Those of you who have followed my blog since I began writing eight months ago will be familiar with my passion for talking anything ‘Moro’. Not only has Moro been one of my favourite restaurants for a few years (see my recent post about eating there), but the two Moro books I own feature on my own Top Ten Cookery Books list and are without doubt the most used on my book shelves. As I said in my restaurant review, if I live by any cookbooks, it is theirs. Thus many of my posts have referred to Moro or Sam and Sam Clarks’ books, so it was a great treat for me to turn up at their Exmouth Market restaurant today to talk to Samuel Clark.
I arrived a little early for my 10.30 appointment with Sam but was warmly welcomed and given a coffee at the bar. It was great to sit there and watch the activity as kitchen staff prepared vegetables and other food for the day and waiters laid tables, everyone happily chatting to each other; talk sometimes punctuated with enquiries about preparing the food. It was such a friendly atmosphere and Moro has a lovely relaxing feel to it with its polished wooden tables, rich green walls and Moroccan style cushions laid along the edge of the seating, that I was very content just sitting there for a while.
When Sam came to join me, he brought a large bowl of broad beans in their pods with him and got on with shucking them while we talked. It was interesting to see that while everyone was busy, and no one wasted time when there was lots of work to be done before the restaurant opened, there was a nice calm and sense of community in how everyone worked.
Sam told me that his interest in food started when he was very young. He was an only child and as his mother worked in the theatre, he’d often get his own supper or breakfast. She also, he said, occasionally had glamorous dinner parties and he saw the power and joy of cooking for people; what pleasure it gave. It made a big impression on him, though he was envious of what the adults got to eat because he didn’t always get a taste of it! He remembered going to Chinatown and buying ingredients to cook Ken Hom recipes and told me that he had always liked exotic flavours.
School was tough due to bad dyslexia and with his growing interest in cooking, Sam went to Prue Leith’s cookery school after GCSEs. He said it was great to feel not only as good as others but to find he was better than some; it was a good new feeling. Soon after this, Sam starting working at Michael Waterfield’s eponymous restaurant in Canterbury. The restaurant served Franco-Italian/Modern European food with a peasant edge, and Sam said it was a great leap to work in a professional kitchen and exhausting. However, keen to totally emerge himself in cooking, he moved into a bungalow left by his recently deceased grandfather and lived alone, looking after himself and spending long hours at the restaurant.
A year later, he ate at Simon Hopkinson’s first restaurant, Hilaire. This was fine dining. After the meal, he went downstairs and talked to Simon who told Sam he was about to move to Bibendum. The following week, Simon turned up at Waterfield’s and offered Sam a job. It turned out to be highly pressurized though, with 80-hour weeks and Sam said he lost confidence a bit at this point. He stayed a few months and then spent time helping a friend write a cookery book by trying out recipes and doing some outside catering.
A visit to the River Cafe brought another opportunity. It was the Cafe’s early days and they only opened at lunchtime. Sam met Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers and they all immediately got on well. Sam said it was a time when the two women were ‘flexing their culinary muscles’ and slowly developing their ideas. Sam stayed there for five years and helped write a few recipes for their first book.
Sam moved on to The Eagle pub in Clerkenwell, one of the first gastro pubs. Here he met the other Sam Clark – Samantha. Eventually they married and started talking about a restaurant of their own where they could express their own food and restaurant preferences; run it in a way that fitted their own philosophy. A site was found in Exmouth Market and while their business partners saw to the building works, the two Sams set off in their camper van to spend three months travelling through Spain, Morocco and the Sahara. Sam said when they set off there was still a hole to the sky where a ceiling should be.
He described a bit of their journey and trying out new recipes and flavours on a little gas stove in the van; tagines slowing cooking while they crossed the Atlas Mountains. This was 1997 and they brought back lots of spices and herbs and ingredients that weren’t readily available here then to use in the restaurant. The rest is almost history for Moro has become one of the best restaurants in London, but ‘almost’ history because Sam stressed that they are always evolving, always trying out new recipes and ingredients to bring the authentic Southern Mediterranean cooking to London. Part of this passion is enhanced by their fairly recent purchase of a small house in a pueblo, village, in southern Spain, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. By one of those weird yet wonderful coincidences, it turned out the house was called Casa Moro. It was obviously meant to be theirs!
When we started talking about books, Sam told me that they are always on the lookout for the unusual but authentic; lots of their books fit quite a niche and many are Spanish ones, written in local dialect. Their interest is in looking for the source, that something extra, and so they might find books from different areas of Spain that give slightly different recipes for the same dish. Sam’s choice of books for me largely reflected the Moro passion for Spain and North Africa, but he also likes Asian cooking. However, cooking at home he said was largely based on what was growing in the garden; what was available now.
1. The Food of Morocco, Paula Wolfert (2011) – Wolfert is the author of the acclaimed Couscous and other good from Morocco, and her books on Mediterranean cooking are considered to be definitive.
2. The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, Paula Wolfert (1998)
3. Mediterranean Grains and Greens, Paul Wolfert (1995)
4. Sichuan Cookery, Fuschia Dunlop (paperback new edition 2003) – A book that explores the region’s culinary culture and cooking techniques as well as containing lots of recipes. This was a book for cooking at home, Sam said.
5. The River Cottage Meat Book, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2004) – This was a great book for reference, Sam thought.
6. The Book of Middle Eastern Food, Claudia Roden (1968) – A great and timeless classic.
7. River Cafe Cookbook Green, Rose Gray & Ruth Rogers (2000) – Part of Sam’s history from working at River Cafe.
8. The Spanish Kitchen, Nicholas Butcher (1990) – A book that looks at Spanish cooking through different regions with an emphasis on natural and locally grown ingredients. Sam said this was a great book.
9. Stevie Parle’s Dock Kitchen Cookbook (2012) – Sam said Parle writes sympathetically about food. He opened the Dock Kitchen restaurant in 2009 to much acclaim, having first worked at Moro, Petersham Nurseries and River Cafe.
10. Pintxos, Gerald Hirigoyen & Lisa Weiss (2009) – The cookbook of the famous tapas bar in Barcelona.
It was great talking to Sam, sitting in one of my favourite places and hearing so much about how it came into being and the background to its wonderful food. It was by now nearly lunchtime and Sam offered me some soup before I went. Soup at Moro is more than soup. What was put before me was a simply wonderful dish: Mansaf, Sam told me, and yes it was in one of the books (Moro East). I told him I liked that when I’d eaten there recently I’d found recipes for the dishes I’d had back at home in my books. Mansaf is a Jordanian lamb broth flavoured with yogurt, saffron and almonds with chick peas and little lamb koftas in it.
There was a wonderful depth to the earthy flavours and it was delicious, especially with their fabulous sourdough bread. The bread had a story too with Sam telling me it changes slightly according to the heat of their wood burning oven. The oven is turned off on Sunday evening when they are closed so as it heats up on Monday, the bread early in the day is slightly different. However, it was still very delicious! Sam also kindly gave me a copy of Casa Moro and so I now have all their books and can’t wait to try some things out from this one. No doubt it will soon have a mass of those little coloured stickers sticking out, like the other two books, to mark favourite recipes. Moro is a very special place and if I lived any closer I’d be in there a lot more often!
If you’ve enjoyed this post click here to read more interviews in the Top Ten Cookery Books series.