Last Friday, 16 of London's finest female foodies descended on St John Restaurant, Smithfields, to take part in Ladies' PigFest 2010. It's been a life-long dream of mine to ravage a whole wild boar Obelix style, so this was one step closer to fulfilling that dream - for our group of girls were about to dine on suckling pig.
Kill the pig, cut his throat, bash him in ...
Our pre-booked, pre-paid piggy feast was composed as follows:
Ladies' PigFest 2010
Roast Bone Marrow & Parsley Salad
Whole Crab & Mayonnaise
Whole Roast Suckling Pig, Potatoes & Greens
Eccles Cake & Lancashire Cheese
Spotted Dick & Custard
Sounds bloody brilliant, doesn't it? We gathered beforehand at Smithfield Tavern for a drink, but spurned their enticing scotch eggs and sausage rolls in anticipation of the ensuing piggery. I'd made badges and A Scot in London brought crowns - what could possibly go wrong?
It was my very first time at St John's, but I'd longed to go for ages. I mean, Fergus Henderson is the doyen of nose-to-tail eating and I can think of nothing finer - I'd even bothered recreating his most infamous recipe (the bone marrow) at home. That very morning, Tim Hayward, Guardian writer, had announced that Henderson be given a Nobel Prize for food, so my excitement was palpable.
You want your first time to be special, right? Well, on entering the restaurant, we walked slap-bang into a heaving crowd of braying youths. A bad start - I immediately felt overwhelmed and unwelcome.
Fighting our way through, we were shown to the stark private dining room where the staff brought us wine, water, bread and butter and then left us there.
For fifty minutes.
So we got raucous. With our hats and our badges, we looked like a typical hen party anyway, so if they were going to ignore us, we might us well live up to it.
Eventually, after asking, the starters arrived - pretty shocking considering we'd pre-booked our choices.
The bone marrow was velvety goodness, and the parsley salad pleasingly zingy (although honestly I think mine was better), but the serving was a tad parsimonious, especially considering bones and parsley cost eff all. More heinous was the dearth of toast - there wasn't even enough for one slice each - I resorted to sucking the marrow off my spoon.
The crab though - what flavour, what texture! The white meat was sweet and briney, and the creamy brown meat so brimming with umami it reminded me of sea urchin. I ended up scraping the shell to retrieve as much as possible.
Of course, these were just the warm-ups, we were there for the headlining pig. And so we waited.
And we waited.
Look at our little faces waiting.
I was beginning to wish I'd succumbed to the Scotch eggs earlier.
(photo copyright sulineats)
We asked for more water and wine to tide us over, but maddeningly these did not come till we asked twice again.
Finally, finally the star of the show appeared. By then we were (a) starving again and (b) over-excited, so you can't blame us for rushing to pap the pig.
Listen to me cackling
The waiter decapitated the beast and put its head on a platter, and naturally we all wanted a shot of this Salome-esque sight. One of us asked the waiter if he would pose with the dish and we primed our cameras, only for him to stick his arm out as far away from his body as he could stretch it and to sigh so audibly it made me flinch. He then tersely announced "You are all scaring me. I will not serve this till you all sit down".
I think that, and the sigh, was the straw that broke this camel's back - being kept waiting was bad enough, but actually being made to feel like we were an irritation felt like a slap in the face.
(photo copyright sulineats)
So after a few more snaps, I sat down, piggy ardour completely quelled.
We passed the pig's head around for some adoration, and then began to tuck in, but frankly my heart wasn't in it any more.
Sure, the pork was delicious - moist and sweet - and I knew I should have been enjoying it, but by that point the massive pauses between courses and the surliness of the waiter meant that I was more interested in the (frankly fabulous) company than the food.
I would like to give special mention to the greens, which had been steamed so perfectly it cheered me up a bit. The beautifully lacquered pig skin was far from crackling though, and chewing on it made me feel like Chaplin in The Gold Rush.
Anyway, despite everyone having a good old try, a glut of porcine flesh was left over, so I ran off and asked the one friendly waitress to doggy-bag it for us and at least she smilingly said she'd oblige.
I guess you're wondering how the pudding was. Well, I have absolutely no idea.
For by then it was almost quarter to eleven, so I (and several others) actually had to leave before it was served, so as not to miss our last trains home.
As I rushed out, the general manager stopped me and apologised. This threw me a little, partly because I thought he'd been oblivious to our existence, but mainly because he resembled Jonathan Pryce so strongly the theme tune for Brazil popped into my head. I nodded distrait, and barely made my connection, and when I got home I was still hungry.
(top) ruduss, meemalee, R_McCormack, sulineats, Anon 1, BribedwithFood (the Force is strong in this one), KaveyF, everythingbut
(bottom) rudehealth, LibbyEAndrews, Anon 2, GreedyDiva, Anon 3, florantena
(not shown) MathildeCuisine
(photo copyright LibbyEAndrews)
So let's recap - some stunning food but sluggish and neglectful service, a churlish waiter, stingy portions (apart from the pig) and a total pudding fail.
How was my first time? Let's put it this way - I left feeling thoroughly chafed...
St John Restaurant, Smithfield
26 St John Street
020 7272 1587
20.01.10 PIGFAIL UPDATE:
I'm pleased to say that St John has kindly offered dessert and champagne to all sixteen of us to make up for the problems we experienced. I think we'll be taking them up on the offer in March. Stay tuned ...
26.03.10 - Dessert Fest - A tale of reparation by Kavey