This is what I call a hearty plate of food. A heap of buttery boiled potatoes with chopped spring and Tropea onions and a good glug of red wine vinegar. On top, a quarter of a roast chicken, which I watched being carried out of the oven and carved 10 minutes ago, its skin golden and crispy. Alongside, a wedge of crunchy sweet pointed cabbage, blanched and browned in a pan for a few minutes before going under the grill. And finally, a generous dollop of pale-red romesco sauce. When cook Laura Jackson served the romesco with cabbage at a wedding last year, she was inundated with requests for the recipe, which doesn’t surprise me. It is one of those sauces – made from roasted Datterini tomatoes, garlic, almonds, paprika, cayenne and piquillo peppers – that everyone should have under their belt. I can’t get enough.
There’s a lot about today’s lunch I can’t get enough of. The food, of course, which started with a round of leafy radishes and dusky pink taramasalata. But also the setting: outside, beside a stretch of water, on a sunny afternoon, drinking elderflower cordial made from the blossom of a tree along the bank. In London, this is something to treasure.
It’s part of the enormous appeal of Towpath, the café that opened in 2010 and occupies four tiny units along Regent’s Canal in east London. “On summer nights, the place can feel like a bayou,” writes its owner Lori De Mori, an American food writer and sometime Tuscan resident, in a new recipe-filled book about the café. “The city dissolves into darkness, the water an inky black, broken only by the slow passing of a boat or the skittering of waterbirds.”
The venue usually opens from March to November, but this year remained shut until September because of Covid-19. My lunch in July was a one-off and I can’t tell you how many passers-by stopped to ask if the café was open, only to be sent away disappointed. Ordinarily Towpath is one of the most fashionable spots in town, with Alexa Chung, Keira Knightley, artists Peter Doig and Chantal Joffe and designer Simone Rocha among its regulars – though somehow it manages to remain under the radar.
Certainly, it eschews many of the usual crowd-pleasing practices, which is probably why creative east Londoners love it. There is no website or phone number. Debit cards weren’t accepted when it first opened (they are now). And if you want milk in your coffee – they use a 10-arabica, one-robusta bean blend from Caffe Piansa in Florence – then it must be full-fat from Northiam Dairy in Sussex, and only to drink in (unless you bring your own cup). This is key to the Towpath philosophy. Almost nothing is to take away, despite the money-making potential, because they prefer you to stick around and be part of the community, not rush back to a life of what De Mori calls “first-world striving”. She used to be an intellectual-property litigation lawyer in Los Angeles so she knows all about that. That’s what Towpath is to De Mori and Jackson – an invitation for people to start enjoying life.
Perhaps the greatest endorsement is the number of food professionals who flock here, including Sam and Sam Clark of Moro, Simon Hopkinson, Margot and Fergus Henderson and Olia Hercules. They come as much for the sociability – “There’s a freedom because we aren’t within four walls,” says De Mori. “People can get up and talk to another table” – as for the food. This is seasonable home cooking using the same quality ingredients that Michelin-starred restaurants do. The chickens, for example, come from Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. And Jackson, who previously worked at Rochelle Canteen at London’s ICA and Auberge de Chassignolles, takes pride in wasting nothing. Today’s leftover roast will become tomorrow’s chicken Caesar salad, while the carcass will be turned into stock to make chicken dumpling broth or risi e bisi (pea risotto) or peposo beef stew, inspired by one of De Mori’s friends, a potter from the Tuscan town of Impruneta, who slow-cooks his in the cooling embers of his wood-fired kiln. Jackson serves hers with polenta and autumnal cavolo nero.
As if to mark the homeliness of her cooking, we round off lunch with a cheesecake that Jackson’s mother, Dawny, used to make. Nothing complicated: a digestive-biscuit base, butter, caster sugar, cream cheese and vanilla extract, baked in a circular Pyrex dish, not a tin. “It just isn’t as good in a tin,” says Jackson. “Too gooey in the middle and overcooked on the outside.” She serves up a large slice with strawberries and raspberries. Like everything at Towpath, it is simple and comforting and really hits the spot.
Towpath: Recipes & Stories by Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson is published on 1 October (Chelsea Green, £27).
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