Drool Britannia

National Geographic Traveler

Globally ridiculed for the likes of its greasy fish and chips and soggy scampi, England has long been a nation with a severely deflated culinary mojo. But in the last few years, there have been rumblings of revolution in the air, led mostly by a generation of young chefs and restaurateurs bent on reviving the best of the Olde English kitchen and the art of nose-to-tail eating. Vanessa Able hits the food trail in London to discover what this revolution tastes like and whether it entails more than just entrails.

IT’S AN HOUR BEFORE SERVICE at St John’s restaurant in London’s Smithfields, and a London Porker, also known as a Middle White pig, is getting a shave. Cleansed and disemboweled, it lies peacefully with a half-smile on the counter top while the last remaining strands of black wiry hair are scraped from its ears, cheeks and snout. The sound of the knife blade scouring the skin sets my teeth on edge, but the kitchen’s porcine barber, a fly-in American chef from New York’s Gramercy Tavern called Ben, is oblivious to the rasping noise. He picks the beast up by grabbing all four trotters and lovingly turns it on its side, exposing the giant slit down its middle from where all its intestines have been removed.

“This is the glamorous part,” Ben remarks dryly, adding: “I don’t even shave myself, and here I am shaving a pig.”

Set in a former smokehouse around the corner from London’s largest meat market at Smithfields, the St John restaurant has become a London institution. Extolled by ‘Kitchen Confidential’ chef Anthony Bourdain as “an eye-opening, inspiring, thoroughly pleasurable yet stripped down adventure in dining,” the place opened in 1994 as a no-frills establishment serving up good, simple British food. Since then, it has risen to become a symbol of what is being called the revival of English cuisine.

Yes – English cuisine. No, it’s not an oxymoron, and there’ll be no sniggering at the back, please. It’s true that for centuries Britain has been lampooned the world over for the pitiful state of its national dishes: food critic Bill Marsano once wrote that, “the British Empire was created as a by-product of generations of desperate Englishmen roaming the world in search of a decent meal.” Comedian Jackie Mason joked “Britain is the only country in the world where the food is more dangerous than the sex,” while more recently, former French President Jacques Chirac somewhat un-diplomatically observed of the British, “You cannot trust people who have such bad cuisine. It is the country with the worst food after Finland.”

Ouch. And as an Englishwoman, it hurts my national pride to admit that such derision has not been not entirely unjustified over the last few decades: after all, think of a good British meal, and what’s the first thing that pops into your head? Most likely the cholesterol-and-fat banquet of a full English breakfast: runny eggs, singed bacon, oily sausage, blackened tomato and (ugh!) tepid baked beans.

Over at St John, however, the revolution is in full swing. There’s not a tepid baked bean in sight as the barman chalks up today’s ‘Elevenses’ menu, a bill of bar snacks: Welsh Rarebit; Bone Marrow Toast; Snails and Oakleaf; Eccles Cake; Mackerel; Globe Artichokes; Lamb, Bread and Green Sauce; Peach and Champagne Jelly. Next door in the office, the lunch docket is rolling off the printer: Rolled Pig’s Spleen and Bacon; Venison Saddle, Beetroot and Pickled Walnut; Grouse; Stinking Bishop and Potatoes; Chitterlings; Lamb Sweetbreads; Smoked Eel; and of course the shaved and roasted Middlewhite, served with marrow and parsley sauce.

You’ll be forgiven for feeling like you’ve fallen down the culinary rabbit hole into a medieval English cookhouse: St John espouses a vigorously imaginative style of cooking that goes beyond the fine cuts and filets to include the whole animal – ears, cheeks, trotters and all- onto the menu, drawing from old English traditions and recipes that were based on seasonality and thrift.

Over in the kitchen, a tray of roasted shallots is being pulled out of the oven. One of the chefs eagerly explains to me their destiny: “you get a piece of toast, and you squeeze the shallots out of their skin while they’re still warm. They’re nice and sweet: you spread them on the toast and eat them with goats curd and chopped mint. Such a simple thing, and it just works,” he enthuses, feeding me a spoonful of the goat curd to demonstrate his point.

