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Polpo: a Venetian cookbook (of sorts) by Russell Norman

For our Summer break, Christopher and I decided to review cookbooks, it's also a great way of cooking supper; like a recipe, cook it, photograph it and then eat it.

Christopher's choice is Polpo by Russell Norman, who also runs several restaurants of the same name in London. Polpo is not a vegetarian cookbook, but does contain lovely simple vegetable dishes and some recipes we have made vegetarian (for example, the Piedmonte Peppers contained anchovies, so we added capers instead for a salty tangy bite).

Words by Christopher, adapted, photographed and eaten by both of us!

Pizzette with red chilli & fennel

Pizzette with red chilli & fennel

Over the past 15 years or so I’ve come to dread the next published ‘cook book’. After the practical fecundity of Elizabeth David’s uncomplicated gift of information and the unashamed simplicity of the likes of Jane Grigson, came a shelf or two of ego-emetic volumes that, not to slice it too finely, gave more to the author than the reader. The odd chappie excess, the slightly gushing sexuality-iced tomes of ‘entertaining food’, and of course the application of Eton-mess presentation to absolutely everything from over-hyped basic ingredients to army-canteen presentation de rigeur with the threat of sustainability oozing out with the juices onto the plate.

Then late in a damp July, Polpo landed on the mat. It refreshed like an Alka-seltzer after years of unavoidable indigestion. Russell Norman has pulled off an Elizabeth David but has given it the added simplicity and pomposity-free glow of a shiny, freshly picked perfect tomato. Polpo sought out the simplest of Italian food, from the most theatrical of Italian City/States - Venice – then adapted it for a London version of a traditional Venetian bar. The book gives us what his eponymous restaurant does.

Broadean, Ricotta & Mint Bruschetta

Broadbean, Ricotta & Mint Bruschetta

Norman filtered down to Venice in the 1980s, as students did. He gawped at the theme-park magnificence and became an addict. However he was less impressed with the touristy Venetian restaurants and, when he finally plucked up courage, entered the real world of the bàcari, or backstreet bars. These were where the workers from the markets, the public service workers, and the general traders gathered to relax, gossip, drink and eat magical small snacks or cichèti. The more off the tourist routes were these bars, the smaller and ‘distressed’ the interior, the more interesting the locals, and the better the cichèti. This is the food Norman fell in love with and developed an addiction to.

These snacks might be a few anchovy in oil as a crostini, or perhaps some perfect meat-balls, artichoke hearts, arancini or bocconcini, and were served from displays filled with bowls of colourful grilled vegetables glistening with olive oil.

Aubergine & Parmesan Wrap

Aubergine & Parmesan Wrap

The fundamental mantra of Polpo is the combination of simple ingredients, uncomplicated cooking and the freshest and highest quality of every ingredient. Norman is clearly allergic to ‘show-off cooking’ and ‘complex technical artistry’, which makes him sublimely unfashionable and hence someone to follow. He started his first restaurant, Polpo, in Beak St, Soho in London during 2008 just as the recession set in and he hasn’t looked back since.

Polpo: A venetian cook book (of sorts) is Norman’s book of recipes from the restaurant. The enticing feature of the collection is his dedication to simplicity. Apart from his assertion that ‘most recipes have only three or four ingredients’ many don’t even require cooking but all are ‘delicious exercises in assembly’. Now that sounds like a boring prospect, but clearly the skill lies in the choice of ingredients, how they are combined, and then challenging familiar though the delicacy of the assembly.

All chefs have their pet pretensions or fanciful ‘concepts’ and ‘styles’ they hope will mark them out as unique. But Norman’s is at face value a contradiction in cheffing and is seemingly suicidal for a restaurant. He has a rule of menu construction that demands any dish can be considered suitable only when his chefs have taken out as many ingredients as possible. This rests on the paradox put up by literary minimalist, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, “Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” And the dishes look and taste as though that is exactly what Norman has achieved. The long awaited antidote to celebrity cookbooks!

An essential ingredient in translating the Venetian bar snacks to London restaurant dishes was Norman’s involvement of star chef, Tom Oldroyd, who he met cheffing in a favourite Soho restaurant. The addict had found his dealer and together the recipes in Polpo were translated, retaining their original magic.

With a book called Polpo, Italian for octopus, it is a good bet it isn’t vegetarian. And it isn’t. But just as many a top-rated restaurant can serve both meat and excellent vegetarian dishes, so Polpo offers plenty of amazing vegetarian recipes. In fact at least 49, not counting all his dessert recipes, are perfectly vegetarian. And if you are happy to eat fish, add another 19 to your potential feasts. That’s almost 50% of the recipes in the book. So what’s to hesitate over for even one scintilla of a second?

Piedmontese Peppers

Piedmontese Peppers

The recipes cover the small cichèti or titbits to small plates that are equivalent to starters on a conventional menu. There is a delicious section on breads that includes focaccia, making your own grissini, and carta di mucica, which are crisp, aromatic, and as thin as a sheet of music. Norman also does pizza, but they aren’t any ordinary pizza. They are pizzetta, thin and crispy discs of heaven, only 20cm in diameter and topped minimally with exquisite flavour and texture combinations. Try the thinly sliced zucchini with chopped chilli and a mixture of mozzarella and parmesan; or the rosemary with thinly sliced, blanched Pink Fir potatoes with fresh rosemary leaves.

Imagine the simplicity of grilled slices of aubergine, cooled and rolled with a wipe of his tomato salsa, some grated mozzarella, and a grate of parmesan mixed together, then topped with a leaf or two of basil. Common vegetables sing with flavour. Consider fresh broad beans dressed in lemon juice, chopped mint, and olive oil then spooned onto a plasterer’s thick swipe of cool ricotta on toasted sourdough bread. Or freshly boiled small beetroot allowed to cool to tempting warm, then generously anointed with a rocket and walnut pesto that included a healthy handful of grated parmesan. And for pure simplicity imagine his eye-pleasing salad of raw zucchini, thinly sliced on the angle, then arranged atop rocket and basil leaves before a drench of lemon and olive oil.

Polpo is stuffed with treats that anyone can prepare without any fancy skills. But an added surprise bonus is that once the audacity of such simple selection and preparation of ingredients is grasped, the same approach can be applied to your favourite ingredients. Behold the celebrity chefs and their mystified cooking deconstructed!

Thank you Russell Norman.

Polpo published by Bloomsbury is available from your local bookshop or have a look on Amazon.

Christopher Robbins©2012

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