Not long ago I had an old friend call me because he was in an argument with his wife about steak. He wanted me to tell her that steak was from a cow. Now a good friend would have agreed with him so that he won the argument, since at this point in the common American consciousness steaks are indeed beef. Sadly, being a guy who gets all irate about the dumbing down of food, I was compelled to explain that a steak was a piece of any meat cut across its grain from a larger piece, and that it was possible to cut steaks from anything. Then I reminded him of tuna steaks.
Two years ago Peter Hoffman invited Fergus Henderson to come to Savoy in SoHo, New York, from his restaurant St. John in Smithfield, London, to make a meal. I attended, because Fergus is a hero to me and many. Fergus is a hero because in a boring world of boring people eating boring foods with names like steak and chicken Fergus has made a hugely successful career serving things called heart and smoked eel. Having not had an opportunity to get to London since I first became aware of St. John through Fergus’ book “The Whole Beast,” I jumped at the opportunity to sample his food locally.
The evening went well, the food was great, Fergus was charming, and Savoy, our local Mecca for real food traditionally made, served as an apt venue. In the end, I was grateful for the opportunity this occasion afforded, yet it left me wanting for the experience of the actual St. John.
In London last week the first thing I did Monday night was have a proper meal at Fergus’ restaurant. I had heard the room described before as stark and white, words which take on a new meaning when you are in there. It is feels like a sanatorium, large, white, and loud, screaming “clean.” The exact room you would want your rolled spleen prepared in, so that’s what I started with.
Rolled Pigs Spleen & Bacon: deep red spleen is rolled around bacon and braised, then sliced into disks and served cold with red wine vinegar, cornichons, and sliced red onion. It has a flavour much like most cold pork terrines; tougher than liver but not as chewy as snoot.
Roasted Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad: this was served at the dinner in NY and I have since made it at home with the recipe from Fergus’ “Nose to Tail Eating.” From the limited selection of Fergus’s food I have sampled, I think this dish speaks most to what I appreciate about his style. Other marrow preparations I have had – things like marrow whipped with roasted garlic, or served with fruit jams – seem to embrace the ingredient’s richness but apologize for its flavour, covering what is really just the isolation of beefy richness at its best. Here, Fergus roasts the bones, encouraging carmelization, and serves them standing on a plate with grilled bread, sel gris, and a salad of parsley leaves, sliced shallots and vinegar; things that contrast the richness making it more profound while highlighting the flavours. Using a lobster pick, you pull the sumptuous marrow from the bone, spread it on the toast and top it with the salt and salad. I personally always seem to overdo it with the salt and parsley, meaning the first bite is dominated by these flavours, but even after a heavy hand, my mouth adapts and it becomes all about the nuance of this warm unctuous fat and its roasted flavour.
As my entrée, I chose the Tripe & Chips: lightly battered tripe pieces immersion-fried and served with thick-cut French fries and shallot malt vinegar. Some people just don’t like certain foods, and for me for the longest time it was tripe. Tripe was the chink in my omnivorousness and no matter how many times I tried it and who prepared it I just wasn’t pleased so finally I gave up, I just accepted I would never like tripe. Then in one week Frank, Peasant’s chef, sent some over during a dinner and I attended Savoy’s Fergus dinner at which this dish was served. My tune changed. Frank’s was a traditional long slow simmering in spicy tomato sauce, Fergus’ proved there is nothing I don’t like fried. When first served and blazingly hot the pieces don’t have their typical chew, but as they cool they become more chewy, and the flavour of tripe (I have nothing to compare it to, it is a most unique flavour) come forward to play with the very potent black pepper taste of the breading. After seeing merit in these two preparations I have become an eater of tripe, once you have had something made well a search begins for more versions at a top level no matter how you have been let down before.
Late in the meal Pichon dropped by to say hi and insisted for dessert I have the Queen of Puddings. Well insisted, indeed. Under small meringue peaks is bready vanilla lemon custard with raspberry. Simple and perfect for it.
In the long run, all of Fergus’ food tastes very good; not good for what it is but good for food. It would be shame if a guy could get famous simply for selling the less pretty parts of animals, which is what makes Fergus’ simple preparations so important. This is not just novelty food to be eaten on a dare, this is food prepared to celebrate the natural flavours of the more flavourful parts of the animals. Nothing is being hidden or covered up: the tripe tastes like tripe, the spleen tastes like spleen, and (when I had them in NY) the ox hearts tasted like ox hearts, all of it deep, honest and pleasing on a very basic level.