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Book review: The Book of St John

22 November 2019 by
Book review: The Book of St John

  • The Book of St John, by Fergus Henderson and Trevor Gulliver
  • Penguin, £30

You know what you're going to get when you open up The Book of St John – a sermon on Fergus Henderson's cuisine of unpretentious and unbridled flavours, laid down on gilded pages. But, just like the restaurant, its chefs and its food, that doesn't stop you being surprised, inspired and utterly enthralled throughout.

Following on from Henderson's The Complete Nose To Tail: A Kind of British Cooking, this text marks the 25th anniversary of the world-renowned restaurant's beginnings, when the radical duo of Henderson and Trevor Gulliver decided to move into a scruffy site near Smithfield Market and start selling offal to a nation that was, and remains, a little squeamish about it.

It's a concept that feels both modern and ancient – a respect for the animal that draws on classical cuisine, while displaying a sustainable approach many seek to emulate. What has made St John continue to stand out is the path it charts between the two.

There's a joy in rushing headfirst into the classics – beef mince on dripping toast, or roast bone marrow and parsley salad – just to find the tiny flourishes that turn the simple into the sublime. Deeper reading, however, is very quickly rewarded, like the breakdown on how to treat hearts, or the ode to tripe that might be enough to inspire even the non-believers.

The dishes are steeped in a kind of whimsy that can segue away from the methodical language of a cookbook – something of a blessing and a curse – as seen in the description of a mosaic-like terrine with pork belly "like porcine mortar, surrounding and enclosing the jewel-like goose gizzards".

The book's dedication says it reflects "a moment in time", and the text carries the feeling of both men surveying their empire. Fergus describes the jolt of excitement whenever he reads the words ‘nose to tail' as part of the national lexicon, while Trevor discusses "changing a little corner of the world, in a gradual, quiet way". What the duo have done for British cuisine is unparalleled and their beautifully written book does an incredible job of capturing it.

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