eldest of three, she was a helpful little girl who enjoyed cooking Yorkshire pudding and cakes in her grandmother's Aga, and loved visiting her other Granny's northern pub for meat pie.
The food writer is wearing her writing dress, a loose-waisted navy piece with simple white embroidery, bought from TOAST in 2016. That she calls it her writing dress nods to the kind of dedicated home attire that I instantly associate with Italy and to its grandmas and domesticity. It calls to mind nonnas in housecoats: clothing that's at once effortless and considered, worn with purpose for whatever a day's housework might throw at you.
Since living in Italy she's called Rome home for the last 14 years Rachel has learnt to cook from various older women, often those who live above or below her in the apartment she shares with her partner, Vincenzo, and seven year old son, Luca. The intergenerational nature of living in Rome, not to mention the abundance of good cooking, must appeal to that little girl within.
I know Rachel well she has been writing for me at The Guardian for pushing five years now, and we have cooked, eaten and made merry together lots in that time but her wardrobe is a new subject for us. She bought her writing dress to wear to the Andre Simon food-writing award, which she won for her first book, Five Quarters, a paean to Roman cooking in stories and recipes. After wearing it to the ceremony, she took it back to Rome and it became the thing she wrote in, thrown on in the morning ready for a day's work on book number two, Two Kitchens. I would go from desk to market in it, says Rachel, it's a chameleon dress, as suited to day-time comfort as evenings out, when she'll wear it with a belt and heels. It's also both ideal for bare legs in hot summers, and for the Lazio winter, with tights and a silk-cotton body (of which she has a trusted stash).
Today, heading into spring, Rachel does the latter. She pulls on Blundstone boots so we can walk from her neighbourhood of Testaccio Rome's old slaughterhouse district, which Rachel describes as shaped like a piece of cheese to Campagnia Amica market, walking past Sant Anselmo monastery and the Basilicata di Santa Sabina on the way. We buy two wedges of pecorino one aged for 27 months, the other milder and six little artichokes, which have now begun their season. A pasta dish of green-grey joy is on the cards for lunch.
Rachel discovered TOAST on one of her regular trips to London to see her publisher. It was while meandering back to Baker Street tube station one day that she fell upon the Marylebone High Street shop; she confesses to not knowing anything about the brand and would get it mixed up with Nigel Slater's autobiography, but it has now become one in a square of Marylebone stop-offs she makes I'll get a book from Daunt, Frizz-Ease from Boots, Maldon salt from Waitrose, and, often, a piece from TOAST.
The first things she bought were two nighties when Luca was a baby: one green, smock-like and button-down that is almost exactly like my Grandma Roddy's curtains. The other, dark red with a floral pattern, is made from brushed cotton and has got more lovely with washing, like her other Granny's sheets. The same can be said of most of her TOAST clothes, things which probably much like an old-fashioned nonna housecoat improve with laundering. There's beauty in their robustness. She also has some flat-panel-fronted blue trousers (once stiff, now soft) that fasten at the side and have wide legs, also bought a few years ago. These are like armour, I feel really safe in them, says Rachel, who wears them with another body that cuts an excellent shape.
Speaking of cutting shapes, we have artichokes to prepare. Rachel shows me how to peel away the outer leaves, revealing their tender pistachio-hued innards: Spring is winking at us. We rub the trimmed chokes in lemon juice to stop them from discolouring and drop them into lemony water. We sweat three thinly sliced onions in 12 tablespoons of olive oil, cut the trimmed artichokes into eight, lengthways, and add them, so that everything glistens. We braise the vegetables in white wine, seasoning to taste, and then blend half the mixture so that, when it comes to adding the artichoke mix to pasta, there's enough sauce to coat each strand, but also bite from the still-intact pieces of artichoke. With a snowman of ricotta, a sleet of pecorino and a sputter of chilli oil on top, we have a handsome plateful. On the side just in case we should feel cheese-deprived we have more pecorino and glazed mustard fruits like stained glass windows, Rachel comments.
Rachel came to Italy on a whim in 2005. She had been working as an actor in London and, following the end of a relationship, felt the need for "something completely different and warmth". She turned up at the airport and bought a one-way ticket to Naples with no luggage, then spent six weeks travelling around Sicily before coming to Rome "reluctantly", for language school. It her best friend, Joanna, an architect fascinated by city planning and the development of English garden cities (on which Testaccio was modelled), who encouraged her to visit the neighbourhood, which has been her home ever since. Rachel studied Italian and started working as a waitress in a trattoria where she met Vincenzo.
When Rachel started her blog, Rachel Eats, in 2008, it was little more than a digital extension of the food diaries she'd always kept. Her stories and recipes were never intended for two, almost three, books, the latest of which, an A-Z of pasta, she is currently writing. Back then, food provided a window into her new surroundings, the blog a platform for her discoveries. I found the food so tangible and traditional; it sounds clichd, but it was a way of understanding where I was. Rome revealed itself to me through food; everyone ate the same thing artichokes and puntarelle, carbonara and cacio e pepe, a lot of offal the menus seemed anthropological She quotes a friend who told her Roman food is the best history book: look at a menu and you have 2000 years of history.
Food was everywhere, impossible to ignore, often in its most unsavoury forms, from wood being noisily unloaded from lorries at the pizzeria downstairs to all the strong smells meat carcasses, fish stench and the almost constant scent of boiling beans and brassicas. Rachel's writing is, for me, defined by this kind of visceral, often unromantic, description of Italian food and the people who farm, sell or cook it for her; she's enamoured by the still deeply traditional way of life that surrounds her, not in spite of the filth, but a bit because of it too.
Although she hadn't intended to stay in Rome, she quickly felt welcomed by it (even if she's quick to point out that she'll never wholly belong). Rome is a city of pilgrims, inclusive as well as excluding. Living in Testaccio, you're physically in a big city, but it has the soul and the head of a provincial town, and the heart of a gossipy little village. Anyone can join in with the joys and frustrations of it, from politics to rubbish collection. Back in her local coffee shop, we pay for our espressos and walk back along Testaccio's grid of streets, sunlight bouncing from one yellow wall to another, and reach Rachel's apartment where, naturally, dedicated home attire and pasta leftovers await.
Words by Mina Holland. Photography by Elena Heatherwick.