The butcher’s best friend

HE’S A trailblazer in nose-to-tail eating whose passion for meat shows no sign of dwindling. Fergus Henderson tells David Burrows why we should all learn to love offal.


It takes about 30 seconds to get a feeling for how passionate Fergus Henderson is about meat. “I love butchers,” he says. “It’s so sad to see their demise on the High Street. Why don’t we hug our butchers more often and tell them that we love them?”


This, of course, comes from a man who specialises in meat – and bread. But it’s not just any meat – Fergus Henderson is the guru when it comes to offal. Nose-to-tail eating, he says, encourages people to enjoy the bits of a carcass that others may not touch, bringing them closer to farming in the process. But it’s also a concept that “makes sense”, environmentally.


Perhaps not to the likes of Sir Paul McCartney, who is unlikely to get the same embrace as Henderson’s butchers – “we should eat more meat on a Monday, not less” – and others who bang the vegetarian drum on the basis of it being ‘better for the environment’.


There is little doubt that rearing livestock has an environmental impact – largely thanks to the production of methane – or that demand for meat will continue to grow. However, is it not an equally valid argument that better use of the animals reared would mean more meat without the extra methane? Henderson certainly thinks so. “I think we should let cows fart [and belch],” he says. “These animals are reared to be eaten, but we need to ensure we eat the whole beast. Surely that makes sense?”


A report by researchers at Imperial College, commissioned by WWF-UK’s One Planet Food programme, suggested a number of solutions to help drive down the volume of meat consumption. This included the “dilution” of meat with other ingredients (more tomatoes than mince in a spag bol), the re-sizing of products and the introduction of more meat alternatives. There was a fourth option: encourage the use of edible offal.


By 2020, the market for edible offal is expected to have fallen from 166,500 be down to 71,000 tonnes. If that trend was reversed, lifting volumes to 187,500 by 2020 and 240,000 by 2050, the Imperial study suggests over 1.6 million tonnes of greenhouse gases could be saved. This isn’t on the same scale as some of the other options (encouraging considerable numbers of people to eat less meat could save 3.6 million tonnes), but it certainly provides food for thought. But first the likes of Henderson have a marketing job to do. The study found that the idea of eating more marrow and kidneys would be a hard sell to consumers.


“Spleen has had bad press, but it’s a perfectly formed organ with good texture” So, why is it that we crave chops rather than chitterlings (the small intestines of pigs)? “It could be the way it looks,” says Henderson, who won the Andre Simon award for food writing for his first of two books, ‘The Whole Beast’. “The flavours and textures [of the less-popular bits of an animal] are amazing though. Tripe can lift you and keep you high. Spleen has had a lot of bad press, but it’s a perfectly formed organ with very good texture.”

Foodservice Footprint Fergus-1-300x300 The butcher's best friend Features Interviews: Industry professionals  St John's Smithfields Offal Nose to Tail Fergus Henderson


Indeed, some of the dishes on offer at the St John Bar and Restaurant that Henderson co-founded in Smithfield in 1994 do more than pique my interest. Even after a fabulous Eccles cake (there’s a bigger St John bakery in London’s Spitalfields Market), I clock the devilled kidneys on toast and the lamb tongues, radishes and white beans and wonder if I can drag the interview into the lunch hour. That wouldn’t be difficult, given Henderson’s good humour and his love of food. “What we’re here for, at the end of the day, is to make sure everyone has a good lunch,” he proclaims.


According to an interview with The Guardian, a good lunch made him feel better after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the mid 90s. He’s famously equable – “doom and gloom isn’t much use” he once said – and in a later interview seemed to have taken intensive brain surgery in his stride: following the operation he enjoyed sushi in the hospital with his wife and sister. An MBE also followed, but that’s unlikely to have overshadowed the fish.


The sustainability of seafood is something Henderson also touches upon, as we continue our chat around sourcing. “We should stop selling fish,” he says, “but it’s very hard for a restaurant to do that.” He admits that he finds it hard to know who to listen to when it comes to the issues around sourcing, whether it’s fish or meat – and that’s precisely why he has a group of suppliers that he knows, trusts and, no doubt, hugs.


It’s obvious that these relationships are important to him..They also mean he doesn’t have to deal with the complicated ideals of organic, sustainable and the like. They are important words, he says, but I get the impression that in Henderson’s world the concepts are in danger of becoming too strict, too regimental. Henderson, like many chefs, is an artist, he loves to create and he needs the freedom to do so.


There’s also an art in providing the cuts served at the St John Restaurant, as well as the new St John Hotel where diners can eat until 2am. “The preparation for my dishes is a little different to those for pet food,” he says.

Foodservice Footprint Fergus-2-300x300 The butcher's best friend Features Interviews: Industry professionals  St John's Smithfields Offal Nose to Tail Fergus Henderson


The burning question, of course, is whether there are any bits of a carcass that he can’t use? “I’m not crazy about lungs,” he says. “But we can use pretty much everything if the slaughter is carefully done.”


I look at my watch and it’s only just past 11am. My time’s up, and I am disappointed. But it’s not because I won’t get to try the lambs’ tongues today, it’s more that there is so much more that I wanted to ask Henderson. Perhaps he’ll invite me back?