Fergus Henderson says: Go the Whole Hog!
As Fergus Henderson wields a meat cleaver in front of a whole pig’s head – mercifully detached from the rest of the animal – his eyes are popping wildly like a serial killer’s. Don’t be fooled: he’s the most gentle soul you could meet. Honest.
But this charming chef, founder of London’s hip St John restaurant and champion of the cult of ‘nose to tail’ eating, has a strange idea of good manners. “It’s polite to use it all,” he says, indicating the bucket of deceased porker’s innards in his kitchen.
As a former veggie, ten years ago I wouldn’t have seen the funny side. But today I am here to be convinced. Tucked away in Smithfield, home to a centuries-old meat market and the place where Scots rebel William Wallace was dismembered in 1305, St John has an unassuming façade, stamped simply with a monochrome pig. Still I approach with some trepidation.
In gentlemanly fashion, Fergus puts me at my ease. “It’s not about testosterone-fuelled blood lust or anything, it’s about the gentle arts,” he insists. “Because if you treat offal badly, it misbehaves.” Passing me a glass of Fernet Branca, he recounts one his worst eating experiences.
“I once had a half pig’s head and it was grim. The chef had it grilled and the brain was still raw. Ugh! It was ‘chef-fuck-off’ cooking’ [he imitates a macho chef throwing meat under the grill: “I’m a chef, yeah!”]. You can’t put it under the grill like this when you have half a skull there, it doesn’t cook the meat – it’s tragically severe.” Quite.
Eating a whole animal, let alone seeing a whole dead animal, is something that few people experience. Having only ever eaten offal in its most anodyne form – typically mashed to pulp in a sausage – I still baulk at a chicken liver pate and twinge with terror at a terrine. But today all this will change. Never mind the livers, here we are talking nose, tail, and almost everything
St John restaurant has had a profound influence on British food since it opened in 1994, inspiring a resurgence in cooking everything that the butcher would usually leave behind. Pork belly, trotters, bone marrow and pigs’ cheeks can now be found on menus across the country – from pub grub to gourmet fare – and increasingly on supermarket shelves.
Fergus’s cookbook, Nose To Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking, is a cult classic, treasured by chefs, foodies and cookbook collectors, not just for its sense of adventure but for its eccentric brilliance, casual humour and poetic turn of phrase.
Although this kind of eating is simply “common sense” to Fergus, he needs no cue before extolling offal’s many pleasures. A sensitive, intriguing man with the round glasses of a 19th century professor, he tells me that brain is like eating a very “rich cloud”. Heart is an “extraordinary” thing: “It’s a very lean meat, and it’s an expression of the animal,” so an ox’s heart communicates the life of an ox, ducks’ hearts speak clearly of a duck, and squirrels’ that of a squirrel.
He speaks of tripe possessing almost medicinal qualities. “It’s quite amazing,” he enthuses. “It uplifts and soothes at the same time; it picks up your spirits and strokes you as it goes through you. Now food rarely does that.”
Fergus’s emphasis upon pleasure is reassuring as I contemplate my lunch. “We have City boys coming and asking: ‘What is the scariest thing on the menu?’ And we say there’s nothing scary here at all, it’s all delicious, it’s good.”
Incredibly good it seems. Gastronomic adventurer Anthony Bourdain is a big fan and, famously, AA Gill had to retract his initial hostility to St John in The Sunday Times when the quality of the food stunned him.
But for trained architect Fergus, it’s been a lifelong joy. He taught himself to cook, many of his skills learned on the job in the kitchen above the famous French House pub in Soho. “It was all very exciting and new and I would explore and try things out on customers. They were my guinea pigs, unknowingly,” he recalls.
Lucky guinea pigs it would seem. “Maybe sometimes they were lucky, maybe other times not so lucky!” he chuckles. “Certain people knew I was interested in offal so people threw me things: interesting bits of pork – organs or heads – and so it started to gather momentum.”
Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996, Fergus’s involuntary spasms have been very much improved by electrodes implanted in his brain. He is amazingly serene and good-natured – and clearly an inspiration to his staff. “We love him,” says sous chef Jonathan Woolway, who jumped at the opportunity to move from his home in Wales to work at his “dream job” at St John six years ago.
He tells me how he will cook my lunch. Heartily opening a bucket of brine, he pulls out a pig’s head in two halves and neatly plucks out the brains (not tasty, apparently). Understandably, the pig’s facial hairs need to be removed before it’s eaten. He tells me these “delicate” white pigs are “like the boy band of the pig world”, so they’ll just need a light shave rather than the blowtorch. He then pulls out trotters and a sliver off the front of a snout.
Later, with an enthusiastic glint in his eye, he pulls out the heart, kidneys and spleen, and a sheeny liver that reflects amazing hues of brown, blue and deepest red. I’ll be eating a bit of all of them. Surprsingly, after coming face to face with all this offal, it’s when he starts to clean the wax from the pig’s ears with a cloth that it begins to get a bit too much. Jonathan thinks I’m daft.
