The beauty of the beast
Photography: jason lowe
4:18PM, Oct 11, 2012
It's the party issue, and for me, at least, one of the reasons to celebrate this month is because it sees the publication of The Complete Nose to Tail, a compendium of my two cookbooks. The first book came out in 1999, and though it was well received, the thought of eating the whole beast was not yet what you might call en vogue. Macmillan, our publisher, then dropped the book, which was the best thing that ever happened to it. The copies in circulation gathered a cult status, and started fetching ridiculous sums. So when Bloomsbury scooped the book up, times had changed, and innards and extremities were now very much on the menu.
This book branded me as a don of offal, and it's a reputation that precedes me, especially when I go out to eat. I was once served half a sheep's head which had been just shown the grill, the brain raw and barely warmed. This, however, has nothing to do with nose-to-tail eating. This is a dare, chef f***-off food. But what innards and extremities need more than other ingredients is love and care and understanding. Take the spleen. It swells when you're in love, and we all know how fragile love is, so it deserves to be cooked gently.
Nose-to-tail eating is holistic. Not in the hippy sense, but rather something all-encompassing. When it's in season, eat lots of it. When you've killed a beast, eat all of it; it only seems polite and is in fact delicious. It certainly makes a catchier book title than Commonsense Cooking.
Vanity has a lot to do with writing a cookbook, but there's also the practicality of preserving recipes by writing them down. You cook lunch and it's eaten in moments; the book sits on your shelf for years ready to be used. I think that sense of permanence might be a bit of the old architect coming out in me. In truth I'm slightly embarrassed to add to the mountain of cookbooks already on the shelves (get over it, Fergus). On the other hand, though, I met a couple who told me they read my book to each other at night as a kind of sexual foreplay, which I thought was deeply encouraging.
Sitting down to write the book, my best advice was from the New Zealand chef Peter Gordon, who said the trick was to write a list of recipes in the order they would appear in the book then follow it to the letter. Otherwise, he warned, one would spend days thinking "I feel like writing pickled herring," or maybe devilled kidneys, and down that road chaos lies.
The other essential piece of advice came from Anthony Bourdain, who said, "Don't read what you wrote yesterday - you can read yesterday's writing for weeks, nay months; it's not going anywhere." In my case, my handwriting is so bad I can't read yesterday's writing anyway, and indeed today's is just as illegible (I probably should learn to type one of these days). My other problem is that I chain-smoke while writing, which prevents one from writing at work. Shutting myself at home proves the best course of action, notwithstanding small mishaps such as children turning a chapter of recipes into papier-mâché. Amazingly, we made it.
The book has had an interesting journey, being dropped from its first publishers, being picked up by Bloomsbury. They changed the original photos, which were of feasting hands shot from above. This has been readdressed in the new edition, old and new photos being brought together. Jason Lowe, the photographer, has been a vital part of the project. He has a good appetite which comes through in the pictures. After taking each of the original shots of the feasting hands, he couldn't get off the ladder quickly enough to tuck in. When Bloomsbury wanted an alternative to the overhead pictures, Jason was more happy to follow a new route, finding ways to express the culinary "wa-hey!". I'm glad to say the cross-section of his pictures which appears in the new book includes the calves' brains clouds, which I have a particular soft spot for.
With the publication of each new edition comes the temptation to alter some of the recipes. Some blatantly didn't work the first time around (and I'm thinking of one in particular here), so we tweaked those, but otherwise, in something of the same way of the catalogue of an artist, it expresses where the artist was at the time, so we leave most as they were. The only great exception to this is the chocolate ice-cream. With the aid of Justin, my marvellous pastry chef, we cracked it, achieving better chalkiness and sweetness.
The book it still a launch pad - you mustn't feel restrained by it. Hopefully it can be a source of inspiration. It's quite something when a chef says to you, "The reason I became a chef or stayed in the business is Nose to Tail." Now I'm getting squidgy, so I'll stop.
The Complete Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking by Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly with photography by Jason Lowe is published by Bloomsbury (hbk, $59.99).