RESTAURANTS Deborah Ross
OFFAL. Yes, in an act of supreme selflessness — the reasons for which will shortly become apparent — I've decided this week to devote myself entirely to offal. Offal! Do you know where the word comes from, by the way? Well, it refers to the bits that 'fall off the carcass once an animal has been slaughtered. There, wasn't that an interesting fact? Indeed, I can see, now, that I have much to teach you. I might even teach you how to cheat at the board game Mastermind, It's easy-peasy Japanesey, actually. You pretend to drop something and, on your way down, look underneath the board to see what colours the pegs are. This is guaranteed to impress family and friends. In my own instance, it goes something like this: 'Deborah,' people say, 'can't tell her left from her right, and thinks if it's uphill it must be north, hut, my goodness, she's a bloody genius at Mastermind.'
Anyway, offal. And `yeuch'. Sony, can't be doing with any of it, right from the mildest examples (kidneys, liver) through to the more serious stuff — intestines, glands, trotters, snouts, ears, tails, lungs, brains, hearts and even udders, which once were considered a great treat, especially when cooked in puff pastry with thyme. (There, Look at that. Another interesting fact. I'm so full of interesting facts today, it's not true. I'm practically bursting with them.) And tripe, of course. Tripe! I'm not quite sure what tripe is, frankly, but rather suspect it's the bits they've liposuctioned off Vanessa Feltz. Less offal, more offlip. Whatever, it all gives me the willies. Although not literally, I hope. You can put one in as much puff pastry as you like — try to pass it off as a sausage roll, even — and I'm still not touching it.
No, I'm the most cowardly kind of carnivore. I like my meat shrink-wrapped from Waitrose with a recipe on the underside of the label, even though, actually, just what is the point of that? You can't rip the label off until you get home — well, not in Waitrose, although I suspect anything goes in Asda — and by the time you get home you are no longer in the supermarket, and if you are no longer in the supermarket, you can't buy the ingredients necessary to do the recipe, can you? Total waste of time, those recipes on the underside of the label. I like the ones that come on the side of packs, though. You know, the 'serving suggestion' ones. In particular, I like the one on the side of Patterson's oatcakes which says 'SERVING SUGGESTION' and shows an oatcake with cheese. Oatcakes? With cheese? Well, who'd have thought it? You live and learn. (Also, I like the one on Heinz tomato soup that says 'Boiling impairs flavour'. Does it? Why?)
Still, in an act of supreme selflessness — for reasons which should now be apparent — I take my father to the St John restaurant in Clerkenwell for his birthday. You
must have heard of St John. It and its chef, Fergus Henderson, seem to have won every prize going lately. And, yes, it specialises in offal. Or 'nose-to-tail eating', as Henderson puts it, perhaps to make it all sound more appealing, which it doesn't. My father loves offal, though. Indeed, as he says, 'In my day, you could get stuffed sheep heart as a pub snack.' Thank you, father,' I say, 'for such a charming anecdote. Now, will you forgive me if I just have a quick retch?'
St John is, fittingly, situated right next to Smithfield market, a place Dickens described as being 'ankle deep with filth and mire, a thick steam perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of cattle'. Gosh, doesn't it just get better and better? St John itself is on two floors, with a bar and bakery below, and the actual restaurant up top. The restaurant, which used to be a meat smokehouse, is very white, minimalist and unencumbered. Clinical, even, and perhaps rather abattoiresque. The kitchen is partly open. You can see the chef who plates the food. He has a doublepierced eyebrow and rolls menacingly on the balls of his feet. Sinister? You bet. Indeed, is he looking at me, thinking, 'Phwoarrr! Look at the tripe on that! I could get 52 specials from the knee area alone?' One thing's for sure, I'm not dropping my vigilance, or they'll have me for the stockpot.
The menu, it turns out, is less a menu and more, perhaps, Hannibal Lecter's wish list. 'What are chitterlings?' I ask our lovely, attentive waiter.
'Chitterlings are yummy,' he says.
'Apart from yummy?' 'Pig's intestines.'
'Right. What are faggots?'
'Faggots are yummy,' he says.
'Apart from yummy?'
'A sort of meatball of innards.'
'Oh. yes. That does sound yummy. Yummy, yummy, yummy! Bring me 26 and be quick about it. No! On second thoughts, bring me all the faggots you have! Hey, come back! Only joking!'
Still, while we are here, I decide to go the whole hog, so to speak. I have roast bone marrow with parsley salad for a starter. Delicious? I should say not. Roast bone marrow is vile. Roast bone marrow is big lumps of tube filled with globules of white fat that you have to pick out with a winkling fork, My father, who has speedily knocked back his own starter of razor clams, moves in. He polishes the bone marrow off. 'Great,' he says, smacking his lips. I wish he hadn't smacked his lips. I can see the chef looking at him. I can see the chef thinking. 'Hmm, smacked lips. Perhaps with shallots and a little garlic, a twist of black pepper. .
For my main course, I'm jolly daring. I go for the faggots. Faggots, I know now, are not yummy. Faggots are chewy blobs in a popsock. Faggots are nasty and stretchy. My father has the sweetbreads with peas and lentils — 'great' — then polishes off my faggots. Worryingly, he does some more lip smacking. (Much as I have 'issues' with my father, I really don't want his lips to be butchered off.) My mother has the quails and cabbage. The quails look like poor little runover budgies. Still, she enjoys them very much, sucks every little bone dry. 'Anyone would think she's starved to death,' says my father, kindly. My young son, a miraculously adventurous eater, has the chitterlings which he says are 'lovely'. My father and son sit at opposite ends of the table because they had a scrap on the way over in the car, which ended with my father saying, 'You'll miss me when I've gone,' to which my son replied, 'No I won't. I've got another granddad.' Which is a fair point, I suppose. My son can be very rude, although not, I should add, to me, whom he rightly looks up to as total crap at most things but a genius at Mastermind.
Pudding? I have burnt sheep's milk yoghurt. I poke it about a bit. Nope, no signs of eyes, guts, stomach linings, tails, feet, ears. It doesn't try to butt me. It doesn't bleat. It's very nice. A sort of yoghurt creme brillee.
I'm sure St John is a very fine restaurant. Certainly, it is busy busy busy. And not that expensive. About £25 a head, I'd say, without wine. But it's just not my thing. What is? Well, Heinz tomato soup is all right by me. Not boiled, though, because that, I've been led to believe, rather impairs the flavour.
St John, 26 St John Street, London ECI; tel.' 020 7251 0848.