Twenty six years ago I bought a newly published recipe book, which was to have a major impact on the way I cooked. It was the first River Café Cookbook. Throughout my university years I had been cooking from the books of Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson, Marcella Hazan, Richard Olney, Elisabeth Luard and Claudia Roden, but there was something strikingly different about Rose Gray and Ruthie Rogers’ approach to the Mediterranean kitchen.
Looking back, it is hard to imagine that their approach felt so new, so accustomed are we now to the ideas of seasonal eating and only using the best quality produce, but their minimal approach to preparation and presentation, so artfully expressed in the clean graphic design of the book itself, was not the norm and it was this simplicity of approach and insistence on the very best produce which still sets The River Café apart.
When I worked in film in the 1990s I was lucky enough to eat at The River Café on numerous occasions, my bill charged to various people’s expense accounts. Although it was, and still is, a glamorous destination the food was so memorable that after those heady days were over Dan and I would return whenever we wanted a meal to mark a special occasion; a fortieth birthday, a special friend visiting from overseas, a pre-marriage celebration, the purchase of Hillside. In the abstract, if you look at their menu, the food certainly looks expensive, but in all the years I have eaten there I have never once felt that the food is overpriced. The attention to detail in every aspect of the experience elevates it to a level that makes total sense of restaurant eating. If anyone ever comes to London and asks which is the best restaurant we can recommend I always answer, without hesitation, ‘The River Café’.
Several years ago, faced with this very question from Midori Shintani, head gardener at Tokachi Millennium Forest and an inveterate foodie, we booked ourselves a table. As the first plates were brought out I suddenly saw in the expression on Midori’s face that, although the ingredients may have been European and unusual to her, the care taken with the food was instantly comprehensible. Their restraint and reverence for seasonality and ingredients at their best and the honesty of presentation is comparable to that of domestic and commercial kitchens the length and breadth of Japan.
A favourite recipe from that first book, and one I have lost count of the number of times I have made, is for vignole, a Roman stew of fresh spring vegetables. Also known as vignarole, the vegetables traditionally used are artichokes, broad beans and peas. However, regardless of how good a spring we have or what countless restaurant kitchens would have you believe, these could never really be considered spring vegetables in Britain, so it is a dish I normally make in early summer. The vegetable garden got off to a very slow start this year and, although we have had artichokes for several weeks, it is only now that all three primary ingredients are cropping together. Given the lateness of the season we now also have the first Florence fennel, shallots, courgettes, bush beans and new season garlic, so this dish, based on the method used for vignole, uses everything that is at its best in the vegetable garden right now.
Recipes like this are infinitely adaptable. The only thing to remember is to add the vegetables to the pan in the order of those requiring the longest cooking first. Quartered baby turnips, carrots or the tiniest new potatoes near the start of the cooking time. Earlier in the season, asparagus spears make a fine addition. Add them at the same time as the broad beans. Young chard leaves or spinach can be added at the last minute or tiny radishes. Although mint is the customary herb to use for vignole, at this point in the year I like to combine it with basil which is growing in profusion in the polytunnel, the aniseed flavour of which complements the fennel well.
Serve warm to allow full appreciation of the different flavours and textures, this can be eaten alone as a starter with grilled bruschetta, accompanied perhaps with a melting burrata or fresh mozzarella or to accompany a piece of firm white fish such as halibut.
10 small artichokes with stalks
400g of peas in their pods or a mixture of peas and mange tout – 150g shelled weight
400g broad beans in their pods – 150g shelled weight
150g fine French beans
4 banana shallots – around 300g
4 baby Florence fennel – around 125g
3 small courgettes with flowers – around 250g
2 Little Gem lettuces
2 fat cloves of new season garlic
A small glass of dry white wine, water or stock – about 120ml
A small bunch of Genovese basil
A small bunch of fresh garden mint
The juice of two lemons
Serves 4 to 6
Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Cook the whole artichokes for 5 minutes. Drain and allow to cool.
Shell the peas and broad beans and put in a bowl.
Cut off the stalk ends of the French beans.
Remove the roots, outer leaves, stems and foliage from the Florence fennel. Cut lengthways into eighths.
Peel the shallots and trim off the roots, retaining enough at the base, however, to hold the pieces together when cut lengthways into eighths.
Peel and finely chop the garlic.
Remove the flowers from the courgettes and retain. Cut off the top and bottom of the courgette. With the courgette lying horizontally on the chopping board cut off a diagonal piece from left to right. Roll the courgette a quarter turn away from you and make the same diagonal cut again. Keep turning and cutting until you have wedge shaped pieces of comparable size.
Remove the outer leaves from the lettuces until you are left with the hearts. Keep the leaves for a salad. Trim off any thick stalk, then cut the hearts lengthways into eighths.
In a heavy bottomed large pan gently heat the olive oil over a low heat.
Make a cartouche from a piece of dampened greaseproof paper large enough to cover the inside of the pan.
Add the shallot and garlic to the pan. Stir to coat with the oil. Lay the cartouche over the top, tucking it in to the sides so that no steam escapes. Put the lid on the pan and leave to cook on the lowest possible heat for about 10 minutes until the shallots are translucent and lightly coloured.
Remove the cartouche. Add the fennel and stir. Replace the cartouche and lid and cook for another 3 minutes
While the shallots and fennel are cooking remove the outer leaves from the artichokes and scrape any fibres from the stalk with the edge of a knife. Cut the spiny tops from the inner leaves. Cut the artichokes in half, remove the chokes with a teaspoon and then drop the hearts into a bowl of water to which you have added the juice of one lemon. When they are all done remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and add to the pan of shallots and fennel with the courgettes and French beans. Stir gently. Pour over the glass of wine. Replace the cartouche and lid again and cook for a further 3 minutes.
Lay the lettuce hearts on top of the other vegetables, add the broad beans and peas, replace the cartouche and lid and cook for another 3 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and allow to stand for 10 minutes to cool slightly. Then season with salt and lemon juice to taste. You can add some more olive oil now too if you like.
Coarsely chop the basil and mint. Remove the bases from the courgette flowers and discard. Slice the flowers lengthways into thin ribbons. Add all of these to the pan and stir everything together very gently so as not to break up the vegetables.
Leave to stand for another 5 minutes for the flavours to develop before serving.
Recipe and photographs | Huw Morgan
Published 17 July 2021