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Chocolate was a London fad when oysters were fast food

Beef and kidney pie, St. John Bar and Restaurant, London, UK
Beef and kidney pie, St. John Bar and Restaurant, London, UK
Marc d'Entremont, ©penandpalate.com

When 26 St. John Street, London, was a smokehouse in the 18th century, located a couple blocks from the centuries old Smithfield Market, Hampton Court Palace had a chocolate kitchen catering exclusively to the large royal household. By the 1990s Fergus Henderson’s St. John Bar and Grill was installed in the 18th century building, Smithfield remained London’s central meat market and the British royal family granted patents to a variety of expensive chocolate purveyors. The real change, besides oysters becoming a luxury item and chef Henderson reestablishing nose to tail cooking as the new normal, has been a revival of interest in historic cookery and the roots of food.

King's private dining room, Hampton Court Palace: macaroons & candied fruits
Marc d'Entremont, ©penandpalate.com

That’s the interest of Janine Catalano as well, along with debunking the image of bad British food. American born Janine describes herself as a “culinary curator specializing in translating art and culture into unique food experiences.” With a Masters Degree from London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art, where she’s currently Alumni Relations Manager, Janine places her food interests firmly within their cultural context.

Having already witnessed Janine’s expertise as a historic culinary interpreter for Context Travel’s London walking tours and having dined at St. John Bar and Restaurant, the Guy Fawkes Day feast she hosted at the restaurant was a food, art and literary experience. The November celebration of this 1605 event provided a convenient theme to feature hearty 17th and 18th century autumn fare common to London, along with fashionable New World foods and conversation on the major social and economic shift of that era. England was transitioning from a rural feudal to an urban based society with a growing import/export merchant economy.

The layout of the former townhouse and smokehouse that’s now St. John Bar and Restaurant makes for a quirky interior. Yet the quirky simplicity – all whitewashed plaster, wood tables and floors, odd angles – adds to the ambiance of dining at a different time. There’s nothing quirky about the sophistication of either the food or service; it was awarded a Michelin star in 2009. The group of a dozen plus guests, ranging from an art dealer to a chef and an experimental food specialist, all shared an appetite for eating in the past.

Crudités have been popular throughout time. Dinner started with a dish of large fresh radishes, sweet cream butter and sea salt. A little butter spread on a slice of radish and sprinkled with a bit of salt was a simple dish to awaken taste. Since the radish was a 16th century introduction to Europe, it would have been a fashionable start to dinner, unlike the second course, oysters.

Not that succulent river and sea oysters were not prized, there were just so many back then. Seafood and fish was part of the diet. Oyster sellers were common street vendors until industrial life contaminated the oyster beds. Making a comeback, but a luxury item compared to the 17th century, our Scotland oysters on the half shell were crisp and clean.

Course three was steamed crabs served with fresh mayonnaise. Another common seafood in the historic diet now an up-scale food item, the British crab industry still supplies the market. The white meat of the classic brown crab was soft and creamy.

Utilizing nearly every part of an animal or other food product was the practice until the 20th century. Nose to tail has been a term for the past few decades describing a return to this practice not only for the environment but to preserve flavorful historic dishes. St. John is famous for roasted veal marrow bones. This nearly forgotten dish is true old world comfort food. Thin spoons are used to scoop the warm marrow onto slices of whole grain toast, eaten with a sprinkle of sea salt.

Beef and kidney pie, once a ubiquitous part of the British menu in home and pub until just a few decades ago, fell out of favor due largely to the poor quality of mass produced versions in the 1970s. The quality of this centuries old dish depends solely upon using the proper cuts of beef, fresh kidneys, red wine, stock, herbs and the skill of the pastry maker. Fergus Henderson at St. John puts a decorative marrow bone in the center of the pastry that, when roasting, provides more flavors for this rich meat and gravy pie.

Venison was usually game reserved for the rich and still not easy to find, so it retains an aura as a delicacy. For the Guy Fawkes Bonfire Day Dinner it was slowly braised in red wine, leeks, onions and mushrooms until fork tender and served with steamed sweet potatoes. Steamed sweet potatoes, along with white varieties (17th century additions to the English diet via the New World) and greens completed the meal.

Although beer would have accompanied most meals of the period, the wealthy would have had wine. St. John has a house label and both St. John white Bordeaux and St. John 2008 Claret paired with the seafood and meat dishes.

Dessert brought back a childhood after school snack, Eccles cake. Yet in the age of Guy Fawkes and Hampton Court, the ingredients for Eccles cake were luxury items – sugar, currants, nutmeg and allspice. Best eaten warm for the full flavors of the currants and spices, it’s traditionally paired with a slice of creamy, mildly sharp Lancashire Cheese. Dinner ended with a classic pear trifle, which would have been a showpiece dessert with its whipped cream, cake, sherry and fruit preserves.

The revival of interest in all things relating to food makes discovering historic foodie destinations a growing theme in culinary travel. London is an international food center. But a growing list of individuals, such as Janine Catalano, companies like Context Travel, St. John Bar and Restaurant and historic venues such as Hampton Court Palace are using the methods of archaeologists and modern marketing to discover our foodie past and uncover some tasty recipes.