Why English Food Doesn’t Suck, part 3: Fergus Henderson

8 05 2009

I hardly know where to start with this one.  The dinner Nick and I shared at Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bread and Wine was, quite simply, excellent in every way.  The food was delicious, the atmosphere was convivial, the service was friendly, and we walked out of the place with a couple of free doughnuts!

Many of the places we ate in London were suggested by Shuna Fish Lydon, former pastry chef of The French Laundry and author of the fascinating blog, Eggbeater.  The Harwood Arms was the only one I booked in advance, deciding to play the rest by ear.  Upon arrival in London, after fortifying ourselves with fish and chips, Nick and I met up with my cousin, who is an enthusiastic foodie.  She was excited to see my list of possible restaurants, and was particularly delighted to see St. John and The Modern Pantry on the list, which certainly played a role in my decision-making.  St. John, the main restaurant (which was ranked #14 on this year’s 50 Best Restaurants in the World list) was booked solid, but fortunately its little sibling, the more casual St. John Bread and Wine, had room for us.

Salad is always better with a little pork... or a lot.

We started with a bowl of buttery Lucques olives and a salad of slow-cooked ham, pea shoots, and radish.  This is my kind of salad.  The richness of the ham was perfectly balanced by the fresh pea shoots and the peppery bite of the radish.  And seasonal to boot!  I love food like this: great ingredients at their peak, prepared simply and lovingly.

I do love me some pot pie

When we entered the restaurant, a sparely decorated open cube with white walls and black and white checkered floors, we noticed a pie on one of the tables.  It looked and smelled so good that there was no question we would be ordering chicken and bacon pie for two.  Our choice made, the smile of the chef jacket-clad waitress confirmed that we had made the right decision.  And how!  The crust was flaky and deeply browned, and underneath was a steaming hot stew of, well, chicken and bacon.  The flavor was spot-on: smoky, salty (but not too much), and very satisfying.  My only reservation was that some of the bits of chicken were on the dry side, but I know of no way to avoid this when cooking a whole chicken – the breast pieces are always going to be drier.  Still, it was overall a very enjoyable dish.

The obligatory, yet tantalizing vegetable side dish

The pie was served with a side of crisp-tender broccoli rabe in a mustardy dressing that stood up well to the strong flavor of the vegetable.  While we were eating, we kept sneaking peeks into the semi-open kitchen.  The pastry station was in our direct line of sight, and we watched as the chef spooned up perfect quenelles of hand-whipped something with what looked suspiciously like a bloody mary on the counter next to him.  He appeared to be working out a new recipe, and I was so curious I had to ask when he walked past our table to talk to some friends of his that had come in for dinner.  It turns out he was experimenting for an upcoming competition, and when I told him I was a pastry chef, too, he offered to send us a taste of his new dessert.  Obviously, we accepted.  I took no picture, though, because since it was new and destined for competition, I didn’t want to steal anyone’s thunder.  I will say that it was intensely chocolatey, which is never a bad thing in my book.

Speaking of books…

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Fergus Henderson and his wonderful restaurants and books before I started planning the London trip.  I’ve had a link to Nose to Tail at Home on Croque-Camille almost since its inception, but I haven’t exactly been a regular reader.  Until now.  Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cookingwas apparently a cult classic when it debuted in 1999.  In the intervening years, Henderson’s star has continued to rise, and now the book has been reprinted with an introduction by Anthony Bourdain, and has even spawned a sequel, Beyond Nose to Tail, and an American reissue.

Rhubarb, sugar, lemon zest, cake batter

For the rest of our stay in London, I regretted not buying one or both of these books while we were at the restaurant.  I continued to dwell on them back home in Paris, to the point that when I found out a friend of ours was going to London for the weekend, I asked him to bring me back a copy of Nose to Tail Eating.  (From the reviews on Amazon, it looked like if you were going to buy only one, that was it.)  He graciously did so, as well as a couple of tins of treacle (just in case there was a treacle tart recipe, which there is), AND a copy of Beyond Nose to Tail!  Because, as my friend said, “The sequel is full of patisseries and things, so I couldn’t very well leave that one on the shelf.”  Yay!  Now I am hopelessly in love with both books, the restaurant, and Fergus Henderson.  On the first page of Nose to Tail Eating, Henderson writes,

Do not be afraid of cooking, as your ingredients will know, and misbehave.  Enjoy your cooking and the food will behave; moreover it will pass your pleasure on to those who eat it.

I couldn’t agree more, and could never have said it so eloquently yet succinctly.  These are not amateur cookbooks – they presuppose quite a bit of kitchen knowledge.  Many of the recipes are mere sketches (and indicate themselves as such), and measurements are often omitted for things like salt and olive oil.  This is exactly the way I like to cook, and the way I think recipes should be written.  Experimentation is encouraged – you can tell that all Henderson really wants is for you to enjoy your food.  It just makes me happy to know that books like this are out there.

Rhubarb crumble cake, hot from the pan.

So it should come as no surprise when I tell you that this is the fastest turnaround I have ever experienced from obtaining the book to cooking something out of it.  I got it in my hot little hands on Wednesday night (incidentally, the day I pick up my CSA panier), found a recipe for a rhubarb crumble cake in Beyond Nose to Tail, thought it a perfect use for the rhubarb I got this week, and made it for breakfast Friday morning.  It was touted as a dessert, but I thought it made a fine breakfast, too.  As Nick noted, “It will also be great for dessert with a glass of Floc.”  We are both excited to delve deeper into the Nose to Tail books, maybe cooking some of the more out-there dishes like pig’s head, since we know a butcher up the street who always carries them, and other weird bits, too.

Rhubarb crumble cake, posing with book

I’m also going to replicate those doughnuts one of these days.

Originally published on Croque-Camille.




5 responses

8 05 2009

Wow–that stew was Ridiculous! I drooled just looking at the crust–there could’ve been chicken feet and pig snouts under that crust, and I would gladly have eaten it! Beautiful!

Thanks for the heads up on the Nose to Tail books–sounds like my kind of series exactly:)

10 05 2009
Two St. John visits | Nose To Tail At Home

[…] chef Camille from Croque-Camille who claims that Mr. Henderson’s handiwork is proof that English food doesn’t suck. These are not amateur cookbooks – they presuppose quite a bit of kitchen knowledge.  Many of […]

11 05 2009

What a wonderful quote. I also think that is so true, that if you have fear in the kitchen, it will show itself in the final dish. You should be bold, experiment and above all, have fun. It took me a while to learn that because I was so terrified in the beginning of screwing things up.

Bacon and chicken pie. Even with a couple of slightly dry bits, sing me up for that. Holy moly.

11 05 2009

pastrychef – There probably were, but we devoured it anyway! The books are a pleasure to read and cook from. I can’t recommend them enough.

Melissa – Cooking by using your senses may be one of the hardest things to learn, but also one of the most rewarding. I applaud your drive to learn – judging from your blog, it’s going very well!

11 06 2009
Neil Blyth

Fergus is utterly brilliant, infact when you first meet him he does come across as being totally f**cked in the head and you always find yourself thinking he has been drinking but I think it’s down to his character. He has found a way to make a good name for himself by selling the crap that most people not living in the third throw away and not only that he sells it’s for a huge price. Now that’s a salesman Sir Alan would never fire!! Can’t wait to dine at St John again soon.

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