Simplicity is one of the buzzwords of the revolution. This became outstandingly clear to me after an evening’s ‘research’ spent hemorrhaging my wallet in the company of stiff suited businessmen at 24, glitzy restaurant of celebrity wunder-chef and self-proclaimed ‘ambassador of British cuisine’, Gary Rhodes. The self-conscious minimalist serving of the food (try 3 small lettuce leaves passed off as a £10 salad) and the stuffy, forced-fancy atmosphere (I felt like I was sitting on a spike all night), combined with the SWAT-style security check upon entering the building all combined to feel so unnecessary.

Here, among the whitewashed walls of St John, where everything from the phrasing of the menu to the actual preparation of the food, unpretentiousness is next to godliness. The idea being that the less fuss that is injected into geometric chopping, fussy presentation and complicated sauces, the more the diner’s attention focuses on the inherent quality of the foodstuffs they are ingesting.

Sounds sensible, and so pragmatically English. But head chef Chris Gillard, fingers black with the sticky tar-like goo of cuttlefish ink, quickly corrects me: “Food here is not so much English as it is Fergus.

The Fergus he is referring to is Fergus Henderson, the restaurant’s chef-founder who has been extolled as one of the frontrunners of the movement to invigorate English cooking. Famously self-effacing and commonsensical, Fergus usually shuns all such accolade, and yet his bold no-nonsense approach to cooking English food has inspired a new generation of chefs in the country, including Chris.

Fergus, whose battle with Parkinson’s disease has cut down his kitchen hours over recent years, is not in the restaurant today. I’m disappointed not to be able to meet him, and so I start grilling Chris about him. I ask him how he finds the experience of working with Fergus and he replies, “inspiring”, citing his love of simplicity and “passion and love of a good lunch” as what set him apart.

“It probably comes from the fact that he never had a formal training; he never learned to cut things into cubes,” Chris explains. He points over at a pot of boiling carrots: “Those are going to be served as they are,” he says. “Why cut them?” He studies my face for a sign of recognition. “Does that make sense?”

Yes, I suppose it does. Fergus’ cookbook, “Nose to Tail Eating – A Kind of British Cooking” contains all sorts of pearls of wisdom of this uncomplicated, all-inclusive nature including how to eat radishes at their peak and theories of jugged hare, as well as the skills of making everything from pressed potatoes and mushy courgettes to the more daring deep-fried lambs brains and pig’s cheek and tongue.  

Which is precisely what I’m tucking into just over a mile away on Commercial Road in Spitalfields. This east-end neighbourhood has recently undergone a facelift after years as one of the city’s more salubrious areas, and is today home to St John’s other branch, Bread and Wine. This joint is considered the more casual of the two, with the menu featuring smaller dishes, better fit for sharing. The lunch list today includes pigeon, smoked sprats and puffballs, but being in adventurous mood, I am more excited by the pig’s cheeks. They lie before me on a white plate, a three-layered pear-shape of tongue, cheek fat and skin.

This particular pig doesn’t seem to have had as good a shave as its counterpart in Smithfields.

“Eeeuwww, it’s all hairy!” exclaims my 19-year-old godson and dining companion, whose eyes nearly popped out of his head when I ordered the dish to come with an ox heart salad. An architecture student, Alex is by no means a culinary heathen – in fact I’m constantly surprised by the delicacy of his teenage palate. And yet here we are, two children of the British Isles, born and raised on British soil, neither of us having ever sampled half of these long-forgotten delicacies our country has to offer.

Offal has always played a major part at the British dinner table, especially in the north of the country. The UK has seen a staggering rise of 67% in the sales of offal since 2003, a figure that shows suggests a return to old traditions that took a particularly hard blow with the modernization of eating habits of the past 50 years, and during the mad cow disease crisis in the 1990s when a lot of offal, especially cows brains, was banned.

I’ll admit I’m amazed to discover that the pig’s cheeks are extremely tasty, though the alarm bells of guilt do ring out with every mouthful of hairy fat. The ox-heart, mercifully un-fatty, is sliced into thin strips, slightly charred and served with a watercress and pickled walnut salad. I expected a novelty flavour requiring some kind of acquired taste, but it is, in fact, delicious. Even Alex is a convert…

“It’s not for the squeamish,” warns Tom Pemberton, presumably catching the perturbed look on my face as I peer into a simmering pot of pigs’ heads. There are four of them in total, turning and waving gently with the action of the boiling water with all the tormented dismay of a Hammer Horror. Tom reaches in with a knife to poke at the meat. “The bones are still in there. Look, there are the teeth,” he demonstrates by pulling back the now flaccid meat of the jowl to reveal a set of blackened gnashers.

