I've been to London to see the Queen.
Pussy cat, pussy Cat what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.
The chair was in the spare white-on-white eating hall of St. John’s Restaurant. The Queen was not there, but the prince of nose-to tail eating was—Fergus Henderson.
Near the junction of St. John Street and CowCross Street across from the ancient meat market of St. Bartholomew, Henderson weaves a gustatory magic with the slightest of hands. His cooking is as straightforward and just as beat poetic as his speech. “ A bit like Christmas, isn’t it?” as he describes the gifts that people bring him to cook: a jute bag of wild garlic, a whole calf carcass being driven from Scotland, a bag of fennel pollen from Italy. “Happy table” as the dining room chatter of the City’s ‘suits and ties’ elevates to match the happy food.
And ‘happy’ does enter often into the conversations at our own happy table as Judy, Tricia and I dine with Fergus on a midwinter menu of crispy pig’s cheeks in a monk’s beard salad, roasted woodcock and wild teal and beetroot. “If the animals live a happy life that means the farmer is happy. If he’s happy, the cook is happy with the food he gets. When the cook is happy, we’re happy when we eat the food. It makes a happy chain.”
I watch the head chef and a tight kitchen staff of five define Henderson’s highly touted menu with modest gestures born out of sure hands. Surely, they too are happy. Head chef John Wigley plucks the feathers off the woodcook’s heads before tucking the stiletto beak into it’s own breast. They roast with their innards still tucked in to be served as a gamey tripe on toast. Fergus smiles, “Fortunately, they poo before they fly.”
“Look here.” Fergus leans into the tightly packed treasure trove walk-in cooler- a side of beef, several legs of lamb, a suckling pig, a bucket of calf tails and tongues lie in waiting. Cooks bustle the meat into recipes. The piglet gets tin-foil earrings. A large meaty rabbit is wrapped in fennel twigs and trussed with bacon before being cooked slowly in the bread oven. The fennel-scented meat served in a large bowl at the table with ladles of the winey broth.
Pots of stock are cooling on a counter as a pail of carrots are peeled and left whole to cook “because they stay sweeter.” They glow neon orange in the monochromatic setting. A plate of cooked sprout tops—a deep green punctuation to the slow roasted, braised and meaty menu. Rhubarb Eton Mess is a mosaic of delicate pink stripes over a scrumptious cream and meringue dessert. These color points are not accidental. Every detail is thought through from the crispy waiters’ white to the sole graphic design of the black and white portioned pig logo on a small ashtray. It is a thoughtful kind of place.
Sometimes the best thing about living in Gascony is how fast I can get out of town: to San Sebastian-3 hours, Barcelona-4.5 hours, and when I couldn’t think of a French ‘L’ word- Londres, just 1.5 hours by flying pig.
Photo of Fergus Henderson by Tim Clinch