Friday, 28 September 2012

Nose to Tail Eating by Fergus Henderson: The Secret of St John

Welcome to the big leagues

St John is one of only two restaurants in the UK with a truly global reputation.

And by global I don't mean Daniel Boulud global, or Nobu Matsuhisa global. Or even Gordon Ramsay global. Nowadays it seems anyone with a reliable line of debt financing can role out an intercontinental line of fine diners (I believe the Singapore branch of Pollen Street Social is just wrapped up the dinner service as I write; Hakkasan Mumbai likewise).

No I mean El Bulli (RIP) global. Fat Duck Global. French Laundry "please-give-me-a-reservation-I'll-sell-you-my-kids" global.

Global in the sense that if you're remotely interested in food, and happen to be anywhere within a three hundred mile radius you will book a table and move heaven and earth to get there.

Which is weird because St John isn't that kind of restaurant.

The secret of St John

St John is a humble sort of place. You wander in through a whitewashed hallway with plain tables shunted to one side. The bar area - high ceilinged and well lit - is noisy. The stairway down to the loos looks vaguely unstable. Behind you the main dining room is crammed into an awkward space running back out the front of the building. It looks for all the world like a prewar works canteen.

No chintzy carpets or argumentative china here. No French bloke in a double-breasted jacket and a winning smile. The staff wear white smocks. The tables are plain. The menu is printed (twice-daily of course) on plain A4.

So what's the secret?

Lean closer and I'll tell you.

The secret is this.

St John is the finest Italian restaurant in London.

A British cuisine that never existed

By which I mean this. Good Italian cooking is stripped-down, perfectly cooked and ingredient led. There is no faffing around with sauces, liaisons and garnishes. If you go into Locanda Locatelli in London and order the mackerel you will get literally that - a piece of mackerel unadorned on a plate. They simply take the finest ingredients, cook them perfectly, and arrange them together.

That, in a nutshell, is what St John offers. The plates are famously miminalist - most dishes are simply three perfect ingredients on a plate. If wander in during the Spring and order "Peas in the Pod" you will literally get a pile of fresh peas, still in their pods, for your podding pleasure.
Cucina St John: Does what it says on the tin.

What St John does of course add the best of British ingredients and a liberal sense of humour. They they do is take traditional British dishes, ingenuity and combination (with the notable exception of the puddings, which are 100% authentic) and prepare them with a most un-British zealousness and attention to detail.

There is very definitely a sense of place to this book - no exuberant Mediterranean vegetables or exotic fish (although his Green Sauce does feature olive oil). Instead hearty British ingredients - pork, beef, duck, squirrel (yes, squirrel. I've had it and it tastes like chicken). And a fair amount of salting, pickling and preserving involved to to get us through winter months.

Mmmm... Eccles cake...
And what your end up with is a sort of pastiche of Britishness. Think Gilbert & Sullivan: The Restaurant. Much like Marcus Wareing has done at The Gilbert Scott or Heston at Dinner (I can assure you that at no point in the history of this isles did we ever eat a foie-gras enriched chicken liver parfait and call it Meat Fruit). In fact even the famous bone marrow toast may be borrowed - the Brasserie Georges in Lyon does a very similar dish, minus the parsley.

EDIT (Oct 4th): Although intriguingly whilst looking through Unmentionable Cuisine for the piece I published today, I found another recipe for Baked Marrow Bones labelled as an English preparation. So maybe it does come from these isle's after all!
Baked Marrow Bones / EnglandThe fresh femurs or humeri of a choice beef animal are cut into fourths and the cut ends plugged and capped with dough. They then are baked. The baked bones are wrapped individually in napkins, served with salt, pepper, and toast (or on trenchers) and eaten with a long marrow spoon.

In reality, there was never a British cuisine like this. The British never had such a ruthless pursuit of sourcing the best ingredients in season. The British never showed a hint of the skill required to take a piece of meat, cook it perfectly and serve it on a plate. And they never had the bravery to restrain themselves from dousing it in bread sauce, redcurrant gravy and all manner of over-boiled roasties.

But most of all St John isn't about an idea or a cuisine.

It's about Fergus.

