You must add a pinch of Maldon salt

Nobody actually cooks simple Italian food at home any more - it's too complicated; Olive oil used to be a colourless fluid in a small bottle in the medicine cabinet
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The Independent Online
Are you reading The River Cafe Cookbook? Many people are. It's this year's great cookbook - snazzy, simply set out, a nice piece of design. I've been picking it up and putting it down for weeks now. I can't say that I've actually cooked anything from it. More, what I'm doing is deciding whether I can live up to its exacting standards: "Of all our recipes, the sauces we make at the River Cafe are the most basic and yet most difficult to get right. As there are so few ingredients involved in most of the sauces, and rarely any cooking, the quality of the ingredients is essential. The olive oil must be the best extra virgin, the salt must be Maldon sea salt, the parsley must be flat leaf, the anchovies must be salted."

Olive oil has come a long way since the Fifties, hasn't it? It used to be a colourless fluid in a small bottle in the medicine cabinet marked "Olive Oil BP". It was used for putting in one's ear. Then it turned yellow, then green, then almost bottle green, and next year I confidently expect it to be a deep sort of khaki, the colour of a mess tent from the Second World War. Meanwhile, it has dropped the mysterious BP and gone from Genuine to Virgin to Extra Virgin and now Best Extra Virgin with Very Very Best Extra Virgin shortly to follow. Salt, as it was once known, has lost its savour, parsley has to be ironed before use, and the tinned anchovy is being publicly undermined.

And there is worse to come. The recipe for oil and lemon dressing, simplicity itself, (six tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, two tablespoons of lemon juice, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper) comes with the warning: "These quantities are just a guide. If the oil is very young or the lemon juice mild, you will have to adjust by tasting." Oh no! Another decision! Another discrimination! Something else to face at the last minute, when you suddenly discover that the lemon is milder than anticipated, and that: "Sometimes a new oil is so peppery and hot that it can burn your tongue and palate like a chilli. New oil poured over hot bruschetta is a gastronomic experience we look forward to every year, for now that our reputation has spread, we are invited to Italy to taste the new oils." Silly me, I've been turning down those invitations for years: "My dear Giuseppe, I'm afraid that I shall not be able to attend your oil-tasting session this year, or any other for that matter. I have still not forgotten your "vindaloo" vintage, l983, and its frisky habit of skinning the tongue, etc., etc."

The great thing about a cuisine devoted to natural simplicity is that one would think it might be simple to follow. But if it was simple to follow, it might be common as muck in next to no time. The art is to make it simple and highly inadvisable to follow, as in the recipe for Asparagi con Uova, which is prefaced by the sensible warning: "We would only make this dish if we had fantastic eggs. To us that means eggs freshly laid from a real farm. This is a rare luxury." (A surprising admission from the River Cafe - their fish is fresh but their eggs rarely are.) Anyway, the reason you need fantastic eggs is that, having laid your freshly cooked asparagus on your freshly warmed plate, you will "Gently place the egg yolks on the tips of the asparagus, without breaking the yolks..."

No, I'm sorry, I know my limitations. I am not going before five guests with the task of balancing six egg yolks on asparagus tips without breaking them, and then adding melted unsalted butter and very thinly shaved Parmesan. It took me long enough to learn how to shave a Parmesan.

Every cookbook sells an idyll. In this book, the authors Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, having both "spent long periods in Tuscany", came back to London with an ideal of Italian food cross-pollinated with California and New York. They opened an apparently highly successful "cafe", and in this book they are selling the apparent secrets of their success.

They appear to have forgotten completely what Italy is like, because they keep saying things like, "In Italy everybody has their own olives soaked in brine" or that everyone has a row of tomatoes. When it suits them, they talk of authentic ingredients and regional variations and seasonal considerations. But a Tuscan would be surprised that mint and basil get into the salsa verde (and horrified at the thought of basil being chopped in a food processor) - the mint because they don't grow it, the basil because the sauce is largely served in winter when basil would not be available. The extra ingredient, Dijon mustard, means you might as well call the sauce something else.

Panzanella is a "traditional Tuscan summer salad" but not when prepared, as here, with stale ciabatta, or with garlic, or with red and yellow peppers, or with "optional" chillis, or with capers, or with anchovies, or with black olives. This dish may be thrilling, but it deserves to be distinguished sharply from the real thing, which is a poor man's dish made with Tuscan bread, oil, vinegar, onions and basil, with an optional extra of tomatoes and cucumber.

The point of poor man's food is to use what is available. The point of this kind of cookbook is to test availability to the limit. When the authors say that such and such an ingredient has to be used, because their approach is so simple, what they mean is that it has to be used because they are making life so complicated for themselves. They think hard about seasonal products, but they are thinking about the seasons in Italy, not here.

This dashing ability to miss the point I don't mind at all. I like the sound of the River Cafe, and I like the Californian/New York "cafe" style, with its friendly, intelligent and "involved" waiters, its ethnic eclecticism, its "simple" approach. But one would be more impressed at the advice over choosing the very best olive oil if it was sometimes made more clear that the best oil would be wasted if used at this stage in the recipe, or if it were acknowledged that ''Cerebos'' is not such a wild faux pas.

A friend of mine swears by the recipe here for Chocolate Nemesis, and says she "adapted" several other recipes with success. I was shocked that she "adapted", until I looked a little closer and saw how much of the certainty and swagger amounts to - well - bullshit.

Take it with a pinch of salt, Maldon salt if you will. The next cookbook I read I want to be one that will tell me how to do extraordinary things with the ordinary things that easily come to hand. And without too much fuss.

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