But there are good reasons to overcome our squeamishness about eating the bits normally consigned to sausage rolls. Our focus upon ‘prime’ cuts of meat is not only costly but wasteful. “You can get all of this stuff from your butcher if you ask for it,” Jonathan says. “There is a bit of an art to it though.”
With books such as Fergus’s and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s The River Cottage Meat Book teaching us how to make these cuts delicious, the mysteries are being unveiled. But there are sound financial reasons to looking beyond the supermarket shelves: even sausages and bacon might spiral out of reach of the average purse – the National Pig Association warned last week of “record prices” on the way in 2013 as a combination of new EU regulations on pig welfare and bad harvests for their feed.
With pigs’ trotters currently priced at around £1.50 per kilo, liver at £2 per kilo, lambs’ kidneys and pork belly at around £5 per kilo, and a whole pig’s head costing £5-6, cooking underused cuts would seem to be a no-brainer. With increasing numbers of people turning to food banks, having fallen foul of the benefits system or crippled with debts, it seems criminal that these cuts should go to waste.
But where to start? Surely it’s far easier to watch Jamie Oliver cooking on TV while we tuck into ready meals? “Anthony Bourdain calls this the pornography period,” says Fergus. “You watch all these hot bodies, and it doesn’t happen to you, your life remains unchanged. We watch celebrity chefs cook great food, you see all the techniques but it doesn’t happen to you at all.”
But he also sees it as force of habit. “People are happy to eat processed food. It’s really not good for you.” And to those who say they don’t have the time to ‘cook properly’, he insists it’s worth that investment.
“It’s a good use of time. If you take a proper roast chicken, it takes an hour and a half. You put your herbs and garlic and then you create this wonderful time: you have a bath or read a book, drink a vodka martini or whatever you like, and all the while there is the lovely smell of this meat cooking.”
When I suggest to Fergus that one of the benefits of cooking the whole animal is that it’s economical, he gives a wry smile: “It’s all delicious. It’s not good for a restaurant to boast about its thriftiness. It wouldn’t go down too well. It’s a bit ‘Dickensian gourmet’!”
So much for excuses. And if the dishes Jonathan at St John has cooked for me are anything like I could produce at home, armed with the recipe book, I’m definitely a convert.
The rolled spleen is like a richly flavoured piece of ham, offset with cornichons and a lovely piquant dressing. The terrine of heart, liver and other bits and pieces is appealingly mild and delicate in flavour. But my favourites are the dried salted pig’s liver with egg and radishes, and the warm salad of pig’s head, trotter and broad beans. Mind-blowingly tasty.
With so many incredible flavours on the table, it must be difficult for Fergus to pick one favourite. But he says they include pressed pig’s ear – “to eat its crunchy cartilage, give of jelly, crunchy cartilage, give of jelly!” – and pigs’ heads: “It’s perfectly nice for two because you both have one cheek – it’s all heady, heady stuff.”
Maybe I haven’t been as adventurous as Fergus, but I tell him it’s been quite an experience. Modestly he shrugs: “Well yes, it’s a good lunch, it’s a good lunch.”
Dried Salted Pig's Liver with Radish And Boiled Egg salad
“For me, this recipe is as St John as you can get. You wouldn’t see this anywhere else”
Jonathan Woolway, sous chef
• 500g sea salt
• 500g sugar
• 1 pig’s liver
• a handful of ground pepper
Radish and boiled egg salad
• A bunch of radishes (preferably breakfast radishes), washed, and their leaves (if their leaves are not in good condition then rocket, preferably wild, will substitute)
• 4 eight-minute boiled eggs, peeled and chopped in halves or quarters
• 8 spring onions (roll in a hot pan with some oil so they begin to soften, as they act as a structural weave through the salad)
• a handful of capers
• a handful of chopped curly parsley
• a splash of vinaigrette
• a splash of balsamic vinegar
• a smidgen of extra virgin olive oil
Find a plastic, glass or china container that will fit in your fridge and is large enough for the liver. Mix the salt and sugar and create a healthy layer in your container. Rub more mix into the liver’s nooks and crannies, then lay it on your prepared bed. Cover the liver with the remaining mix, cover it with a lid or cling film, and leave in the fridge for two weeks (if the mixture all melts away with the juices from the liver, you may have to replenish with more dry mixture). When the time is up, remove the liver from the mixture: it should be firm but not rock hard. Rinse it thoroughly with cold water. Dry it with a clean cloth, rub it down with black pepper, then roll and wrap it in another clean tea towel, tying firmly with a string. Leave to hang in a cool dry airy place for at least three weeks.
Cut the dried liver into 16 thin slices. Toss all the salad ingredients together in a bowl with the vinaigrette. Get a frying pan hot and apply a drop of oil. Place the liver slices in – your aim is to simply show them the pan – then turn them over, apply a healthy splash of balsamic vinegar, and allow them to sizzle for a moment. Remove from the heat – the liver slices should be shimmering and slightly softened. Lay them on top of the salad, drizzle the remaining juices from the pan on top, and serve immediately.