Mr Henderson's remarkable voice

Fergus Henderson, author of Nose to Tail Eating and co-author of its sequel Beyond Nose to Tail (yes I haven't forgotten this is a cookbook blog). Is the laconic, eccentric and altogether unique driving force behind St John. Having originally trained as an architect (a rarity in this country, where cheffing is very much a blue-collar career), he opened the dining room at the French House in London's Soho 1992 before moving on to St John three years later. Oh and he's battled Parkinsons along the way too.

His singular voice, and sense of humour pervade both St John cookbooks. It is gently mocking and ironic, sometimes verging on satire. But it is also joyous and emotional, fearlessly reveling in the beasts he bakes. Consider the recipe for Warm Pig's Head (Book 1, p32) which begins:
The flesh from a pig's head is flavoursome and tender. Consider, its cheeks have had just the right amount of exercise and are covered in just the right enriching layer of fat to ensure succulent cooking results, and the nozzle has the lip-sticking quality of not being quite flesh nor quite fat, the perfect foil to the crunch of the crispy ear.
Or his pointed observation to open the recipe for Roast Woodcock (Book 1, p116):
Woodcock defecate before they fly, so they can be roasted with the guts in, which heightens the flavour.
Or this dry commentary on the truffle-oil glugging classes (Book 1, p85):
Is it not splendid when you have a guest to stay who cooks delicious things for you? A fine example is Ken, a chef from Sydney, who prepared this splendid dish full of most of my favourite things. He even finished it off with a healthy splash of truffle oil, which I have omitted from this version, but please express yourself.
Like a well trussed roast, this book is generously larded with "Fergus-isms". The pink ham and the orange swede look like sunset on a plate (Book 1 p65), he memorably declares There is nothing finer than warm little buttock-like buns (Book 2, p109), and the recipe for Nettle and Snail Soup begins Address your snails: pop the chopped garlic and butter into a heated frying pan. Allow for a little sizzle, then add the snails. Roll them around until piping hot, then season with salt and papper (Book 2, p14).

Unlike the ghostwritten gallimaufry which passes for much modern chefbook writing, Fergus' voice shines through clear and true. Cut out the text of a recipe and read it blind, and you will instantly know who the author is.

The whole beast (including the bouncy bits)

Another thing that distinguishes Fergus is that he cares about the beasts he roasts. Not "cares" as in takes them home, coddles them and feeds them warm milk. He is quite happy to kill, disembowel and char-grill the cutest of piglets (as my first witness I call the Roast Whole Suckling Pig, Book 2, p72). But "cares" as in for him an animal is the whole beast. Not just meat. Not just a collection of pork chops in a delivery crate. As he says in the introduction to his first book
Nose to Tail Eating means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet.
Bone Marrow Toast - Salty Jellied Goodness
In saying this he shows a remarkably un-British approach to texture. In modern Britain at least food should either be shattering-crisp or meltingly-tender. Any state in between (in particular the crime being gelatinous and not made of fruit) is a capital offense. In contrast Fergus glorious in the chewy, yielding, sucking bits. Tripe is served jellied in a terrine mould (Book 1, p42), pigs ears likewise (Book 2, p30). And the signature roasted bone marrow (Book 1, p38) is scooped out hot and jellylike onto warn toast before being salted, parsley-ed and crunched.

In some ways this focus on texture and on the "whole beast" is very Asian. Like Fergus the Chinese eat every part of the animal, and are extremely partial to a nice piece of jellied pigs ear (apparently there is good business to be done sending sows ears to China). But in other ways they are worlds apart. The Chinese word for animal (动物) means "moving thing" - entirely inanimate, devoid of a soul and just there for the stewpot. In contrast Fergus instead thinks of a pig as a glorious "beast" which should live a whole and satisfying life - culminating in the stewpot.

Different attitudes, same results.

Grand Finales

There is one area of course where this doesn't really apply, and the British don't need to make any culinary excuses. And that is the puddings.

More puddings please!
Although most of the recipes are a subversive re-casting of British classics, the dessert section is one where Fergus doesn't need to take any liberties. All right, except for his famous Eccle's Cakes (Book 1, p196), where he substitutes puff pastry for the more traditional lard-flaky pastry. But by and large the dessert recipes are presented as straight English classics.

I've always felt that good English desserts are one of the strengths of St John. I will always remember a simple steamed treacle pudding many years ago, indescribably sweet at the base but mellowed with ice-cold cream. If I have any complaint against the cookbooks, its that there simply aren't enough dessert recipes This is particularly true in the first volume where they are lumped, almost as an afterthought, with savouries.