Tom is making brawn. “It’s something people have often heard of, but they don’t know what it is,” he explains. “The meat is quite gelatinous, and you take it off after you’ve cooked it. It falls off very easily. Then you pack it into a terrine mould, straining the water that you cooked it in, but the jelly that comes from the bones sets and makes a terrine and that’s called brawn.”

Tom is the head chef and owner of the Hereford Road restaurant in Bayswater, and today he’s giving me a beginners guide to English kitchen essentials. Next up I’m shivering in the cold room of the prep area in the basement of the restaurant as he excitedly pulls various ingredients off the shelves to demonstrate the variety of his daily fare. Smoked eels hang off the edge of the rack next to a tray of Cornish mackerel and wild sea bass. On a lower shelf are the tiny, plucked bodies of wood pigeons and English quails, calves kidneys, the heart of a pig and a bunch of duck breasts that are being salted. Tom holds a pot of razor clams up to my face and one of them bulges out and lunges towards me, making me jump. “People find these a bit freaky,” Tom assures me, explaining that they have to be cooked alive for optimum freshness.

“It’s an interesting thing that in Britain everyone can cook a good pasta, but no one can make a good Shepherds Pie any more,” Tom laments as we sit among the white walls, wooden tables and red leather booths of his restaurant. “I started cooking in 1994, and the really popular thing then was a misnomer of ‘Modern British’, which wasn’t British at all but just a mixture of Italian and French.”

“People spoke about peasant Italian and French cooking with this kind of received knowledge, and you kind of felt like saying, ‘Well, hang on mate; you’re from Suffolk. You’ve only been to France once!’”

So is there a revival going on? Tom seems to think so. The sweetbreads, calf’s kidney, ox liver and deep-fried calf’s brain on the menu today hark back to his own roots: “As a child, I really liked offal, which,” he admits, “is unusual.” His father came from the north of England and was raised on a cheap and practical diet of tripe, kidneys and black pudding, which were very common household dishes before the rationing of the Second World War and the supermarket revolution in convenience and microwave meals that followed.

Tom particularly prides himself on his restaurant’s braised oxtail, positing that Hereford Road might be the only place in London that prepares the appendage whole. As far as he is concerned, the use of offal in the kitchen is not a novelty, but a cracker-barrel staple. “British food is simple and it gets to the point. I really like that side of it.”

There’s still room for schoolboy humour, however. It’s 3pm, the quiet hour just after a hectic lunch service and before preparation begins for dinner; I’m taking a break with the jocular Peter Woods, and we’re giggling over lamb’s testicles. “They taste very similar to sweetbreads,” he says, “very soft, very delicate, and slightly creamy…” and with that we both descend into chuckles. “They didn’t go down so well,” he recounts of one of his less popular dishes with a chortle. “I think it was the wording more than anything.”

Peter, who previously trained at the Savoy Hotel and Marco Pierre White’s Belvedere restaurant, is the head chef at The Northbank restaurant just next to London’s Millenium Bridge. Opened in 2007, it has a more formal, business-like air than the understated St Johns and Hereford Road restaurants, combined with a spectacular view of the Thames and the brown-brick behemoth that is the Tate Modern. Braised Beef Cheeks, Vegetable Wellington, Honey Roast Quail and Pork Belly are served on white tablecloths against a background of quirky, rather hypnotizing toile de jouy wallpaper depicting scenes of modern London.

Despite the darkness of the cloudy August sky shadowing St Paul’s Cathedral at our backs and the former residence of its architect Sir Christopher Wren just across the river, Peter reminds me that today is nonetheless the Glorious Twelfth (of August), otherwise known as the first day of grouse season. “And next month we’ll be getting pheasants and partridges,” he continues, enthused at the prospect, “but no oysters, not yet. You can only get oysters in months that end with an ‘r’.”

Seasonal cooking and local sourcing are the second and third commandments of the English cooking revival, and a subject that seems to light a fire in the eyes of every English chef that I talk to. It means that the menus are in constant flux, with ideas and dishes changing depending upon the time of year and what their local suppliers have in stock. All quite mind-boggling for a generation raised on supermarket imports that don’t think twice about eating asparagus at Christmas, or figs in the spring.

