A drop of water suspended on a crocus petal.
Turning over the final page of a much-loved novel.
A starry sky.
The lonely strum of a single guitar string.
Swirling clouds of milk in freshly-poured tea.
Waves rolling against a pebbly shore.
Dipping roast potatoes into gravy whilst no-one is looking.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to burst into song, at least not just yet. These aren’t necessarily my favourite things. No, this post is about the simple things, although I’d probably consider them my favourite things too. After all, it is often the simple things that connect with us most.
Maybe because we find ourselves surprised when we suddenly encounter beauty in the mundane. Our hectic day-to-day lives are so endlessly bombarded with stimuli and complexity, stress and confusion; whenever we stop for a moment to notice the simple things, we are urgently jolted into the present. Here. Now.
And in those refreshing moments, we remember how the simple things can impress on us the sheer beauty of the world.
Maybe also because it’s the simple things that somehow connect us most to ourselves, making us realise that our experience of the world is in fact a creation continually taking place in our very own minds.
I’m reminded of this on a slow languid walk through St James’s Park on a late-January morning, just as the tendrils of Spring start to unfurl their beginnings, when I spot an inconspicuous clutch of little white-petalled snowdrops just hiding amongst the tufts of grass.
And as my gaze rests on those flowers, photons are soon fizzing onto my retina, sparking intricate electrical flurries that flow into my brain, cascading from region to region like a series of tropical waterfalls, projecting and receiving further rivulets of electricity, so that the whole ensemble becomes a complex choreography of ever-shifting patterns of neurological activity.
And so, in a way I find genuinely mystifying and moving, those dainty snowdrops are born – inside my head.
It’s not even that I’m experiencing just a flower, or an image of a flower, or even just a representation of a flower – but a whole magnificently created story of a flower, for my brain paints it with meaning and context, from my own bank of memories and experiences..
.. Snowdrops. The first hint of spring. Gosh, isn’t spring early this year. A sign of climate change perhaps. A tug of despondency. Still, I do love spring. And soon there will be rhubarb and asparagus and spring lamb. It’s the time of year I was born, when the air turns mild and the colours shine more vividly. And yet, as my mum often likes to remind me, it snowed the day I was born. Flakes falling beyond the window pane. Snowdrops peeking through the morning frost in my childhood garden..
Yes, the simple things can take us places. Places of beauty. Places from the past. Places within.
And so following this trail of crocuses, I find myself passing the Institute of Contemporary Arts, and it’s new resident eaterie, Rochelle Canteen. And as I recall a lovely summer’s breakfast in the garden of the original Hackney venue, I decide to step in and try this new incarnation out.
The first thing that strikes me is the setting – curiously similar to the iconic London restaurant St John, which happens to be run by chef Margot Henderson’s other-half, Fergus. Both venues begin with an informal café that then lead up to a mezzanine and the restaurant proper. Both have a white minimalist design. And both share a love for championing the best of British produce, particularly cuts of meat that are often overlooked, and creating dishes that let the ingredients simply shine.
At Rochelle Canteen, the room is awash with light, streaming in from an expansive skylight and a series of windows that majestically frame St James’s Park. A sizeable collection of towering pot-plants stand to one side, as if the park has somehow intruded inside.
If the space is simply furnished, then that only mirrors the food. Simple creations, simply cooked. Which means there’s absolutely nowhere to hide as a chef. Everything needs to be tip top, and indeed it is.
I order soup. I don’t recall when I last ordered soup. It normally seems such a dull option. But when I bring this one to my lips, and take my first long sip, I’m immediately reminded why soup is such a universal dish. After all, Esau traded his own birthright for a humble pottage, and history hasn’t looked back since; soup is ubiquitous across most of the world’s societies and cultures.
In fact, had Jacob actually tasted this particular soup, there’s a possibility he might not have even parted with it at all, ancestral birthright or none. And wouldn’t that have put the proverbial cat amongst the biblical pigeons!
For, on a crisp Winter’s day, this liquid velvet of celeriac and apple soon wraps me up in a soothing embrace and gives me the deeply savoury flavours of this unsung vegetable, balanced so beautifully with the fruity sweetness of apple, that I’ve no idea how I’ve never put the two together before.
And then comes a dish of brisket, sauerkraut and carrot. No sauces. No embellishments. No fancy trappings. Just a simple broth to showcase the various elements. It’s the archetypal ‘meat n’ two veg’, but it’s executed so cleanly, so simply and so damn well, that it’s like tasting beef, cabbage and carrot for the very first time.
The brisket is excellent. And I should know, since I was brought up on the stuff – brisket being a much-eaten staple throughout my Ashkenazi Jewish upbringing. It’s traditionally a poor man’s cut, but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Indeed, this one’s tender and full of flavour, and fantastically offset by the sulphurous tang of the sauerkraut.
And then the carrot. It’s a carrot. Simply boiled. Not a spiced carrot. Not pickled. Not sauced. Not ceviche-d. Not presented in some clever way. It’s just a carrot. A whole carrot. The full Bugs Bunny. And I loved it. It reminded me what a carrot can taste like when you strip everything back.
There’s a danger that such simply presented food is the Emperor’s New Clothes: people tucking ecstatically into a raw turnip on a Michelin-starred plate, proclaiming it as the next best thing.
But when it involves the freshest produce, and a cook who’s at the top of her game, who knows how to distil the essence of an ingredient by cooking it simply, but with craft and heart and a real intuitive sense of flavour and texture, then it totally comes off.
It all reminded me how powerful the simple things can be. Whether it be soup or snowdrops. For each time we experience them, they connect us with deeply-rooted memories of similar experiences, and yet at the very same time, it’s also like experiencing them all anew – as if we are a child, all over again.
What simple things mean most to you? Is it about nature? Food? Someone close to you?.. Or something completely different?.. (If you’ve enjoyed this post, you may like another piece I’ve written: ‘Campania & Jones, a Reflection on Home and Homeship’)
Rochelle Canteen at the ICA
St James’s Park