After Enrica Rocca’s Borough Market Day, shopping, cooking and eating will never be the same    

Financial Times, 4 September 2004

“Don’t eat too much before you come because by the end of the day, you will be stuffed.” Enrica Rocca is making the final arrangements for her Borough Market Day, an inspired mixture of shopping, cooking and eating that has captivated Londoners since her arrival in the city from Cape Town two-and-a-half years ago.

Originally from Venice (though she has managed to slough off that city’s unflattering reputation for food), her cooking is archetypically Italian. Dishes comprise just two or three ingredients, chosen well, cooked simply and brought to the table with gusto. She has shelves of recipe books and there is probably a pair of scales in her kitchen somewhere, but neither make much of an appearance when you spend the day cooking with her. Measurements are made by eye, timing done by instinct. It’s all just like mamma used to make, or at least it is if your mamma was the kind of woman who wore black, went to mass every Sunday and had a neat trick with the evil eye.

Based in west London, Rocca teaches short courses (half-day, one-day, evenings) on antipasti, risotto, soups and so on, plus classes for men and for children, but her most popular courses by far are her two “market days”: Saturdays starting in Borough Market, south-east London’s foodie mecca, and, a more recent addition to her portfolio, Fridays at Portobello Market near her home.

We meet on a watery Saturday morning at 9am and start, appropriately enough, with an espresso. Borough Market is already bustling with early shoppers, and Rocca, with a glint in her eye, is raring to go. There are four of us on the course, and we decide on fish, something we all agree is hard to buy and hard to cook well. Beyond that, we are going to see what the market has to offer, so with a deliciously vague shopping list (“It’s no use choosing a recipe and then going out trying to find the ingredients for it. You have to go to the market and see what looks good”), we push into the crowds.

Shopping with Rocca is like shopping with your best friend’s mother. She’s a little daunting, but utterly loveable, gliding past stalls, checking the produce, chatting with the traders and, of course, paying for everything herself. And she is wonderfully scathing about stalls to avoid.

“Don’t buy anything there,” she says, with a flick of a hand over her shoulder, as we bustle past one of the larger fruit and veg stalls. “They’re a rrrrrrrrrip-off.”

Our (her) money safe from the fraudsters, it’s the fish we tackle first. Rocca’s eye is caught by some plump British scallops, so a dozen of those go in the bag. Next to them is some deep, red chunks of tuna, so we buy one, about the size of a small leg of lamb, and follow it up with a good sized wing of skate. We now have enough fish for a (British) dinner party of eight. Italians obviously have a faster metabolism.

We are on our way to the (good-value) fruit and veg stall when Rocca pulls us over to a large display of olive oils. It may only be 9.30am but foodieness waits for no one and, from somewhere or other, she has produced four plastic teaspoons and we are slurping the stuff down neat. Rocca eggs us on to compare this one’s “pepperiness” with that one’s “grassy taste”, and is there a little fruitiness in this one? It’s all very Jancis Robinson (pace Jancis) but it makes a lot of sense even if your mouth is now lined with a slightly cloying film. And, if nothing else, I now know I need something more in my kitchen than the bog-standard bottle of extra virgin I use for everything.

We stop for a hot chocolate (Rocca politely declining), pick up some broccoli and a vine or three of Isle of Wight tomatoes (“So good, these. I want to propose them to the Slow Food people.”) And then it’s into the back of her car and home.

Rocca teaches in her house, but her house is made for teaching. The focus of the kitchen, which looks out on to a wonderful, Moroccan-themed garden, is an island that holds a six-ring range, two ovens and plenty of working space. Around the edge are more surfaces, another oven and a wonderfully large fridge. And there are heavy stools that don’t fall over as you jump up to stir the sauce. We settle in, the coffee goes on and we unload the shopping.

First up are the scallops. Rocca has recently had a meal at Le Gavroche where she was served scallops with ginger, a combination that, she says, may be overkill. So we do an experiment. Two of us set to work making a simple garlic butter. Into half of this we whiz some chopped ginger (Rocca likes her Magimix). The rest is left as it is. A dollop of the gingerless mixture goes on half the scallops, the others get the Gavroche treatment and everything goes under the grill for a couple of minutes.

Eating scallops at 10.30am is a strange sensation, especially if you are more used to a tall latte and a cinnamon Danish, but it has a magical effect. As the fishiness goes down our throats, it is as if we are being initiated into some culinary inner circle: chefs eat stuff like this at 10 in the morning, so now we can too. Our faces flush with joy and mamma Enrica looks on with pride. We have arrived. (The ginger was too much, by the way.) After that, you can’t stop us. We slow roast the tomatoes to make an exquisite pasta sauce (ingredients: tomatoes, salt – and that’s it). We flour the skate wing and pan fry it with some capers. We make orecchiette e broccoli. We open a bottle of prosecco, sit down at the table and eat all three.

And then, casually, as if telling someone how to put the kettle on, Rocca talks us through producing the finest tuna I have ever tasted. It would be too much to give everything away (and as she puts it, “I won’t tell you all my secrets, otherwise you would never come back”) but I can divulge that it features that very un-Italian ingredient, soy sauce. We eat it “neat” (by this stage, vegetables are for wimps) and it is stunning.

By now, we are all “stuffed” but Rocca is in no hurry to go anywhere, so we sit and chat, and drink and chat and pick at the leftovers, like a real dinner party – though in a day turned on its head by scallops at 10.30am, it is of course four in the afternoon.

Rocca’s cooking, like her temperament, is joyous, expansive and cultured. And while you won’t leave her house with a handbook of clever techniques or even a sudden desire to remodel your kitchen, you will have your enthusiasm and love of food fired up and, who knows, if you’re lucky you may even have been inducted into the secret of the best tuna in the world.