“Simple food does not necessarily mean quick food or even easy food, though it can be both. Keeping it simple means being pure in effect – finding natural rhythms and balances allowing food to taste of itself. Simple food does not hide behind a sauce of concealment, nor is it a contrived picture on a plate. It is a picture, but an honest one that has no pretensions”.

Preface to Alistair Little’s publication, Keep It Simple (1993)

Although written nearly 30 years ago, Little’s moderate comments appear to have segued into a wider national culinary debate, especially for some prudent home cooks whose domestic credo aspires to the regular use of healthy, unprocessed, inexpensive and fresh ingredients – the underpinning of simplicity after all.

Even if some of today’s popular chefs or garulous foodies now rush to nail their colours to the farm-to-fork mast, culinary simplicity is a tradition older than the marketing companies who benefit from claiming its authorship – everyone in the food ‘business’ evidently feels the need to have an angle.

So at the lower end of the food scale and on a mission to streamline some of my regular cooking days, I was prodded into simplicity by some garden legumes making an early, globally-warmed appearance.

I reached out for Five Quarters (2015), a book of traditional, no-nonsense Italian recipes in which author Rachel Roddy writes “that whilst sitting in a trattoria in Rome, a table of men were brought a plate of fave (fresh broad beans in their pods) and an entire wheel of young Pecorino Romano cheese” as an antipasto.  Although Roddy cites this as “a Roman ritual”, further reference comes to light when leafing through Sam and Samantha Clark’s Moro East (2007) whose books are principally dedicated to the food of Spain and the Muslim Mediterranean. In Moro East, Clark refers to a restaurant, this time on holiday in Tuscany, where they sat down “to a huge pile of beans in their pods…accompanied by a young Pecorino cheese”, later adding that a similar tradition is also upheld in rural Spain, where “thin slices of Jamón Ibérico were served as an accompaniment” to the freshly podded beans and peas and “local Manchego cheese”. I’d very much like to find those restaurants.

On yet another trawl through my stockpile of cookery books (yes, I do have far too many) I find Ghillie Başan’s The Lebanese Cookbook (2020) offering a similar early season salad of broad beans from the eastern Mediterranean, this time under the Arabic title – Foul Moukala.

It’s that poetic “Global Village” thing again, coined by American theorist Marshall McLuhan in his Gutenberg Galaxy (1962). Simple cuisines, like music, language and visual culture tend to travel continuously and widely – constantly toppling our borders and shrinking our planet. When it comes to food (and indeed wine) there has always been a collective consciousness, provided exclusively by geography and micro-climatic conditions rather than political or economic borders…although global poly-tunnels, sea containers and oceans of aviation fuel are beginning to blur those fragile edges.

So why did this congress of unassuming tales chime so clearly? I need to step back a pace or two.

When entering their kitchens, many thoughtful home cooks frequently cart their childhood memories in with them. If not exactly a specific moment in childhood, then it is the reminiscence of one’s salad days (dreadful pun, forgive me) that have a way of replaying when least expected. In an age before the bulk of what we once ate fell to the enchanted spell we recognise as convenience and processed foods, the British held a romantic image of inexpensive, freshly harvested, natural springtime fare.

One such totemic vegetable for many was the pea. Sweet, freshly picked peas, crammed into their swollen pods, unfailingly heralding a new season.

And peas, along with a variety of beans, inevitably made their common springtime appearance in the greengrocer’s shop window (although that’s when greengrocer’s shops made a common appearance too).

Or a distant Uncle’s allotment, an image now probably metamorphosed  into the almost consecrated farmer’s markets, or the ‘organic’ box delivery systems (Deliveroo with a star-dusting of warm piety). Most of the food shops gone the way of milliners, ironmomgers or wet fish suppliers.

Pick up any household cookery book of the time and woven amongst the recipes were references to idyllic rural childhoods (shades of Laurie Lee) whether it be gathering blackberries, picking strawberries, scrumping windfall apples, shelling beans or podding peas. The only hint of ‘ready meals’ probably came by way of a post-rationing tin of sardines.

Approach a farm gate today, innocently seeking to purchase a billycan of fresh milk and a clutch of newly laid eggs (remember Withnail and I?) and the chances are you’ll be flattened by the farmer’s passing Range Rover rather than be welcomed into his rustic kitchen.

So simple field crops, once regarded as an important and inexpensive provision, are swiftly becoming the stuff of sun-dappled Ladybird book illustrations, or the enchanted riverbanks of Mole, Ratty and Badger – an altogether different ambience to the modern reality of vacuum-wrapped staples presented by the Orwellian grip of urban supermarkets on a wet Monday evening. In the interests of balance (a concept to which I remain something of a stranger) I do have to give supermarkets some credit for incremental improvement in vegetable provision, although how large might an ‘increment’ be I leave to you.

On another podium, and perhaps more recently, we are introduced to a dazzling combination of esoteric ingredients which are so often referred to as ‘store-cupboard’ by some of our ebullient TV chefs. I can’t be sure about your cupboard, but my store has long since hoisted a white flag in the face of the relentless demands of Jamie, Nigella and Ottolenghi et al. Perhaps in this age of the culinary glamorous, competitive celebratory chefs, and the lure of the temptingly convenient, some folk have become suspicious of uncomplicated dishes and have developed a blind spot as to how delicious and rewarding a simple assembly such as today’s salad can be.

So when my own small crop of garden peas and beans first appeared in late spring this year, with Alistair Little’s mantra, tolling like a clear bell across a misty field, a trip to a cheese stall in the middle of Norwich’s ancient food market became obligatory (finding young, saline infused, crystalline Pecorino in my local supermarket, remains wishful thinking – although by way of contrast ‘Cheese Stringers’ still seem to be doing a roaring trade).

And as full blown recipes go, Fave e pecorino, wouldn’t pass the trades descriptions act either. It’s barely able to fill a paragraph. So guidance from Rachel Roddy is as follows – “lots of fresh young broad beans in their pods, and a piece of pecorino cheese or sharp Cheddar” – that’s about as complex as it gets.

Simple eh? Delicious too. Something inexplicably right.

Wine thoughts

I followed on with Sam Clark’s advice and sat with a plate of young fresh beans, broken shards of pecorino and “a glass of cold Fino sherry”.