Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The importance of pig trotters

To perform this delicate operation one must use a special metal device that is long and slim, and is shaped as a double-edge fork. One uses one side of the apparatus with its two prongs to insert it carefully into the opening of the bone and lift up the thick fluid inside. Then, with the other side of the tool that has a shallow spoon-like ending, begin to remove the substance inside, making sure not to break the fragile internal walls of the bone. One should then pick up the griddled slice of bread and spread this milky-grey matter onto the toast, sprinkle it with a few large grains of sea salt and some parsley leaves. Put the prepared slice in your mouth and savour the rich flavour...

The taste of the bone marrow, even without all the add-ons, is that of delicious and savoury…fat. A milder, runnier version, perfect to add to your Sunday morning scrambled eggs or mix in with some boiled new potatoes. We had the marrow as a starter: four vertically standing stubs of the bone brought in spectacularly from an open-plan kitchen. This visually slightly unsettling and gustatory reassuring dish was a telling beginning of a very memorable dinner to follow.

When Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver opened ‘St John’ on the premises of the former smokehouse in the City of London in 1994, their idea of ‘nose to tail’ eating was pre-revolutionary really. The ethos of eating every bit of an animal had come long before it became somewhat of a norm amongst the British foody folk. But the restaurant quickly became a sensation and acquired a half-legendary reputation over the years. 'St John' is situated around the corner from London's Smithfield Market, the old meat market that has existed in the area in various forms for over 800 years. 'St John's proximity to this carnivorous centre is not a coincidence, but, one really feels, its raison d’etre. Smithfield is a very fitting setting for a restaurant that values an animal's flesh and bones in its entirety and is not afraid to offer such delicacies as lamb tongues and pork chitterlings in the same confident fashion as a workers’ caf supplies bacon and eggs.

Before entering the restaurant we wondered around the market. It was a very quiet Sunday morning, and so only a few estranged tourists were around. An empty carcass of this centuries-old market with its high-ceilinged arch reminded us of its bloody history of executions of heretics and political opponents. Smithfield is one of the oldest markets in London and one of the few not to have moved from its central site to a location further out. The cold aired walk and the voluptuous poster images of meat and plump wives on sale (apparently a normal activity in England in the Middle Ages) made us even hungrier, and so we turned into a small road with a sign of a pig above the door.

'St John' first appeared to us as a cosy production unit: the walls are white washed, the floors are wooden and pale, and an enormous bread oven is the first thing you see. We then went into a spacious room simply decorated with white-clothed tables and – a relieve after the Sunday emptiness of the streets – many chewing customers. A charming young waiter elegantly crouched down by our table to answer our questions: what is a Berkenwell (a type of cheese); how do you serve your Mince and Tatties (a baked potato with the meat sauce poured over it); what wine will go with my order of Bone Marrow and Parsley salad (Le Clos Domaine Boudau ’07 – lots of red berries and spice). Our second starter was a Rolled Pig Spleen and Bacon which came as a thin pate-like slice served with red onions, tiny gherkins and red vinegar. We both agreed that the combination of the liver-esque pate with a crunchy bacon was a very promising beginning to the meal. They say the quality of the bread a restaurant serves is a good indicator of what’s to come. Well, the chunks (and they were chunks and not slices) of big pored, crusty soughdough, white and wholemeal, we devoured with some comforting butter, set our expectations very high. But we were wrong…

The dishes to follow were even better than we had anticipated. As a main course I had a Grouse served on its own, just with some properly made bread sauce on a side. This plump Scottish bird, known to the majority by its complainty association, should be very happy knowing that its wild life ended merrily on our plates with flesh still bloody and taste so intense that its £27 price tag seemed like a very fair deal. Jonathan said the taste of the bird reminded him of both sea fish and grass-fed lamb. Not a very appetizing description I admit, but the grouse’s meat does have that iodine, fresh flavour. If you like the gamey taste at all, the grouse is the most concentrated version you can get.

Our second dish was an almost too normal in this setting - Roast Beef with Horseradish and Shallots. The two thick slivers of pink beef were everything that a standard pub equivalent isn’t – juicy, lots of real cow flavour, tasty. The horseradish was so much more radishy than creamy that my Russian tastebuds went into overdrive and so I ate all the remaining relish with the remaining bread. The side dish of sprouting tops, bitter with copious amounts of butter, was so good that we thought to come back the next day just to have them for lunch.

By the time the puddings came we felt greedy and even more adventurous. The waiter slightly lost his chilled composure on receiving our order, big enough for four. My favourite plate was an Eccles Cake with Lancashire cheese. I was curious about this unusual combination and was rewarded for my interest: the cake with its flaky pastry and a rich filling of spicy raisins matched perfectly the mild, crumbly and ever so slightly sour cheese. The second dessert of the Burned Cream Ice Cream had a divine textural combination: velvety ice cream and crunchy warm pieces of caramel. The best pud came annoyingly last just as we started loosing our determination: the Steamed Treacle Sponge –°ake (for two!), all butter and sugar, was so light and syrapy that we just sat there smacking our lips, going slowly but steadily through the whole dish, pouring more and more of the warm custard. We were full and happy. We knew we would be back.

'St John' is a rare find – a restaurant that manages to be so effortlessly unpretentious, and at the same time so elegant and self-assured. The short menu that only lists the main ingredients of each dish means that you order the food and not the intricacies of its preparation. This restaurant knows its value (eg the Christmas party arrangements firmly discourages festive paraphernalia from the tables), but does not brag about it. There is no music in the restaurant and waiters talk to you with the knowledge that comes from not just loving the food they serve, but from having detailed understanding of the processes involved and what this information means to you, the customer. We want to come back to try every single dish on the daily changing menu (Snail, Sausage & Chick Pea? Faggot aqnd Celeriac? Fig Bakewell Tart?). Oh, and we will be back because having the whole roasted suckling pig seems like a fabulous idea to celebrate my entry into the next decade!

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