Megan Abbott

At Home With: Fergus Henderson

Megan Abbott
At Home With: Fergus Henderson

I can barely hear Fergus Henderson over the blare of sizzling rabbit saddle, which spits and blisters in a pot on the stove with chunks of bacon, shallots and pucks of garlic. He throws in a long, jiggling rind of bacon fat and a bundle of bay and thyme tied together with string. Next, he stirs in a packet of dark, unctuous ‘Trotter Gear’, his new product that hits stores this week. “And there is the magic.” He says. The mixture contains shredded pig’s feet (“the bones, the fat. All the good bits.”), peppercorns, herbs and madeira. This “medley” is the base of so many staple dishes at St John, Fergus’ iconic London restaurant. It is frequented by artists and great chefs, with people pilgrimaging from across the globe to eat bone marrow with parsley and spongey madeleines at its plain tables. Fergus likes to keep things “ungarnished”. “A single spring of parsley is such a gloomy thing.” He says. “It just sits there pointlessly, its destiny unfulfilled.” St John was one of the first restaurants to serve celebrated offal dishes in the city. And now, 22 years after opening its doors, Fergus has packaged up a little of this magic for visitors to take home.

We are at Fergus’ South London townhouse for lunch on the hottest day of the year. We ring the loud doorbell and walk past some suspiciously recognisable art in the hallway down to a large, whitewashed kitchen. Fergus greets us there, his signature round glasses propped on his face. “Coffee for all!” He says straight away. His loyal assistant Kitty Cooper is by his side. A long table stands in the centre, with a stack of spare stools in one corner for surplus guests. Fergus lives here with his three children and his wife Margot - the chef and owner of the critically-acclaimed Rochelle Canteen. The kitchen window looks out over a wild, sunny garden bursting with runner beans, flowers and fresh herbs. A green wheelbarrow is parked in the middle of it.

Fergus pours a few glasses of cold St John Blanc before making a start on the pie. There is a lot of discussion about the architecture of the perfect pie. Fergus insists that the pastry should encase the filling, and not merely be “a stew with a hat”. This particular recipe calls for big, meaty chunks – whole shallots, whole garlic, burly hunks of meat. “The thing with pie is the excitement of what’s in it.” He says. “But people can suffer from pie-phobia. They fear what lies beneath the pastry. Like a sort of gimp in the larder. A chunky filling means there are no surprises.” I ask him for some more pie-making pearls of wisdom. “Never rush a pie.” He says. “You have to get all of the ingredients together before they go on their summer holiday. The pastry is womb-like.” Just then, a little flame jumps onto his shirt from the stove. Kitty runs over and they pat it out, leaving a little twist of smoke in the air. “And don’t set yourself on fire.” He adds. “That’s key.”

He lets the meat brown and pours in the Trotter Gear. “Trotter improves any stew. It gives it body. This has been braised, which gives it a lovely sticky texture.” He says, placing a lid on the pot. “Cooking is an emotional thing. It sooths you. And so does this sauce.” Next, he slides two mounds of suet pastry dough onto the table and hands me a rolling pin. The stuff is hard and unyielding, and I push at it weakly. “Come on, show it who’s boss.” He says. When it is finally rolled flat, he curls it over a dish to make the base. He spoons in the mixture, propping a bony pig’s trotter in the centre to hold it all up.

While the pie turns gold in the oven, Fergus slices a few pieces of bread and pops open a tub of Welsh Rarebit Mixture, the second product he will be releasing. He puts it in the grill and we watch it bubble away like hungry children. It emerges perfectly pocked, the colour of brown sugar. This classic dish is another of St John’s staples. Fergus can often be found at the restaurant with a plate of the stuff in front of him. Before serving it, he makes a few grooves in the toast and sloshes on some Lea & Perrins, which cuts sharply through the mustardy, spiced cheese and the crunchy toast. We eat it in the garden with a glass of sweet, plummy port. “I was researching rarebit.” He tells us, “And lots of the recipes didn’t seem to work. I tried the worst rarebit in London, and that’s when I started formulating my plan.” This mixture is made with strong Cheddar (“cheese is vital”, he says), cayenne pepper, Guinness ale and a roux of butter and flour to bind it all together. “Cheese on toast is the ultimate comfort food.” Fergus remarks. “You like eating cheese on toast in bed watching Game of Thrones, don’t you Ferg?” Kitty adds. He nods matter-of-factly.

“Well, that certainly looks like the perfect pie.” Kitty says, as Fergus brings the dish into the garden. He sits down and nibbles on an overhanging piece of pastry, nodding in approval. We tuck in, which is golden and crisp on top. The meat is salty and soft, bound together by a glossy, thick stock that soaks into the pastry. These are flavours that Fergus would call “steadying”. “Trotter mix adds a new dimension to pie-making.” He comments, spooning soft potatoes and tender slices of Portuguese cabbage onto our plates. We talk about the possibilities of the mixture – how delicious it would be with fresh pasta, a beef stew, or served on wet polenta. When Fergus sends us away with a couple of packets of the stuff, along with a pot of Welsh Rarebit Mixture, our empty fridge suddenly seems full.

As we eat this rich, meaty pie and knock back red wine, the sun beams over the garden. In many other scenarios, this kind of feast would be out of place in such heat. But somehow, in Fergus’ company, it feels right. Like St John itself, it just works.