St John and the velvet centred liver

We had a Big Day in our house recently when The Man turned 30. As he’s a Proper Man who likes Proper Food I obeyed his wish for unusual animal parts and we had a beautiful birthday dinner at Fergus Henderson’s St John Restaurant, in Clerkenwell.

In the revival movement of the last fifteen or so years to give Britain back its culinary history, Fergus Henderson has played a special role. His philosophy of nose to tail eating and, especially, his focus on long forgotten gems of English cookery and use of British produce have been absorbed into the wider gourmet scene to the point that ‘seasonal British’ has become a mantra in every cooking column and the supermarkets actively promote Kent strawberries or Gloucester mushrooms with Union Jack labels.

But even though he’s been part of the London restaurant scene for so many years and so many have borrowed so heavily, Henderson’s approach remains distinctive, challenging and pure. Both St John restaurants, the original in Clerkenwell and the slightly more casual in Spitalfields, are minimalist to the point of harsh. A long row of school style pegs circumnavigates the blank white walls and the only decoration is the black industrial lampshades. Even The Man, who would happily live in a white cube with nowt but a widescreen TV, commented that it wasn’t the cosiest of spaces. I remark on the decor because it makes sense when you get to the food. The food is unadorned and stays true to the founding principles; what it lists on the menu, you get on the plate.

To celebrate the occasion we had glass of something bubbly which felt slightly frivolous in such a spartan room. The menu reflects Henderson’s preoccupation with eating the whole animal- chitterlings with dandelion and ox tongue were two of the choices. I have previously had crispy pig tail at St John’s Spitalfields which was heartstoppingly good – crispy crumbs with melting fatty pig inside. To start this time, I had brown shrimp with white cabbage salad with a dressing that was heavy on the parsley. The shrimp were fresh and sweet but as a dish, it wasn’t a patch on The Man’s starter of a totally meaty terrine of coarsly ground meat with chunks of liver and wrapped in streaky bacon. It was a slice of carnivorousness and heady with it – a bite or two was enough for this little lady.

My meal of chickpea and chorizo stew with snails and rocket was a bit off the British piste and I’m not sure what the snails added, but I liked the way a mouthful of sweet-salty-soft stew was brought to life by a second mouthful of the lemon dressed rocket. Again The Man had ordered well and his calves’ liver special of the day was a work of art. I recently read an excerpt of Julie Powell’s book Cleaving: a story of marriage, meat and obsession, whose previous books about cooking her way through Julia Child’s oeuvre forms the basis for the upcoming movie Julie and Julia. In this latest book she describes how, “Perfectly cooked liver should be crisp on the outside with a custardy-smooth centre” and St John’s liver more than lives up to that with a crusted exterior and a velvet interior. There was none of the graininess I usually associate with liver, just slippery red centre and strong animal taste.

I think I was the winner in the sweets though, with an outstandingly regal Queen of Puddings. When I was little my mum had a puddings book, which she tells me she bought for about $2 in Bunbury and which had glossy pictures of complicated desserts. As far as I was concerned, life couldn’t get more glamorous than a Queen of Puddings. The picture in Mum’s book made it look like a fairy princess pudding. But oh boy what a faff. I’d never had one despite the fantasies because I’m not about to make a steamed pudding and then put meringe on top. St John’s QoP had orange scented pudding topped with raspberry jam and that kind of meringe that’s sticky, rather than crackly. And a jug of double pouring cream. And it was mine, all mine. A 30th birthday was no reason to share!! Although I had a bite of The Man’s flaky pastry Eccles cake with Lancastrian cheese, my heart was already won.

9 comments ↓

#1 AnzacDayGirl on 12.08.09 at 10:11 pm

Fantastically interesting reading. The meaty bits of the meal sound great, but I am jealous to the max that you actually ate a QoP! I have often fantasised about making one of these puddings but always have a really good reason why I shouldn’t – usually something to do with being fattening. Really, it was because, as you say, it looks like a complete faff, so well done, Emica on realising both our dreams. Who would have thought that spending 2 bucks in Bunbury could have provided the stuff of dreams!

#2 Taurus56 on 12.08.09 at 11:19 pm

Hi Emica,
This is Taurus56 calling. I love your articles, they’re written with such flavour. AnzacDayGirl has too many rules about eating fattening things – time she got over it! I would have gone straight to the dessert menu first just to make sure I could fit it in!

#3 ampersand duck on 13.08.09 at 1:12 pm

I was just about to go and grab some lunch, but I think I’m full now. Great post.

#4 Dame Mint Pattie on 13.08.09 at 6:32 pm

I really enjoyed this post – you could almost taste it. I’d even think about eating snails after reading your desciption of the play between the salty slug stew and the lemony rocket flavours.

BTW, keep and eye out for Matt Preston – apparently Matt and his cravats are in London (or so I’m told).

#5 Scott on 14.08.09 at 9:54 am

We celebrated a thirtieth birthday there (at St John Street)a few years ago with whole suckling pig. Deliciouso. Katie and I went back a year or so later for some real nose-to-tail stuff. Poached calf brain a highlight.

Funny aside about Fergus Henderson; every year, he and the St John crew used to shut the restaurant and decamp to Glastonbury, where they’d run the fine dining VEGETARIAN restauarant at the infamous Lost Vagueness complex.

#6 Helen on 21.08.09 at 3:22 pm

Chickpea and Chorizo stew is a staple at our place. Fry up some thinly sliced Chorizo with onions, paprika and olive oil (not a lot, as oil comes out of the sausage) and dump in: Chickpeas, chopped tomatoes, garlic, shitloads of flat parsley, and a chopped bunch of some kind of green like spinach, silverbeet, bok choy or rocket.

It’s an ideal uncomplicated after-work one-bowl dinner which can be further padded with rice or spuds if you want.

#7 emica on 29.08.09 at 12:14 am

The great man himself

http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2009/aug/28/fergus-henderson-pig-head-cook

#8 Zoe on 29.08.09 at 1:06 pm

What a great link, emica. I spotted some FR pig’s heads at Belconnen markets this week, but Michael of Mountain Creek Farm has offered me one of his Wessex Saddleback ones – can’t really eat other pork after you’ve tried it.

Coincidently, Michael is breaking his self-imposed rule of not selling his meat in Sydney for a special dinner by Fergus Henderson at birdcowfish during the Sydney International Food Festival in October. Wish I was going to that dinner ;)

#9 emica on 31.07.10 at 6:19 am

A year on and The Man is a year older, so we went back to St John for another special dinner.

I betrayed my principles and we had the fois gras. I wanted to try it once before taking to the high moral ground. It was meltingly delicious, silky smooth and laced with brandy.

My beef was beefy and the chard chopped with anchovy and cream was yummy but it was all a bit lukewarm. I know you rest beef, but this was tepid. The Man had smoked eel which didn’t look attractive but had very nice Scandi flavours.

St John is known for its madeleines and rightly – flufffy and still warm! Yum! Alongside we had the buttermilk pudding with cherries, which is kinda like a pannacotta but more a balance of sharp and sweet. A spoon of madeleine with a dollop of soft pudding on top YUM!

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