Back to school or back to work, September is the real new year; the time to get serious after a summer of fun. After six months since COVID restrictions truly let up and most of us went back to enjoying the company of people outside of our immediate households, many of us are quietly relieved to get back to business and routine after half a year of trying to make up for lost time at parties, travelling, meeting friends for lunch, or whatever social fun we missed during the dark days of the pandemic.
Before I got serious for September though, I had some fun in London. My wife and two of my sons rented a flat there for a few days at the end of August on the tail end of a trip to the U.K. to see her family. We hadn’t been to London for three years, and we were pleased to reunite with a few old friends at a favourite pub and generally reacquaint ourselves with one of the world’s great cities.
The last time I had been to London was not with my family but for work. Or at least “work” if you count going to a party as work. The party I went to was a good one: the 25th birthday party for the restaurant St. John, near the old Smithfield Meat Market in Clerkenwell. The party was hosted by St. John founders and operators, the well-known Chef Fergus Henderson, and CEO Trevor Gulliver, who keeps a somewhat lower profile.
The party began with a book launch for The Book of St. John, co-authored by Gulliver and Henderson.1The Book of St John: Over 100 brand new recipes from London’s iconic restaurant https://www.amazon.ca/Book-St-John-British-cooking/dp/1529103215 It’s a cookbook with a mix of old Henderson favourites and newer recipes. But it’s also a kind of testament and manifesto on the restaurant’s philosophy, which has made it a favourite of so many. When St. John opened their concept of a restaurant that would both celebrate traditional British foods and, in Henderson’s coinable phrase “nose-to-tail eating”: cooking and serving as much of an animal as possible, including the odd bits, out of respect for the animal that gave its life to make a meal.
The St. John ideas about locavorism, nose-to-tail eating, and a renaissance of British cuisine wouldn’t have worked as well as they did, and the restaurant wouldn’t have become so successful, if the food wasn’t delicious and the room wasn’t so much fun. At St. John, one finds an ordered hedonism in a tall whitewashed room that was once a smokehouse. There is no music, and phones are highly discouraged, so the room buzzes with conversation and the clinking of cutlery on plates.
I have gone to St. John nearly every year, notwithstanding the pandemic pause, since the early 2000s when my wife walked by, by accident, on our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. I had heard of the restaurant and decided to pop in to check it out and see if there was a remote chance they could take us for lunch. It was about 11 o’clock, and the first thing I saw was Chef Fergus Henderson at the bar having a Madeira. He took my booking for lunch and seemed amused that a food writer from Canada had heard of him. I was hooked right away.
A few years later, I was involved in the Terroir Symposium in Toronto, a chef’s and hospitality conference that has grown into a global phenomenon, but at the time was just getting going under the leadership of Arlene Stein. Stein had invited Henderson and Gulliver to the symposium and asked if my business partner at the time, Jamie Drummond, and I would act as hosts to the visiting Englishmen. We jumped at the opportunity, had something of an adventure with both, and forged a lasting friendship.
The usual time for my London visits is August, which is when it seems most Londoners prefer to take their holiday. This means that sometimes my visits to St. John were in the company of Henderson and Gulliver, and sometimes not. As much as I enjoy their company, and miss it in their absence, on the visits on our own we have always enjoyed the restaurant and its high level of service as much as when we have been seated with its owners.
It will not surprise regular readers of this column that a great deal of the pleasure I have derived at St. John is from their wine list. It is appropriately democratic, and alongside the coveted Grand Crus are well-made, affordable wines from across France. Among these are the wines of the St. John label, made specifically for the restaurant, though also available outside of it and its sister restaurant St. John Bread and Wine.
Another label on the list is Boulevard Napoléon, made in the Minervois town of La Livinière. The wine is a collaboration between Trevor Gulliver, who has a house nearby, and the Languedoc winemaker Benjamin Darnault.
As it turned out, we weren’t sure if we would see our friends at St. John on this trip. I managed to reach Trevor earlier in the month, who explained he would be in France working on Boulevard Napoléon at the end of August and wasn’t sure if he’d make it back to London in time to see us. At the last moment, he called to say he was and suggested we meet him and his wife Nicola for lunch at St. John Bread and Wine across from Spitalfields Market in the East End. The invitation was accepted.
St. John Bread and Wine is a decade old, and is a large square room, with big windows to let in ample natural light, on Commercial Street a few doors down from the infamous Ten Bells pub, where Jack the Ripper is said to have preyed upon his victims. On a Saturday afternoon, it was packed with a mostly youngish crowd (in their 20s and 30s) and full of energy and conversational buzz. We met Trevor and Nicola at the bar in the back, were introduced to Chef Farokh Talati, and had a chance to soak in the atmosphere with a glass of Crémant before sitting down.
Lunch began with the 2018 Boulevard Napoléon Grenache Gris. Grenache, like Pinot, comes in black, white, and grey forms. Grenache Gris, with pinkish skin, is a mutation of the red wine grape Grenache Noir and is grown mostly in the Languedoc-Roussillon, where it would traditionally be blended into reds to add a bit of perfume and liveliness. This was a serious white, which held up well to the onslaught of starters that began to appear on our table, which ranged from cod roe to chicken livers to crab. Supported by a firm but gentle tannic structure, the lively notes of citrus and stone fruit were pure and resonated in a creamy finish that lingered on. The Grenache Gris had the effect that great wines often do of slowing things down, so we could focus on conversation and food in between long sips.
I had the grouse as a main, which was bloody and meaty and delicious. Lucky for me the wine paired perfectly. It was a very hot and sunny summer in the U.K., and when we were in Wales before London, we greedily fed off the blackberries on the hedgerows that lined the narrow roads in the countryside where we stayed. The 2015 Boulevard Napoléon Carignan was very much like one of those perfectly ripened purple and black fruits, deep in complex flavour but lifted by fresh acidity. 2015 was the label’s fourth vintage, and Trevor remarked that he thought it was when they really got going. Apart from tasting really good, I was grateful he’d chosen this wine because it shows what high art can be achieved with the Carignan grape, which was long seen as a workhorse fruit.
This year the Terroir Symposium will be held in Calgary on September 18-21: http://www.terroirsymposium.com/.