Forget France: Britain Is the Great Glutton’s Dream
Richard II was a foodie for the ages and 700 years after his reign, England has rediscovered the wonders of its own, once-mocked cuisine.
LONDON — There were many reasons to be happy in the English summer of 1945, but food wasn’t one of them. The war against Germany was over but the war against waste was not.
Food rationing, in one form or another, continued in the United Kingdom until 1954. For my generation, memory of anything resembling a true national cuisine was wiped out. We grew up accepting what the rest of Europe (and Americans) said after visiting: British cuisine was an oxymoron. The French, in particular, considered it an abomination.
How different it is, 70 years on. Only a Frenchman who is yet to accept that Napoleon lost at Waterloo could deny that the British have some of the finest chefs in Europe. What is more, they have—literally—rediscovered the roots of their own culinary riches.
Those roots go back a long, long way.
Toward the end of the 14th century King Richard II—“the best and royallest viander of all Christian kings”—commanded that a list of his favorite recipes should be composed and so it was, on a roll of vellum titled Forme of Cury (Manner of Cookery), the first work on cooking written in English—or, to be more exact, Middle English.
The king was a bit of a dud politically. He was too much in love with pageant, and displays of rank rather than work, but his grandiosity enabled creative extravagance at the table. He is said to have feasted with thousands of guests daily and employed 300 cooks. The quantities were enormous: One banquet, in September 1387, called for (among many other non-butchered ingredients) 16 oxen, 120 sheeps’ heads, 140 pigs, and 400 rabbits.
Forme of Cury reveals a country blessed with an incredible bounty of meat, game, fish, poultry, vegetables, and fruit. But this was not a narrowly nativist cuisine. There were oranges and lemons from Portugal, raisins and currants from the Levant, spices from China, Java, and India. (Potatoes and tomatoes from the New World had yet to be discovered.)
The Middle English of the recipes has a Chaucer-like richness and oddity to it, with sounds all its own. After all, language and food call upon the same sensory instruments: lips, tongue, throat, saliva. Words can be savored as much as food. Some weird ingredients are listed with their own nostrums:
Alkanet, plants giving off a red dye that “helps old ulcers, hot inflammations and burnings by common fire;” blaunderelle, an apple that “doth comforte the stomacke;” hyssop, a form of mint that “improves weak sight, expels worms, but causes miscarriage;” pellitory, a nettle and “one of the best purges of the brain;” and purslane, a plant that worked as a kind of reverse-Viagra, “it doth extynct the ardor of lassyvyousnes and doth mytygate great heate in all the inwarde partes of man.”
How did such a robust and adventurous tradition get lost?
Culinary historians blame the Industrial Revolution. Rapid depopulation of the countryside as the peasantry became the world’s first factory workers took away both the labor and the market for localized food.
At the top, a new mercantile class demanded “continental” taste that meant, usually, French-influenced menus. Perversely the French Revolution dispersed the cooks who had served the monarchy and the aristocracy and they founded French regional cooking which, in turn, became the benchmark for British bourgeois cooking until well into the 1980s.
This capitulation to French superiority, represented at its most arrogant by the restaurant inspectors of the red Michelin guides, who gave as many points for table linen and glassware as they did for food, had the effect of eradicating whatever traditions still survived in the British countryside for producing, harvesting and bringing to the table what the great fertility of the land was capable of providing.
That remained largely the case until the day, 21 years ago, when a young architect who gave up architecture to follow a cranky passion for authentic British cooking opened a restaurant called St John, alongside London’s main meat market, Smithfield. (Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, who gave us the best adjective for girth and appetite, had a favorite watering hole nearby and bellows, in Henry IV, Part II: “…and he’ll buy me a horse in Smithfield.”)
The meat market was a coincidence, not a source. It was simply that Fergus Henderson found a building that he liked, partly a Georgian townhouse and partly an old smokehouse.
At first, Londoners didn’t get it. The restaurant had no décor, just whitewashed walls with a line of clothes pegs. There were no fancy table settings. No range of exquisitely sculpted glasses each shape supposedly crafted for specific wine varieties—just plain and cheap glass goblets, one size fits all.
