Squid, soup, chocolate cake ... Ruth Rogers on The River Cafe's foundation dishes

By
Jane Willson
Added
18 February, 2015

Ruth Rogers nominates a handful of River Cafe dishes that reflect her enduring belief that less is more.

Ruth Rogers

Chargrilled squid with chilli and rocket. Of all the dishes that have come and gone on Ruth Rogers’ menu, that’s the one she says encapsulates what she and Rose Gray set out to achieve when they opened the River Cafe in London 27 years ago.

Regulars at their restaurant on the Thames will know it well; served daily unless Ruth’s feeling subversive. Punters like it too much: “Sometimes I don’t put it on because I want people to try something else. You’re not getting it today!”

Five ingredients: squid, chilli, rocket, the best olive oil and lemon. “Simple, clean and you know exactly what you are getting”.

RIVERCAFESQUID

Ruth is on the phone from London; it’s late, it’s her night off, and she wants to go to bed. But she’s warm and generous and calls back when I hang up on her. I ask about what she thinks are the foundation dishes for aspiring students of Italian food, the essentials in her repertoire if you like.

Ruth was introduced to Italian food by her husband Richard Rogers’ mother, Dada. She could cook when she moved to London as a 19 year old from east coast US in 1968, but Dada inspired her to learn about Italian food (Dada moved to London from Florence just before the war and also influenced Rose, who knew Richard growing up and spent time in Dada’s kitchen).

“Dada taught me how to make ice-cream. Vanilla ice-cream, using the best organic eggs and milk, sugar and vanilla pods. She didn’t even have a churner.”

Like chargrilled squid, caramel ice-cream is now a fixture at The River Cafe. “There is caramel ice-cream and then there is River Cafe caramel ice-cream,” says Ruth. “One day we decided to make it, but the caramel was never dark enough … it had to be when you thought you were going to die if you inhaled the fumes. We’d have to take the pot out to the garden to do the mixture.”

What else? “A soup, it’s called pappa al pomodoro, made with tomatoes and basil and stale bread and olive oil”. “I learnt to make it at my husband’s cousin’s house [in Tuscany]. When I first got there and couldn’t speak Italian, two sisters were arguing: one put water in it and one didn’t.

“For me it is the quintessential Tuscan recipe. It’s very frugal. Use the best basil and you only make it in summer.” (I later read that Ruth reckons that mastery of this dish is a good measure of a chef’s skills. Try Antonio Carluccio's version here; Alain Ducasse's here).

"For me, pappa al pomodoro is the quintessential Tuscan recipe. It's very frugal."

She says it took a while for customers to understand what they were giving them, but the soup is now a summer favourite, too. It’s the seasonal, regional, best ingredients ethos again. Not groundbreaking today, but this was the 1980s and diners needed to be led a little.

Another pick is “the wonderful dish bagna cauda”. Poached seasonal vegetables with a thick sauce of red wine (basically anchovies, butter and northern Italian red wine). Vegetables? Artichokes, fennel, pumpkin, Swiss chard. “It’s very northern mountainous, using wine in a typical way. And it’s very very popular.”

But not a summer dish; has to be sturdy vegetables with the wine. In summer, Ruth says they do roasted peppers in the pink wood oven. The oven was an addition when she and Rose, who died in 2010, made changes to the restaurant in 1994. “Most [places] use them for pizzas and bread, we use ours for vegetables. I love roasting red and yellow peppers, and baby peas in summer.”

"I love roasting red and yellow peppers, and baby peas in summer."

Next? “I can’t not mention a pasta. We have a special pasta section at the restaurant; we only do four every day. Maybe a spaghetti with bottarga (salted, cured fish roe), we also do hand-made tagliatelle, ravioli, gnocchi. We’re so very proud of our fresh pasta.”

The art of pasta is something she and Rose learned from regular trips to Italy, not Dada. "No," Ruth says, "my mother-in-law only ever used hard pasta."

And cake. Of course cake. The Chocolate nemesis, a flourless cake, is another dish the restaurant is renowned for.  It was included in The River Cafe’s eponymous first cookbook in 1996 (They’ve since published six books). But it fast became notorious for its difficulty.

“[Writer] Julian Barnes said at the time after we published that wherever you went [to dinner parties], there would be this blob of a cake that nobody could bake.”

So they tweaked it. “The better one [by which read theoretically achievable] is in the River Café Cookbook Easy [published in 2003].”

Asked about the early days at the restaurant – which Rose says essentially started out Tuscan, before she and Ruth started travelling to different parts of Italy – she says the whole “success” thing was not really part of their thinking. “You just basically do your work everyday. I don’t work for success – I work for just doing what we do.

River Cafe space

“What we are is … we cook the food we love to eat. We make a place that we think is very beautiful but also a place where you can bring your children and dress how you like."

That was always Dada’s advice: Keep it simple, don’t do too much. “I’m more and more just like that,” says Ruth. “Just really respect the ingredients. Not piling too much on your plate. Less is more. But in an Italian way – not in a small plate way.”



Quote, unquote: Ruth on ….

Simplicity

“The fancier the person or the more complex the dinner party, the simpler I make the food.”

Supermarkets

“With supermarkets, people think that choice is important, but actually it isn’t. What’s important is seasonality.”

The restaurant

“When people came and wanted to work here, they could see that it was a place based on hope rather than fear.”

Jamie Oliver

(a River Café alumni along with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Stevie Parle, April Bloomfield and the Clarks of Moro).

“I would stand in front of a train for Jamie. He is so loyal, so creative, so lovely. When he first came to work for us he was incredibly inquisitive, very questioning, but also in some ways quite quiet. He wasn’t cocky – he wanted to find out about things. There were lots of chefs there as good but he just had this presence.”

Life lessons

“On her deathbed, Dada said, ‘Ruthie, I want you to put more cream on your skin and less herbs on your fish’. (Richard’s mother had amazing skin like Italian women do.)”

And that Nemesis recipe …

Easy small Nemesis

(From River Cafe Cook Book Easy)

Ingredients

340 g chocolate 70%

225 g unsalted butter

5 eggs, organic

210 g caster sugar

Method 

Preheat the oven to 120° Celsius.

Using extra butter, grease a 25 cm cake tin, and line with parchment paper.

Break the chocolate into pieces and melt with the butter in a bowl over simmering water. Beat the eggs and 70 g of the sugar in an electric mixer until the volume quadruples.

Heat the remaining sugar with 100 ml water until dissolved into a light syrup. Pour the hot syrup into the melted chocolate and cool slightly.

Add the chocolate to the eggs, and beat slowly until the mixture is combined. Pour into the tin.

Put a folded kitchen cloth in the bottom of a baking tray. Put in the cake and add enough hot water to come three-quarters of the way up the side of the tin.

Bake in the oven for 50 minutes until set. Leave the cake to cool in the water before turning out.

Postscript: In the interests of including a photo with this recipe (and my fondness for chocolate cake), I attempted to cook the Easy small nemesis. Alas, not so easy. It did, however, taste quite divine, mousse-like out of the fridge the next day. (The picture is too sad to share). I will persevere.

Have you perfected the Nemesis – from the first book, or this subsequent iteration? Tell us about it!

Ruth Rogers is cooking with Neil Perry at his restaurant Rosetta as part of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival on 10 March. She’s says they’ve agreed that she’ll do the pasta and antipasto, he’ll do the mains and dessert. Bookings here.

She is also participating in the Langham MasterClasses on 7 and 8 March.

DISCOVER TASTES OF ITALY

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