It is November 2009 and I’m in a new restaurant on Fairfax Avenue in Los Angeles called Animal. I have been in the city for three weeks, serving as a judge on a TV food contest, all British piss and vinegar to the familiar American gush, and I’m missing my family terribly. No matter, for here on the menu is roast bone marrow with parsley salad, the dish made famous by the chef Fergus Henderson at his Clerkenwell restaurant St John. His guiding principle: “If you’re going to bang an animal on the head it’s only polite to eat it all.”
I scoop the hot, wobbly jewels of marrow from the bones, pile them on to the toast and add a little salt. Suddenly, I am no longer homesick. A few days later I fly to Chicago and visit another new restaurant. It’s called Publican. There it is again: roast bone marrow with parsley salad. “We completely acknowledge that we stole it from Fergus,” a chef says to me. “We have, like, three copies of Nose to Tail Eating in the kitchen.”
The books featured in this series so far have had a serious impact on legions of home cooks. Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking by Fergus Henderson is different. “It was mostly bought by people working in restaurant kitchens,” says Georgina Morley, the editor who acquired it for Macmillan, publishers of the original 1999 edition. “The general punter just wasn’t particularly interested.” It won a prestigious André Simon award, and received great reviews, but it didn’t really sell.
Macmillan eventually handed back the rights and in 2004 Bloomsbury published a new edition, with an adoring introduction by the late Anthony Bourdain, who had become a huge fan of St John and tight friends with Henderson. In 2007 there was a second volume, Beyond Nose to Tail, followed in 2012 by The Complete Nose to Tail, which brought the two books together (the edition I have).
Henderson trained as an architect and there has always been something of the art school student about his approach. St John, housed in a former smokehouse, is a sharp-edged white space. To those used to the velvet plush of ambitious restaurants, its canteen vibe can seem austere. Then there are certain dishes: not just the caveman heft of the bone marrow (which Henderson freely says he picked up from the film La Grande Bouffe), but the offer of crispy pig tails to be gnawed upon, or a plate of eggs and carrots.
Likewise, the book does have encouraging food shots: a glistening boiled ham, a bread pudding swamped in butterscotch sauce. But elsewhere there’s a shot of a raw pig’s head being shaved with a Bic razor, or another of a cook cradling a lamb carcass as if it were a baby. The prose can also read as a provocation. The deep-fried rabbit recipe insists that younger animals are best. “So if you have a friend with a gun, ask them to aim for the smaller bunnies.”
The instructions for the pot roast pig’s head suggest using only half, “as it is a perfect romantic supper for two. Imagine gazing into the eyes of your loved one over a golden pig’s cheek, ear and snout.” Yes. Just imagine. What really matters, however, are the recipes for dishes anyone with an appetite will want to eat: for a soupy stew of white beans and smoked bacon or a pig’s head and potato pie, for a salad of shredded white cabbage and brown shrimps or a steamed lemon and vanilla syrup sponge.
Henderson denies attempting to provoke. “It’s just me being me,” he tells me, via email. The book, he says, is “a friendly manual to use at home, to cook for friends and family. It reflects how I have always cooked and thought about food.” He advises us not to be afraid of ingredients “otherwise they will misbehave”. That wilful anthropomorphising is part of the joy. The celery salt recipe insists the ingredients sit in the fridge for two days “allowing time for the celeriac and salt to get to know each other”. Parsley must be lightly chopped “just enough to discipline it”. At the same time, it’s light on detail. Duck fat must be administered in “dollops”. Herbs come in handfuls. Outside of the baking section, there are no temperatures. Ovens are merely hot or medium. Was Henderson presuming a certain confidence in his readers? “Yes and no,” he says. “It’s there to help and guide and not be a hindrance.”
Paul Kahan, now executive chef of The Publican in Chicago, has got to know and cook with Henderson over the years. He readily admits he opened that restaurant because of the book. “It’s hugely influential on me,” he says. “It was an eye-opener for a young American cook.” Rory Welch, head chef of Träkol in Gateshead, which serves its own take on the St John pig’s head, agrees. “It was one of the first cookbooks I bought. I try to keep it pristine. There’s no fuss. It’s just robust ingredients properly cooked.” Lee Tiernan of Black Axe Mangal, who was once head chef of St John Bread and Wine, got his copy right at the start of his career. “It’s full of excitement and possibility and wonder,” he says, simply. Henderson acknowledges the influence on restaurant cooks. “I remember travelling to Australia and chefs saying they were about to give up cooking, but then they read Nose to Tail and they were happily back in the kitchen.”
It’s time for me to cook. From the front section I make a rugged salad of roasted red onions, chargrilled Jerusalem artichokes, olives and peppery leaves dressed with a pokey vinaigrette (proof, I think, that this “kind of” British cooking, requires a knowledge of French basics). I fry fat-clad duck legs until browned, nestle them in a bed of carrots, onions and garlic and pour over the best chicken stock until the legs look like “alligators in a swamp”. Two hours in the oven delivers crisp-skinned duck and one of those broths whose depths you could stare into for hours on end.
Finally, I celebrate a dessert I was served at St John which I regard as one of the best: a plate of golden, still-warm madeleines. “The recipe was just there and happily worked and they just kept coming,” Henderson tells me. I conclude I should always have a jug of this batter in the fridge for madeleine emergencies. That’s the thing about Nose to Tail Eating; it’s a book within which you will always find something profoundly comforting.
Nose to Tail Eating: A kind of British Cooking by Fergus Henderson (Bloomsbury, £20) is available for £18.20 at guardianbookshop.com
Great British Menu presenter and Kitchen Cabinet panellist Andi Oliver has also made her Wadadli Kitchen home-feasting boxes available nationwide. The menus, which draw on Oliver’s Antiguan heritage, come in both non-meat and meat versions for two people at £58 and for four at £98. The latter includes spiced orange and ginger chicken wings, golden tamarind chicken thighs, her famed curry goat, green slaw, pickles and sweet potato rotis, visit wadadlikitchen.com.
And one more: the Good Egg, with a couple of locations in London, is now delivering its classic Jewish brunch options across the mainland UK. There are boxes with their Montreal-inspired bagels with salt beef and house pickles, or their pastrami trout, as well as the flaky joys of babka and brownies. At thegoodegg.slerp.com.
Email Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @jayrayner1
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