Henderson chose a logo that was loaded with his intent: a pig in full flight. This beast was the foundation of his philosophy—“nose to tail eating” in which no parts were to be discarded and offal was to be recovered as one of the most neglected prizes of butchery. The signature dish didn’t come from a pig, though. It was roast bone marrow—the marrow from a calf’s leg—with parsley salad.
It’s a messy dish to eat. You scrape marrow from the bone and spread it on toast, season it with sea salt, and top it with the parsley. The hands-on messiness, the rich film of fat on the lips, it was all part of a deliberate British salvo exploding into the decorum of a French dining room. Not weird enough for you? Try the rolled pig’s spleen, or the warm pig’s head, or the cold lamb’s brains on toast. Or, in season, roast squirrel.
Henderson recalls that early customers stood around unsure whether to sit down, crying, “Why have we come? Look at this menu.” A food critic said the menu was “200 years out of date.”
Not me. I was an early convert. Over some months I steadily worked my way from the nose to the tail. And I talked to Henderson about the pigs—where he found them, how could the meat be so amazing. He said he liked personally to go to farms and identify a promising pig and monitor its growth until he deemed it ready for eating.
He gave each pig a name. At the time he had a favorite, a fine sow called Sophie of the Tamworth breed, known for its generous hams. Sophie, he discovered, liked the smell of fresh lavender.
If a pig senses impending death it has a rush of adrenalin—who wouldn’t? The adrenalin, however, does harm to the taste of the meat from the slaughtered pig. In the case of Sophie, Henderson had her led to the abattoir with a sprig of lavender at her nose. She died happy, too serene to hyperventilate. For weeks afterward she gave her best to the tables at St. John.
In time British foodies came to revere the art and passion that Henderson brought to recovering the quintessential qualities of British cooking. We learned the discipline that natural ingredients often had short seasons.
“It would be weird not to eat well within nature’s restrictions,” Henderson decreed, “short, rigorous British seasons administering good things from the earth, air and sea, and flesh beyond a fillet. Nature writes our menu and we should listen.”
And, eventually, critics the world over came to the plain, unpretentious dining room in Smithfield and applauded. Anthony Bourdain was an early enthusiast. On the 20th anniversary of St. John he told the Guardian of Henderson: “He is a walking Buddha to chefs all over the world, a total rock star. He opened the doors for people to start questioning the conventional wisdom of the restaurant business, built up over hundreds of years. He absolutely changed the world, and now everyone wants to cook like Fergus.”
Alumni of the St. John kitchen have, indeed, taken nose-to-tail butchery and many other pleasures of the mouth all over the world. (Alas, this included a young pastry cook who returned to her native Australia carrying a recipe for my most cherished dessert, treacle tart, that no successor has equaled.) Equally important, Henderson has built something that other British restaurants now freely draw upon, a network of superb specialist producers from fishermen in northern Ireland to dairies in Cornwall.
And yet, for all his success, Henderson never behaves like “a total rock star.” He could not be further in personality from the theatrical tantrums of the TV chefs like Gordon Ramsay. Nor has he indulged like some of his ex-pupils in mass-producing franchised products for supermarkets. When he was younger—and slimmer—he had something of the permanently startled, lofted hair look of Stan Laurel—like someone who couldn’t quite accept that such an eccentric pursuit had turned out so well. He still seems amazingly unaffected and probably the best living example of what the great A.J. Liebling, an unabashed glutton, said: A great cook should also be a great eater.
This September a gathering of young chefs will be paying homage to Henderson as he gives a masterclass at Omnivore London, an event organized, believe it or not, by a group that encourages an entente between the leading kitchens of London and Paris—the French have finally allowed that there are other cuisines worthy of emulating.
Henderson’s subject is simple and from the heart: The Importance of Fat. He will start with bone marrow, move on to a pig’s head and finish with crispy pig’s head and dandelion. Richard II would be licking his lips.