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.