Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers founded the phenomenally successful River Café Restaurant in London in 1987. Word spread quickly. People started arriving at their door. A woman from a local allotment began to bring her surplus sorrel in the early Spring. In April, a friend would pick stinging nettles by the bag-full from his farm in Hampshire. Other enthusiasts appeared with sea kale from the south coast beaches. Later in the year their builder exchanged the huge puffball mushrooms that grew near his house for bottles of Chianti Classico. When people realised that they were interested in fresh, unusual, wild produce, they wanted to participate.
In the introduction to their new book ‘River Café Cook Book Green’, Rose and Ruth explain how their passion for vegetables and fruit in season has been at the heart of the River Café since they first opened in 1987. Every day, outside the kitchen, they pick from their organic garden many varieties of basil, marjoram and mint, and interesting leaves such as purslane, cicoria, and treviso to use in their recipes. And the simple pleasure of all this, of fresh seasonal eating, is behind the River Café Cook Book Green, their third cookbook.
Like the others, it is heavily influenced by their love of Italy, their many visits over the years, and their growing appreciation of the glorious variety of Italian food. All the cooking starts in the market, the market reflects where you are, and the season around you. There is the joy in April when the first delicate broad beans arrive; that rich day in October when every stall is loaded with wild mushrooms gathered only that morning; the gentle sadness of biting into that last fresh cherry knowing that soon the brief season is over.
Over the years they have worked with their suppliers from the New Covent Garden, encouraging them to bring Italian market produce to London. Now lorries arrive laden with trevise from Verona, artichokes from Rome, borlotti beans from Puglia. These wonderful vegetables are slowly spreading throughout Britain and more and more greengrocers and supermarkets are selling them. Rose & Ruth suggest that if you have a garden you should experiment with growing your own. If not, try farmers’ markets, pick-your-own farms and organic box schemes. But above all develop a relationship with your greengrocer, urging him to supply interesting varieties.
They thought that the moment was ripe for a book of this kind, in which they have divided the year not simply into seasons but into months. They wanted to show how specific vegetables are used in specific months for specific recipes – romanesco artichokes for deep-frying whole, the violettas for slicing finely to be eaten raw in salads; how to choose different varieties of tomatoes – cherry vines for fresh pasta sauces, plums for slow-cooked ones and the huge yellow tomatoes for rubbing on to bruschetta. There are recipes using wild ingredients, stinging nettles, sorrel and thistles – for flavouring pastas or simply combining to make a delicious insalata di campo.
Their cooking has become increasingly focused on the garden and its produce. In the summer they make fresh pasta with olives and tomatoes and a risotto of summer squash; in October when the chestnuts appear they put them in soup with celeriac; in the winter they eat salads of puntarelle with anchovies and vin santo and for Christmas they make a cake with crystallised clementines; in Spring they make a raw artichoke pesto go with homemade tagliarini.
These are not complicated recipes, and their message is simple too; good cooking is about fresh seasonal ingredients, organic whenever possible, used thoughtfully. It is something the Italians have always known and they hope that with this book you will share their pleasure in rediscovering this simple truth.
Here are some recipes from River Café Cook Book Green by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, published by Ebury Press.
Summer Herb Salad – Insalata estiva di erbe
100g (3½ ozs) fresh herbs (to include basil, purple basil, mint, fennel herb and wild rocket)
200g (7ozs) fresh vegetable leaves (to include small spinach leaves, red and/or green purslane, orache, rocket, landcress and small leaves from the centre of young beetroot, chard and chicory plants)
juice of 2 lemons
extra virgin olive oil
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
Wash and spin dry the herb and vegetable leaves.
Mix the lemon juice with four parts its volume of extra virgin olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and toss with the salad just seconds before serving.
Peach ice-cream Gelato alla pesca
2kg (scant 4½ lbs) ripe white peaches
1.75litres (generous 3 pints) double cream
450ml (16fl.ozs) milk
4 fresh vanilla pods, split lengthways
15 large, organic free-range egg yolks
juice of 1 lemon
In a large thick-bottomed saucepan, combine the cream and milk. Scrape the vanilla seeds out of the pods into the mixture, then add the pods. Heat until just below boiling point.
Beat the egg yolks and 350g sugar together slowly for 10 minutes until pale and thick. Pour a little of the warm cream into the egg yolks and stir, then add the yolks slowly to the bulk of the cream mixture. Cook gently over a low heat, stirring constantly. It is important to concentrate, as the mixture will curdle if it gets to boiling point. Remove just before it reaches this stage. Allow to cool completely.
Skin the peaches, then cut in half and remove the stones. Smash the peaches with a fork into a thick puree and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon sugar and the lemon juice. Add the peaches to the cream, stir and pour into an ice-cream machine to churn, or freeze in a suitable container.
Pea and Mint torte – sformato di piselli e menta
3 kg peas, (scant 7 lbs) podded
100g (3½ ozs) unsalted butter
200g (7ozs) Parmesan, freshly grated
250g (9 ozs) spring onions, finely chopped
2 tablesp fresh mint leaves
4 tablesp. fresh basil leaves
Maldon salt and freshly ground black pepper
300g (scant 11 ozs ) ricotta cheese
4 tablesp. double cream
4 large, organic free-range eggs
extra virgin olive oil
Preheat the oven to 190C (375F/gas 5). Butter a 25cm spring-release tin generously, then dust equally generously with grated Parmesan.
Melt the remaining butter in a medium saucepan, add the onion, and fry gently until soft. Add the peas, stir to combine, then add half the mint and basil and 150ml hot water. Season with salt, cover and cook for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Put half the pea mixture into a food processor with half the ricotta and half the cream. Blend to mix, quite briefly. Add the rest of the ricotta and cream and while blending, add the eggs, one at a time.
Remove the mixture from the food processor, and put into a large mixing bowl. Season with salt and pepper, and fold in the remaining peas, about 100g of the grated Parmesan and the rest of the herbs. Pour into the prepared tin, drizzle over a little olive oil and sprinkle with the remaining Parmesan. Bake in the preheated oven for 30-45 minutes. The sformato will rise and become crisp and brown on top. When it is firm in the centre and pulling away from the sides, it is cooked. Remove from the oven, rest for 5 minutes, then remove from the tin on to a large serving plate. Cut into wedges to serve, warm or at room temperature.