Food heroes: the River Café's Rose Gray

Skye Gyngell signs up for a thrilling masterclass with her culinary mentor, the River Café's Rose Gray

It's 5.30am on a mild morning and I'm heading to Perch Hill Farm in East Sussex. Despite the ungodly hour, Wendy Fogarty, Petersham's "forager" (produce buyer), has agreed to accompany me. I have an abject fear of motorways and, without her, getting there would be tricky.

Perch Hill is run by Sarah Raven ( www.thecuttinggarden.com). I've heard so much about it thanks to Lucy, who runs Petersham's kitchen garden. Apparently, much of the stuff we produce came from Sarah's seed library. So when I heard that Lucy's mother, Rose Gray of the River Café, was giving a lesson there, I had to go. I have long had profound respect for Rose and she was enormously helpful when Petersham first opened.

Perch Hill is nestled in a gentle, and very English landscape and feels small and intimate. Sarah took us on a tour of her incredible garden. It's crammed with chard, kale, cabbages and a huge array of lettuces. "Sarah has a good eye," says Lucy. "She has lots of single-colour flowers which are hard to get, amazing annuals that go right through to the frost, fabulous edible flowers and a great salad range."

The tour finishes in the greenhouse, inside which were the most amazing tomatoes I have ever seen in the UK - black krim, brandywine, sungold and principe borghese - all sweet, plump and ripe.

Rose arrived with a car full of olive oils, pecorinos, Parmesans and flour imported from Italy to make pasta. This is something that I know nothing about as I rarely cook with carbohydrates. I like to layer flavours and often find them a distraction - rather like blotting paper. But the River Café makes the most delicious pasta ever, so I was eager to learn.

For three hours Rose talked and cooked. I learnt about the importance of making the driest pasta dough you can in order to give a firm texture. I learnt about the importance of using the smallest capers possible and rinsing them in running, rather than still, water. She talked of her passion for November's first olive oils and how she rushes to Italy to get the first pressing. And she dished up the best pesto I have ever had in this country.

The thing I love about Rose is that she always pushes herself. She oozes passion and she still does five shifts in the kitchen every week. Which was why Sarah Raven's place was so perfect. It was like a meeting of two great minds - one with a profound knowledge of gardening and the other with a passion for produce. Rose cooked 10 dishes for us. I sat spellbound and inspired. Here is a selection.

The River Café pocket books will be published Ebury Press on 1 November

Rose Gray's handkerchiefs with pesto

Serves 6 For the pasta

500g/1lb Tipo 00 pasta flour
1tsp Maldon salt and ground black pepper
4 large eggs and 6 yolks
50g/2oz fine semolina flour for dusting

For the beans

200g/2oz of fine green beans, tailed
25g/1oz of butter
50ml/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly grated Parmesan

For the pesto

6tbsp fresh basil leaves, washed
1 garlic clove, peeled
1tsp sea-salt
10g/1/2oz pine kernels
30g/11/2oz pecorino staginata, grated
20g/1oz of Parmesan, grated
150ml/5fl oz olive oil (Ligurian is best)

Put the flour and salt in a blender, add the eggs and yolks, and blend until it makes dough. Dust the surface with the semolina and a little flour, and knead until smooth (about 3 minutes). If it's stiff, blend in another egg. Cut into 8 pieces and knead into individual balls. Wrap each in cling-film and place in the fridge for up to 2 hours.

Put the pasta machine on its widest setting and push each piece of dough through 10 times, folding the sheet into 3 each time. Reduce the setting on the machine and turn it by a quarter each time you push it through. This introduces air into it. You should achieve long sheets; halve them if you find them too long to handle. For this particular recipe, keep rolling until it is fine, almost transparent, and cut into rectangles 12cm (5in) long and 5cm (2in) wide.

For the pesto, place the garlic, salt and half of the basil in a blender and pulse. Add the oil. Mix till the basil becomes a purée then add the remaining basil. Add more oil if it's too stiff. Remove to a bowl. Crush the pine nuts in a pestle and mortar. Add to the basil and fold in the cheeses. Season.

Cook the beans in salted water until tender. Drain, retaining some of the water. Return the beans to the pan and add the butter. Add a little cooking water to the pesto then stir 1 tablespoon of pesto into the beans.

In a pan, boil some salted water and cook a few pasta sheets at a time. They will take 30-60 seconds. To serve, place a small amount of pesto on each plate, put the pasta on top and another spoon of pesto over the pasta. Scatter on the beans, drizzle with oil and sprinkle with Parmesan.

Courgettes, prosciutto, trifolati

Serves 6

500g/1lb courgettes, yellow, pale green and dark green
3 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
3-4tbsp olive oil
Maldon sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large bunch mint, leaves removed and washed
12 slices prosciutto
50ml/2fl oz extra-virgin olive oil

Trim the ends of the courgettes, cut lengthways into quarters and then again into 2-3cm pieces, slicing diagonally. In a frying pan with a lid, heat the oil. Add the courgettes, salt and pepper. Cook until starting to brown (about 15 minutes). Add the garlic and continue to fry, stirring to scrape up the juices released by the courgettes. Add 1-2 tablespoons of water if they are sticking. When soft, remove from the heat, place all the mint leaves over the courgettes, followed by the prosciutto. Cover with the lid and let sit until ready to serve. Drizzle with oil, season and toss gently. Serve with a slice of fresh prosciutto draped half over.

Mixed beans with mustard

Serves 6

500g/1lb green, yellow and purple beans
3tbsp Dijon mustard
2tbsp red wine vinegar
120ml/4oz extra-virgin olive oil
Sea-salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix the mustard with half of the vinegar and then slowly add the olive oil, drop by drop. This sauce should have the consistency of mayonnaise. Season. Mix the remaining vinegar with 3 times its volume of olive oil.

Cook the beans in boiling, salted water. Drain and cool for a minute. Place in a bowl and season. Then pour over the vinegar and the oil. Toss, making sure all the beans are coated. Serve with the mustard sauce drizzled over.

Blackberries and mascarpone

Serves 9

1kg/2lb blackberries
2 vanilla pods
500g/1lb mascarpone
3 organic egg yolks
30g/11/4 oz icing sugar

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Wash and pick over the blackberries. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pods. Mix the mascarpone, yolks, vanilla seeds and sugar together. Put the blackberries in a baking dish. Spoon the mascarpone over and bake in the oven until it begins to brown - about 5 minutes. Scoop it on to a plate and eat.

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