Review: Polpo by Russell Norman

Eggs On The Roof Reviews

Polpo by Russell Norman

Photographed by Jenny Zarins

Published by Bloomsbury, July 2012

Price £25.00

Polpo’s food, in its restaurants and in this book, is so stripped back as to be almost indecent. Eat at Polpo and you will be served Venetian-style cichèti, or small snacks and plates of food, with simple china, no linen and very little cutlery. Even the luxury that Londoners have come to expect of being able to book a table, has been sliced away in Russell Norman’s mania for simplicity. Polpo‘s first cookery book includes all the classic recipes that smitten customers love and expect: Anchovy & Chickpea Crostini; Fritto Misto; Panzanella.

Panzanella photographed by Jenny Zarins

Amongst the hundreds of cookery books in my collection, just about every style, category, method and region of food is covered. Or that’s what I thought. But with the arrival of Polpo, I realised that I’d been lacking something… a postmodern cookery book.

If you’ve been reading Eggs On The Roof for a while, you’ll know I have a weakness for the postmodern. Postmodernism plus food would, you’d think, be an absolute winner as far as I’m concerned. And you’d be right. But how does Polpo show off its postmodern status? The answer is, on its spine. Russell Norman has taken his passion for reduction to new postmodern heights and stripped away the book’s outer spine too, to reveal its deconstructed, stitched and glued interior.

Show-off postmodernism for its own sake is tedious. It wrecks its original intentions and becomes merely tedious posturing. But this is where Norman and his publishers have been so clever. The subversive act of stripping away the book’s spine makes this the very first cookery book I’ve ever owned that sits entirely flat on the table when it’s opened. And that makes it a joy to use.

Photographer: Jenny Zarins

The recipes are as spare and simple as the ideology behind them. Typically, as a former English teacher, Russell Norman turns to literature to encapsulate that ethos. “We have a rule that a dish is ready to be put on the menu only when we have taken out as many ingredients as possible. As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said: ‘Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.'”

I revelled in recipes with only three or four ingredients, in combinations that require no cooking, in fresh ingredients that seem to have gone on a blind date, introduced themselves to each other on the plate and found perfect harmony. This is simple cooking at its best: Grissini, Pickled Radicchio & Salami; Rocket & Walnut Pesto Crostini; Pizzetta Bianca; Prosciutto & Butternut Squash With Ricotta Salata.

Broad Bean, Mint & Ricotta Bruschette photographed by Jenny Zarins

Warm Octopus Salad photographed by Jenny Zarins

So is this book, are these recipes, too simple to merit all the fuss? Absolutely not. To borrow another phrase from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, as the fox tells Le Petit Prince, ‘It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.’ It’s the time that Russell Norman and head chef Tom Oldroyd have devoted to their passion for removing things that makes the removing of those things so important.