Several years ago, an article in the New Yorker named a London dining room, the River Cafe, as the best Italian restaurant in Europe. Or was it in the world? Whichever, the gag was that it wasn’t in Italy.
It was, of course, a stunt, and it resulted in a small storm in an espresso cup. The fuss obscured the true anomaly in the London food scene. The British capital had finally produced a new restaurant that was cooking good British food.
Called St. John and set in a converted smokehouse near London’s ancient Smithfield meat market, it was a no-frills refectory. Johnson, Pepys and Defoe would have been at home and would easily have recognized the food on offer, be this radishes, butter with sea salt or bone marrow on toast.
It was the young, living, breathing and eating Londoners who were caught off guard. Since the 1960s, popular tastes in the United Kingdom have typically favored any kind of food but British. So eel and mash was far more unusual on a trendy restaurant plate than cuttlefish risotto.
The chef and co-proprietor of St John is a young architect-turned-cook named Fergus Henderson. After opening it in 1995, he built a classical repertoire of sharp salads, savory meat, fish and fowl dishes and rich steamed puddings. As an emblem, he hung over the front door a sign bearing an old butcher’s diagram of a pig.
The same image adorns the cover of his new book: “Nose to Tail Eating--A Kind of British Cooking” (Macmillan, $25). The book has not yet been published in America, but it is worth tracking down via https://www.Amazon.co.uk.
By “kind of,” Henderson allows for the presence in recipes of the odd exotic ingredient, usually olive oil. But, at a guess, he is also admitting to his own wishfulness.
Outside of Henderson and a handful of cooks similar to him, the marriage in the United Kingdom between high-grade meat craft and husbandry is extinct. As the great British cookery writer Jane Grigson noted years ago, in Britain, pigs’ ears go to pet food.
Naturally, in his new book, Henderson offers a recipe for pigs’ ears: a pea soup in which the ears are simmered, then sliced and fried and used as a crunchy garnish.
He signals his passion for kitchen husbandry at the front of the book, under the heading of “Four things I should mention.” He would like us to eat more than prime cuts. “There is a set of delights, textural and flavorsome, which lie beyond the filet,” he writes. Occasionally he moves preemptively to calm readers, lest they be squeamish. “Do not let the tripe word deter you,” he writes. “Let its soothing charms win you over.”
For those still unsure about offal, there are a respectable number of dishes in the book that are not particularly meaty, from grilled Jerusalem artichokes to mussels, dill and cucumber. And there is a classic array of sauces: aioli, mint sauce, herby green sauce, horseradish cream, tartare sauce, chutney.
But the title of the book tells the story. It’s about meat, more often than not unfashionable cuts. And it rolls along to its own paradoxical logic. Here is a chef writing most lovingly about “eating at home with friends and relations.” The tone is fanciful about a topic that is gutsy. And, though contents are old-fashioned, the look of the book is modern.
Henderson can’t seem to help it. He goes against the tide. Watching him do it has the faintly bewitching effect of leaving one wondering if it’s not the tide itself that is going in the wrong direction. He may yet convert us to tripe.