Talking Italian food with Ruth and Rose, at the home of the Bloomsberries - Food
Charleston farmhouse, tucked away in the countryside near Lewes, is the former home of the Bloomsberries and the brightly decorated artefacts of the Omega Workshop. Now a blend of shrine and museum, it boasts an annual literature festival. Last month, this hosted Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers talking about Italian food to publicise their latest, The River Cafe Cookbook easy. I was asked to chair the event.
The advance research was pleasurable: the book arrived, shiny and chic, and I lay on the sofa with it, relaxed into gastroporn. It used to be only women who consciousness-raised about not coming every time. Nowadays men have to please women and both sexes worry about their souffles sinking. As a result, some British people only ever read about cooking; fantasy is preferable to doing it and being judged on performance.
The solution is to cook only for people you really like. If you desire to please, you take your time and concentrate, and with practice comes fanciable confidence. If you only cook for people who enjoy eating, that helps, too. If you have a disaster with someone you love, you can laugh about it. Yes, just like sex. Anyway, the new River Cafe cookery book promises an end to nervousness and incapacity.
I tested it out after an impromptu early evening drinks party. Several guests stayed on late and I rustled up supper: porcini and sage risotto flavoured with orange juice. Tiddly, cooking with a bubbly-filled glass in one hand, I improved on the River Cafe recipe by dousing the sauteed mushrooms with champagne. One guest considered my portions over-generous and insisted on accepting only half a plateful. Later she was to be seen furtively scraping out the saucepan with a large wooden spoon.
Rose, Ruth and I met before the gig in the Charleston kitchen, which served the festival performers as greenroom. In the old days it was strictly the servants' domain, into which Vanessa Bell ventured once a day, to give her orders to the cook. There were slop buckets under the sink, apparently, and just one chair. The cook worked standing up. The table was for rolling pastry and chopping vegetables on, not for socialising around. Our Charleston hosts, however, sat us down, provided us with tea and cakes, wine and home-made quiche. The gig itself took place in a marquee packed to the flaps with hungry readers. Rose and Ruth charmingly and energetically stirred up conversation, describing what they had made that day. So we discussed their soup called pappa pomodoro, which is mainly tomato and bread.
Italian cooking is based on simple but dynamite combinations of fresh, local, seasonal produce. While restaurants offer us Italian food, the real thing is not national but regional. Rose and Ruth argued that Italian food is healthy, clean, pure. A contemporary spin. Marinetti was so fed up with too much stodgy beans, rice and pasta that he wrote The Futurist Cookbook to attack tradition and propose new recipes combining taboo tastes and textures. Italian food was originally a country cuisine for hard-working farmers needing hearty sustenance before and after back-breaking toil. Poor people ate polenta and that was that. Delicate pastas were originally for the wealthy. But however broke you were, you could mash your dry crusts with a tomato and some olive oil. Hence pappa pomodoro.
Ruth and Rose teach us well, and flesh out a dream. Cooking Italian food, we can buy into a faux-rustic fantasy derived from summer holidays, a post-industrial nostalgia for lost innocence. The River Cafe reassuringly combines this tristesse with sharp metropolitan styling. Rose and Ruth smilingly ducked my question about gastroporn. They didn't need to read cookbooks in bed, they implied: better things to do.
Hard to imagine a Virginia Woolf cookbook in the Charleston gift shop. She was ambivalent towards food, and wrote glumly of haddock and sausage meat just before she died. I like to remember my friend Giuliana donning a bathing-suit in her sweltering kitchen in Vicenza one summer, then consciousness-raising like mad while waving a cigarette in one hand, stirring lasagne sauce, and laughing.