“I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can’t say I’ve actually cooked anything from it. More, what I’m doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards”

So wrote poet and journalist James Fenton in the Independent newspaper following the release of the first River Café cookbook in 1995. I lost count of how many times I had similar misgivings when the book first ennobled our kitchen shelves.

If recipe book authors, like the boisterous Jamie Oliver, Moro’s earnest Sam Clark or the increasingly bucolic Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (all former chefs at the River Café) may be epitomized by the accessible paintings of Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo and John Constable respectively, then the appearance of Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray’s River Café cookbook proclaimed the primal colours and glacial restraint of a Piet Mondrian canvas.

River Café Blue Cookbook could not have been further from the makeover madness of random pasta exploits, raffia clad Chianti bottles or the unexpectedly buoyant sales of tinned spaghetti ‘hoops’ that lead us into the ‘90’s. This was a svelte-suited, espresso-shot, Alfa Romeo-driven immersion in the full Italian lifestyle and about as unsettling as being asked to attend a Milanese fashion show in one’s gardening kegs. Feeling hideously inadequate following the initial perusal, one felt one needed to restock the wardrobe in hand-stitched linen and reappraise the kitchen’s mis en place before conveying the daunting publication from shelf to worktop.

It’s the height of irony really, given that most of the recipes in this breathtakingly elegant book are painstakingly gleaned from the kitchens of an Italian underclass.

Cucina povera is the food once associated with the rural poor of Italy. Dishes were dictated by a limited number of ingredients either locally grown or, income permitting, when purchased. Grain-based foods such as polenta, bread, pasta and gnocchi were staples of cucina rustica, peasant cooking – with much-needed protein provided by rice, beans and pulses. Vegetables, leaves and fruit, the bulk of which were foraged from the wild, would be added to dishes to provide vital nutrients. Fish was available to coastal communities but meat was expensive and therefore scarce. What meat was available was preserved for the winter months. In short, all the direct and simple ingredients of cucina rustica that were eventually to define a traditional diet we latterly dubbed ‘Mediterranean’, now appeared to seamlessly inhabit the book’s list of fashionable recipes.

So what lead a chic restaurant, with the bright idea of reprising their staff manual as a modish cookbook a quarter of a century ago, to become the wellspring of regional Italian cooking some 2500 kilometres from home?

My hunch is that just as the inspirational Italian, Carlo Petrini, who established the Slow Food campaign in Piedmont during the mid eighties (in protest at the opening of a McDonalds in Rome), River Café added their published voice in the mid nineties, unwittingly encouraging us to undertake what might now be described as ‘slow shopping’ in the face of culinary traditions seemingly dissipated by international supermarkets.

Their recipes, often disarmingly simple, just make you want to go and buy good stuff.

The trinity of seeking, cooking and enjoying uncomplicated, often inexpensive food, is a birthright occasionally overlooked. Their cookbook (perhaps more so than their relentlessly overbooked restaurant) reinforced the notion that wealth and insightful gastronomy were not automatically interwoven. It is this common theme that has continued to instruct throughout the publication of 8 more cookbooks across the intervening years. And now, no longer daunted by their style, deeply impressed by their culture and following their demonstration that Italian cooking is far more simple than the English once made out, it’s a theme that increasingly governs my own home cooking.

One all-round favourite has become Spaghetti with Clams. These tender, juicy shellfish are increasingly available at wet fish shops, that is, if a wet fish shop is available to you in the first place. If not they can be sourced directly online and I would encourage you to locate Palourde (or Carpet Shell) clams if you do.

Spaghetti with Clams [Spaghetti alle Vongole in Bianco] from The River Cafe Cook Book (1995) Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers

Serves 6

3 kg clams

100 ml olive oil

150 ml white wine

3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

3 small dried chillies, crumbled

250 g spaghetti or linguine

3 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Put the clams in a sink of cold water and wash thoroughly by scrubbing the shells with a coarse brush.

Soak in clean water, changing water until it is clear

Heat one third of the olive oil in a large saucepan with a lid

Add half the wine, 1 garlic clove and 1 chilli

Add half the clams, cover with a lid, and cook on a high heat until they are open, shaking the pan constantly

When the shells are open, remove the clams to a large bowl, with their juices

Repeat with the remainder of the clams

When all the clams have been cooked, chop the remaining garlic and chilli, and fry until light brown in the remaining oil

Add the clams and their juices and remove immediately

Cook the spaghetti in a generous of boiling salted water, then drain thoroughly

Place in the clam pan

Mix well to coat the pasta with the juices

Add the chopped parsley and black pepper

Wine Thoughts

Surprisingly there’s quite a variance of flavours in this dish, so a cool, laid-back, modest style of white wine fits the requirements here. South of Venice, on the eastern coast of Italy sits the region known as Marches. From here, dressed in the formerly rather corny, amphora-shaped bottles, once flooded a slew of vapid white wines known as Verdicchio.  But Italian technology was not going to let this potentially delightful little wine remain as something of a national joke. Nowadays this refreshingly tart, characterful white, has many more sophisticated fans both in Italy and further afield due to a few vignerons providing care and intelligence when making modern Verdicchio di Matelica wines. Zippy apple flavours provide immediate refreshment and the accompanying tastes of roasted almonds and hazelnuts add body and depth. Pleased to say those canny winemakers have jettisoned the comedy bottles too.