To people who first ate at The River Cafe in the 1990s it felt like the arrival of a new kind of Italian restaurant in Britain. New, but at the same time familiar to anyone who had actually eaten in Italy. Its focus on ingredients and provenance also meant it was probably one of the first restaurants in London to take olive oil seriously. Ruth Rogers then, who co-founded The River Cafe in 1987 with Rose Gray, seemed like the perfect person to start with in The Malaxer’s series on how (and what) olive oil is used in some of our favourite restaurants.
When we spoke to Ruth a few days ago, in mid-October, the olive harvest was not far off. It’s a time of the year that she has frequently spent in the mills tasting and assessing the quality of the new season’s oil. “We train chefs and staff in where olive oil comes from and bring them over to see the olive harvest and how the olives are milled” says Ruth.
Like many of its dishes, the restaurant’s choice of olive oils is deeply rooted in Tuscany. “We have four or five estates whose oils we have always used and whom we have deep relationships with”. These are names such as Felsina, Capezzana, Fontodi and Selvapiana, many of whom The River Cafe already imported wine from. Top estates in Tuscany are frequently wine-led but increasingly also produce some great oils. Talking to Rogers, you get the sense she feels, like the Tuscans themselves, that the classic Tuscan style – early harvested, pungent, powerfully green and fresh – will always be the prototype for great olive oil.
However, over the years the restaurant’s menu has evolved to include ingredients and dishes from other regions of Italy. This also applies to its approach to olive oil. Rogers mentions two regions in particular – Sicily and Puglia – whose oils also get a look-in at The River Cafe. “Of course, we’ll also use blends of olives – still extra-virgin – from other regions for cooking and when a recipe calls for it, the right type of oil. Making pesto for example needs a milder type of oil, something from Liguria [typically taggiasca].”
As you would expect, Rogers and The River Cafe have a deep sense of seasonality in their use of olive oil. “When we have the fresh, new oils early in the year, we just use them raw on vegetables and for finishing dishes. As they mellow and lose some of their pungency, they can be used more widely for other cooking purposes.” It’s advice that Ruth also extends to home cooks: “I tell people to still use good olive oils that are a bit older and faded – just use them for cooking rather than finishing”.
We ended by asking Rogers whether she had seen an increased interest on the part of her diners about olive oil over the years. Encouragingly, she said she thought there had been a big change with a greater awareness of how a top class oil can change a dish. It’s a change that The River Cafe itself has probably been more than partly responsible for.