“It’s refreshing to see English chefs going back to a more traditional way of cooking and doing more research into what we’re using,” says Peter, as he leads me into the kitchen to show me a box of (in season) girolle mushrooms. “They’re lovely, real nice. Lovely, lovely mushrooms,” he eulogizes, almost a bit misty-eyed.

As emphasis shifts from exotic global ingredients to seasonal items grown on British soil, so local farming has also undergone a boost in recent years as demand for special gourmet ingredients has flourished. Farmers markets are burgeoning all over the country, but if you’re in London, then best place to start any hunt for local products is at one of the great city markets: Smithfields in Farringdon for meat, Billingsgate near Canary Wharf for fish, and the gorgeous Borough market at London Bridge for all that and more besides.

Locals will grumble (as locals are wont to do) that Borough Market has been overrun by tourists in recent years, but if anything the new wave of interest in the market and its products has helped to invigorate its original spirit. Set within a network of alleys and high-ceilinged warehouse-type spaces in the brown-brick backstreets of the city’s south bank, the market is a weekly convention. It’s an orgy of gourmet fare, with blackboards and hand-written signs at every few paces proclaiming venison, boar and pheasant pies, black pudding loaves, hot and spicy cider, Whitby cod and haddock, Isle of Manx kippers, Cumberland bacon and wild mushrooms, to name but a few.

Anyone skeptical of Britain’s cheese prowess should head down Park Street to Neal’s Yard Dairy for a mind-boggling selection of British cheeses. Heavy-duty shelves holding hefty cylinders of matured cheese line the walls in a shop where cheery, knowledgeable staff thrust pieces of cheddar or goat’s cheese at you, and hold lengthy court as to what’s in season, recommending the best cheeses of the month. The collection is impressive: 63 varieties in total, with only five sourced from outside the UK. It’s enough to make me want to roll out a Union Jack.

The word is spreading. You don’t even have to go out as far as the fields of East Anglia to feel the swelling consciousness about local sourcing. Chef Tom Aikens, who runs two restaurants in Chelsea, is a socially engaged cook who takes an active role in working with organizations like Project Dirt and Capital Growth who are aiming to create over 2,000 community food growing spaces in London by 2012, and End of the Line, a campaign aiming to curb destructive global fishing habits.

I meet with Tom at Tom’s Kitchen, his gourmet café that’s a regular haunt of London’s upscale Chelsea crowd, after a lunch of beetroot, feta cheese and pomegranate salad and a plate of pan-fried scallops. Though not as ardently English as the other stops on my gourmet tour, what’s attractive about Tom’s Kitchen is the effortless English warmth exuded by the wooden tables and white tiled walls, and the extensive menu that just about covers every food craving from waffles to steak tartar, but nonetheless leaves room for a host of British classics like beer battered cod and 7-hour braised lamb shoulder. 

“The average customer is more in tune with what they should be eating, asking questions about food, where it comes from, etc,” says Tom. “It’s great because it means restaurants and chefs have to buck their ideas up as well.” Part of that process, according to Tom, involves striking a balance between producing a varied and affordable menu, a comfortable and congenial atmosphere and garnering a responsible code of practice in terms of food suppliers. “To me, food is not just about what we eat, it defines our values, health, status, environment, as well as our culture, politics and economy.”

The revolution is simple, it’s locally sourced, its organic and responsible; it’s slow-cooked and seasonal and it wastes nothing, and it’s not for the easily nauseated. It’s characterized by classics such as St John’s now signature roast bone marrow and parsley salad (Anthony Bourdain’s death row meal, according to his ebullient introduction to Fergus Henderson’s ‘Nose to Tail’), Hereford Road’s braised oxtail, Northbank’s hog’s pudding and Tom’s Kitchen’s 7-hour braised lamb shoulder. And in the spirit of true British-ness it’s obstinately humble, self-denying, and right on time.

“We don’t do revival,” Trevor Gulliver, co-owner of St John, modestly assures me. “We did not set out to be some kind of movement, we are just very happy when folk decide to come eat with us for the particular way we go about our restaurant,” he says, dropping in the little secret to their success: “you must simply do today that what you think is right and continue that way.”

Pig’s trotters anyone?

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