A few years ago, I made an orange-scented Tuscan olive oil cake that I loved so much, simple yet perfect. The recipe came from Towpath, the seasonal East London cafe owned by Lori De Mori and Laura Jackson, and was included in The London Cookbook by Aleksandra Crapanzano. I'd heard about Towpath from Rachel and Brian and various other discerning people over the years, but without having ever been there myself, I just thought it was a cafe with nice food in London. Not much mystery there.
Well, in the meantime, Lori and Laura published their own cookbook, Towpath: Recipes and Stories, and I was sent a copy by their publisher Chelsea Green in the fall. Upon reading the book, it's safe to say that I was wrong to think of Towpath as just a café with nice food in London. The book makes clear that Towpath is more than that; it is a family, an institution, a state of mind. Idiosyncratic, personal, completely unique. My travel fantasies have taken on baroque proportions over the past 12 months (whose haven't, I ask you?), but I'm particularly fond of the one in which we travel around the United Kingdom, alternating between exploring small towns and cities and hiking in vast tracts of wild countryside, and a stop at Towpath features centrally in this fantasy.
The Towpath cookbook is organized by month, because Towpath closes from November until March (usually) and because the kitchen's cooking hews so closely to the seasons. The book's recipes toggle between restaurant-y dishes with various components (though always appealingly rustic and largely approachable) and simple meals doable for any level of home cook. It skews Italian (Lori De Mori has a home in Tuscany), but with lots of other Mediterranean influences and the kinds of "new English" flavors that have become a hallmark of recipes from England over the past 20 years. In between the recipes are little essays about the restaurant itself and its quirky community of revolving employees and ever-loyal patrons. For anyone who's ever dreamed of opening a cafe or restaurant that is an extension of their home, Towpath is that dream come to life.
I've made lots of things from the pages of the book, including a Tuscan beef stew (peposo) and a Neapolitan sausage ragù, and I've so many earmarked things to get to (including pickled radicchio with toasted breadcrumbs and mozzarella, which sounds like the summer dinner of my dreams), but funnily enough, the recipe that has had the most effect on me is one of the simplest things in the book. It's barely a recipe, more an idea, the oatmeal (porridge, here) with walnuts and butter and raw sugar.
It's the first recipe in the book, for March, when Towpath opens again after a long winter break. It's been on their menu since the beginning. I know it seems prosaic, but for me, the recipe unlocked the potential of eating oatmeal, transforming it from something dutiful and humdrum into something I crave. (Oatmeal!)
Towpath uses pinhead oats, while I stick with rolled oats. They cook them with milk, I cook them with water. But the oats, either way, are salted, then topped with toasted walnuts, a lump of butter (my American grandmother buttered her oatmeal, so I love this touch) and a sprinkle of raw (demerara) sugar. The interplay of textures, from the creamy oats to the toasty, velvety walnuts to the sparkly crunch of the raw sugar that keeps its integrity as you eat, is a delight. The balance of sweetness and saltiness with the homey oats, rich butter and earthy walnuts is, too. I love this breakfast and the ritual of making it (scooping out a spoonful of soft butter, cracking the walnuts with satisfaction, the final scattering of the coarse-grained and glittering sugar).
Now, when I think of oatmeal for breakfast, it is Towpath's way and only Towpath's way; you can keep your berries and milk, your cinnamon and apples, your chia seeds and maple syrup. It's walnuts, butter and raw sugar forever for me.
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1/3 - 1/2 cup rolled oats (depending on how hungry you are)
Pinch of salt
5 - 8 walnuts (depending on how hungry you are)
1 to 2 teaspoons salted or unsalted butter
2 teaspoons raw (demerara) sugar
1. Place the oats in a small sauce pan with twice as much water. Add the salt. Bring to a boil and cook, stirring, until the oatmeal is the consistency you like. Scrape into a serving bowl.
2. Crack the walnuts and crumble them with your fingers over the oatmeal. Top with the butter and sugar.
3. Eat. The recipe is easily doubled, tripled or quadrupled.