River Café Wine Dinner: My Tribute to Rose Gray

It was with great sadness that I learned of the death of Rose Gray last week. Rose was the co-author of the iconic River Café Cookbooks as well as co-owner of the River Café restaurant in London. In the early nineties Rose was my icon – my Alice Waters. She may not be as well known on this side of the Atlantic but in the UK and Ireland she and her partner Ruth Rogers were possibly the first of the great modern chefs where simplicity and good ingredients were everything. She trained Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, and in their cooking you see many of Rose’s messages and beliefs. So, this past weekend we cooked a special ‘River Café’ dinner in her memory, with wines to match.

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Upon hearing of her death I pulled out my collection of Blue, Yellow and Green River River Café cookbooks, which I bought over 10 years ago — and pondered the menu for Saturday evening. So many River River Café dishes have become so familiar that I had forgotten just how influential these cookbooks were. After much deliberation we decided to stay true to her spirit — solidly Italian, easy to cook, with simple fresh ingredients.

As soon as our friends arrived, we started the evening with a selection of crostini, olives and salami. Fresh pesto crostini topped with anchovies were enjoyed by all, even the anchovy-suspicious guest! These worked really well with a glass of chilled dry Mosel Riesling.

Meanwhile, my husband Joe busied himself preparing the squid, which we marinated in lime juice, chargrilled, then drizzled with a delicious chili infused olive oil, and served with a handful of the freshest baby arugula. With the Riesling depleted we moved on to a crisp Italian white, Casa d'Ambra Ischia Bianco, rounder than the Riesling but with just the right amount of crisp acidity and texture to complement the combined sweetness and char of the squid. Our only adaptation to this recipe was to reduce the number of chilies in the dressing from twelve to six. I guess our tolerance for heat is slightly less than Rose’s. At this stage there was lots of ooing and ahhing at how tender and delicate the squid tasted.

For main courses we returned to one of our favorite and most cooked River River Café recipes – Maiale al Latte (pork cooked in curdled milk). It is such a simple dish to prepare and always wows. After seasoning and browning the pork, fresh sage and garlic are sautéed. Next whole milk (enough to cover the pork) and the paired lemon rind are added. Then the pork luxuriates, slowly simmering for about two hours as the surrounding milk curdles into the most delicious brownish nuggets.

For the wines, we could easily have stayed with white, as is often the case with pork, but I knew our friends were keen to try some reds.

Having tasted through a number of red wines earlier in the day with my study group, I had a ready selection of opened bottles to choose from to accompany the pork. Luckily, they were not big, powerful oaky wines, which would have killed the more delicate pork flavor.

First up was the Burgundy contingent, which consisted of a 2004 François Raquillet Mercurey 1er Cru – Les Naugues, from the Côte Chalonnaise. Then followed two wines by the same producer Sylvain Cathiard – a 2004 Nuits St-George, 1er Cru “Aux Murgers and the extremely delightful 2006 Bourgogne Rouge. Finally, we switched countries to Spain and enjoyed a lovely older Rioja, the 2001 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, which ended up being everyone’s favorite with the pork.

As usual the pork was a winner, served with a River River Café side of creamy mashed potato with olive oil and Parmesan cheese. A side of thinly sliced fennel, in a balsamic dressing was planned as an accompaniment, but later abandoned, as we saw how much food we already had.

Being a cheese fiend, we usually end dinners with a cheese board. However, in Rose’s honor I decided to bake a dessert. I choose a Lemon Mascarpone Tart. I had made the pastry on Friday, so it had ample time to chill, before grating it into the pie dish. Our six year old son Luca was a great help, squeezing all 10 lemons and helping me whisk up the filling. The result - a wonderful, tangy, refreshing dessert, which needed little in the way of accompaniment. Though we did serve a glass of De Bortoli Noble One Botrytized Semillon, which with its honeyed marmalade flavors and crisp acidity was a perfect partner for the less sweet pie.

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Details for wines enjoyed:

2008 Sybille Kuntz, Riesling Trocken (Dry), Mosel , Germany, $16 – A delightful, pristine, crisp, dry Riesling. Fairly light-bodied but with lots of flavor – apricots, peach and honeysuckle, along with the signature Mosel stony minerality. A perfect wine to start any evening.

2008 Casa d'Ambra Ischia Bianco, DOC Ischia Bianco, Campania $14 – I previously reviewed this wine for my post on Italian white wines with octopus. Again, a refreshing treat. To recap, it is made from Biancolella and Forastera – rare local varieties. Very minerally with vibrant citrus and stone fruit flavors, hints of floral and the hint of salt on the finish was perfect with the squid.

2004 François Raquillet Mercurey 1er Cru – Les Naugues, $43 – Made from old vines from the Côte Chalonnaise. Excellent concentration of dark fruit, and developed notes of earth, spice, underbrush. Firm tannins. We all liked this wine a lot. However, its more evident new oak, meant that it was the most dominant over the pork.

2004 Sylvain Cathiard, Nuits St-George, 1er Cru “Aux Murgers, $86 – Excellent producer, even in a not so great vintage. Layers of developed notes, but still retaining a backbone of dark ripe fruit. Silky tannins. Very long finish. This was the second favorite, as its earthy savory flavors were perfect for the richness of the curdled milk.

2006 Sylvain Cathiard Bourgogne Rouge, $39 – A bit expensive for a Bourgogne Rouge, but the intensity of fruit, firm structure and long length forgave the high price tag. This also worked well, because of its more youthful fruit, which complimented the pork.

2001 Marques de Murrieta Castillo Ygay Gran Reserva Especial, $54 – From quite a traditional Rioja producer, complex nose of tertiary aromas, baked red fruit. floral notes, spice and vanilla. Tannins well resolved and oak elegantly integrated leading to a long, lingering finish. Really brought out the sage flavor of the pork dish.

Find Rose Gray's cookbooks:
Italian Easy: Recipes from the London River Cafe, $23.10 at Amazon

Mary Gorman-McAdams, DWS, is a New York based wine educator, freelance writer and consultant. She holds the Diploma in Wine & Spirits from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), and is a candidate in the Master of Wine Program.

(Images: Mary Gorman; Rose Gray portrait from the River Café website)

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