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.