St John remembered

Sydney’s gone a touch of something at the moment. There are lots of big name chefs coming in for the Sydney International Food Festival. But most people are going particularly googley over one guy.

We’ve all got a touch of Fergus fever going on.

Having eaten at St John, it’s easy to understand why.

After weeks of far out eating across Spain, France and Italy we were craving the simpler things; civility without snivelling and cracking food without fuss.

Our last meal on the trip-of-insanity was lunch at St John, and brought back together the original El Bulli gang of four (The Chef, The Art Critic, The Hungry One and me).

Walking into the white walled St John feels like you’ve stumbled into a sanctum that’s steeped in a special blend of testosterone. It’s an interesting space. The floors are tiled, light fittings low hanging and industrial. Tables are accompanied by dark wood bistro-style chairs and water glasses are stout little things that would be just as comfortable housing an ale. Bread is cut into generous hunks and unsalted butter comes in a slab. Perfunctory paper printed menus are there on hand to point you in the direction of what’s going to be fun.

To start, that’s fresh peas in a pod. Edamame gone English. And so we all sit, reminiscing over good times, drinking French pink wine and local English ales and popping sweet peas straight into our gobs.

When people talk about the joy of the simple things, this is what they mean.

Because we all know that food tastes better when you share our choices are a combination of things with feathers, fur or fins to pick at and fight over.

First up there’s a dish of char grilled squid, curled up with checkered happiness, dressed with wafts of fennel and ‘green sauce’- a zippy concoction of parsley, capers and mustard. It’s summer on a plate.

There’s a chunk of terrine, meaty in its simplicity, studded with murky bits and pieces- is that a kidney…? It’s adorned only with a fistful of cornichons and some flame teased bread.

There are mushrooms on toast – a combination Mr Henderson makes so subtle and sexy that it leap frogged to the top of the ‘if you’re stranded on a desert island and could only eat one dish, what would it be’ list. Here it’s a raft of bread flooded in a sticky soup dominated by parsley flecked butter and mushroom juices. The mushrooms themselves are a chaotic tumble of boutique bits and pieces, softly wilted into submission.

It’s the kind of dish that would make the devil sing and an angel give up her wings. It’s the kind of dish that makes you remember the hidden perils of sharing. I keep very quiet about how good it is, until the rest of the table notice that I’m unusually quiet, and started to wonder why.

Luckily, equal competition is on its way.

Fergus has been known to say that “if you’re going to kill the animal it seems only polite to use the whole thing”.

His well known ‘nose-to-tail’ eating philosophy means taking some bits of a beast which don’t always come wrapped in Styrofoam at Sainsburies and Woolworths, applying a little bit of tender loving care, some canny accompaniments and making it a corker of a dish.

The most obvious incarnation of this is his roast bone marrow with parsley salad. Heralded by anticipation; it’s a Lord of the Rings, two towers style city of bones, standing erect and slightly burnished from the oven. It’s a muddle of shaved red onion, parsley and a judicious selection of capers, dressed in red wine vinegar. It’s rough flakes of salt and warmed bread.

It’s ceremony and construction, anarchy and bone sucking. If how much marrow you suck from a bone is an indication of fortitude, I think I’m going to be here for a while.

Anthony Bourdain is quoted as saying that eating this bone marrow was a religious experience. I wouldn’t mock him for a second. At the end both our table and our faces are slick and streaked; a visual taint of our lack of restraint.

From there we move to momentary distractions. Welsh rarebit; gussied up cheese on toast; softened bread, punched up with hot mustard, cowardly onions and topped with molten cheese.

If only there was one of these waiting in my kitchen after every big night. ‘Steadying’ is a word that Fergus uses frequently in his books. If you looked it up in a pictorial dictionary, I’m sure there’d be a representation of rarebit.

Rabbit, bacon and carrots is as docile to eat as Beatrix Potter is to read.

The sweetness of both the carrots and rabbit remain, though both collapse and muddle apart when hassled by a fork.

Ox heart with beetroot and horseradish makes up for the sweetness with the fresh horseradish cream strong enough to make your eyes long for waterproof mascara.

On eating; the thin tracts of ox heart are soft in texture but bold in flavour; it’s like a strange bastard of sirloin and liver. The watercress on the side adds a peppery punch that takes the combination over the line from interesting to arresting.

Desserts are a continuing revelation. Any man who has such an affinity for Fernet Branco is a friend of mine. Ever since we were introduced to this in San Francisco it’s had a pride of place on our liquour shelf. It’s an expletive of a drink, made from flowers, booze and myrhh. Similarly; Fergus’ desserts to meander a path between exclamatory indulgence and the flower-pickingly fresh.

For a child of an English grandmother, for whom making the Christmas mince each year was as important as singing hymns; there’s no way I can walk past Eccles cakes.

Here Fergus has supersized them and combined them with layers of flaky puff pastry; bedecked with raw sugar granules.

Inside they house a mottled mix that looks like squashed flies; however, it’s really the currants, raisins and peel that’s so sinfully sweet. Boldly paired with it is a lump of Lancashire cheese. The combination is out of this realm. Sharp and crumbly, with sticky, flaky and dense. Nobody else at the table is convinced that this combination is going to work. Two mouthfuls in and I’m fighting to reclaim my choice from a battalion of forks.

The other clear winner at the table is a scoop of blackcurrant sorbet, which can be doused in a long pour of vodka that’s served on the side. Refreshing and boozy it’s a medicinally sweet grown up’s slushie.

The other obvious choice is to shot the vodka and eat the sorbet. It’s a decision that’s yours, but either way the combination is cracking.

To finish are madelines which come with a 15 minute time delay. Fresh from the oven, they’re as soothing as fresh towels from the dryer.

The inside of this dozen of delights are light yet dense, and with every bite they mock the dry bloated jokes we were served at Alain Ducasse’s Mix in Las Vegas. In that monstrosity the madelines came with Nutella. Here they come with a smile and a bill that seems shockingly reasonable.

These are just some of the reasons why people flock to Fergus.

The memories of this lunch still fuel me almost two months later. When people ask which of the meals in our month-of-madness were the most spectacular; I’m always certain to include this lunch.

And this is why when the Sydney International Food Festival program came out and we saw he was featured at a dinner at ‘Bird Cow Fish’ we made sure we had seats at the table.

To not go, would just be…. wrong.

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