The second volume does its best to make up for this, with longer sections on desserts, puddings and ice-creams (the Blackcurrant Leaf Ice Cream on p203 is particularly intriguing). It also features a lengthy digression on their buttock-like buns, now a feature of their Soho hotel. But if there was one request I would make of Fergus (apart from "pass the bone marrow"), it's "more puddings please"!

A word of warning

A word of caution with how to use this book. I've talked at length about Fergus' philosophy and voice, because without them these books are much less than the sum of their parts. Actually looking through the recipes, some of them seem quite pedestrian.

Parsley sauce: Not rocket science
For example the recipe for Boiled Ham with Parsley Sauce (Book 1, p66) is an entirely straight piece of boiled ham served with a bog-standard white sauce (milk thickened with butter, flour and doused with parsley). Now I know it will taste damn fine in the clattering environs of the restaurant, but I suspect if you cooked it yourself for a weeknight supper it might be something of a disappointment. Similarly the recipe for radishes is just that - A bunch of radishes on a plate with salt, butter and vinaigrette. But then again, maybe that's the point.

I'm not saying you won't enjoy cooking from these books, just don't expect to just buy them and recreate St John at home.

This contrasts very strongly with Michel Richard's Happy in the Kitchen which I wrote about recently - that was a book which was all about clever recipes. This is a book which is all about a clever author. The difference is vast.

So with that point dealt with, which book to get? Obviously the answer is both, but if forced to choose it get tricky. The first book, Nose to Tail is a more momentous book. If you want the grand signature recipes (the Bone Marrow Toast, the Eccles Cake), this is the one to get. It is less cheffy than the second book, and more about sharing (interestingly all of the photos show dishes being shared.  They are never pictured in individual portions).

The second book is more elegantly presented in an extremely cute pocketable format. The design is more affected, but also more attractive. The recipes also are fuller and better (particularly the puddings), and if you are a baker there is an extensive section on breads.

For my money I'd take the second one away to read a desert island, but I'd prefer to have the first one at home in the cookbook library.

It's a kind of British cooking. And I kind of like it.

Note: All page numbers are taken from my versions of the books (UK Paperback edition of Nose to Tail Eating, UK hardback edition of Beyond Nose to Tail). Your page numbers may differ, particularly in the US edition of the first book which I understand had significant revisions.


  1. Marrow on toast is a fine old English savoury, nothing invented about it whatever. You're right though about the St.John aesthetic being Italian though the insolence of the staff is uniquely British. Looking at Ada Boni's fabulous book about Roman cooking from 1929 I am struck forcibly with the thought that if you took away the pasta dishes it could perfectly well double up as a St. John book.

  2. Yes. Although I have to say the version I saw in Lyon was pretty damn close to it! (apart from the lack of parsley). I guess I chalk it up to both countries having the same bright idea at the same time. (unless of course the chaps at the Brasserie Georges nicked it from St John - but the place is such an old crate I find that unlikely).

    Tx also for the tip about Ada Boni's book. I shall see if I can dig it up. On a related note do you have any opinions on The Silver Spoon, which seems to be pitching itself in a similar Italian household classic mould? I have a violent dislike of it (and anything that the cretins at Phaidon put out), but I remain open to persuasion...

  3. I think the Silver Spoon is just awful; it's basically the Italian equivalent of the Good Housekeeping cookery book.
    With the caveat that I haven't seen the original, and they made a horrid thing out of Ginette Mathieu's beautiful little 'Je Sais Cuisiner'.
    Against my better judgement I bought the Indian volume, which comes in a hessian sack. I couldn't resist since the author Pushpesh Pant is such a legend in Indian gastronomic circles and there is some interest but no editorial effort whatever has been made as clearly they don't expect anyone to try to cook the recipes.
    The Ada Boni book is brilliant but only available in Italian. The only one of her works that's been well adapted is 'Italian Regional Cookery'.
    It would have been good if Phaidon had translated 'Il Talismano Della Felicita' instead.
    Fanny Cradock recounts marrow on toast being served after England-France rugby matches in paris in the twenties, and it goes much further back, I believe. Indeed we had it at home sometimes in the sixties(when I was very young!)