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Postcard from England


"They're very chirpy down at Smithfield meat market, putting on brave faces, and that's a worry. They're usually rather miserable," says Fergus Henderson, the chef and owner of London's St. John restaurant. The excess of good cheer among the meat men wasn't the only troubling sign this spring as foot-and-mouth disease spread. Images of smoldering cow carcasses were beamed around the world; one airline promised to refund all tickets to London, no questions asked. Foreigners could be forgiven for thinking Britain was in quarantine.

To those up close, things don't look quite so dire. Henderson reports a slight dip in business at St. John when the outbreak began but says customers are now "tucking into their marrow bones, ox tongue and jellied pig's head with the usual zeal." During the mad-cow scare of the mid-'90s, consumers rejected beef completely and many restaurants took it off the menu. "The difference with foot-and-mouth," says Nick Woollard, head chef at Maison Novelli, "is people know it's an animal disease that humans can't catch." Woollard has seen a reduction in lamb orders, but at the Hyatt Carlton Tower Rib Room, the roast rack of lamb is as popular as ever, while the Quality Chop House has reported a surge in orders of sausages and bacon. Scottish beef with cassava cake and wasabi bread sauce is still one of the biggest sellers at the Sugar Club, although, chef Chris Rendell says, "Americans tend to choose fish."

Some chefs, perhaps anticipating such choices, have adjusted their menus. Pascal Aussignac, the chef and an owner of Club Gascon, has tactfully retired his Dip of Frogs Legs on the [Marrow] Bone, served with a pig's trotter. In its place is La Véritable Lamproie à la Bordelaise, the elusive lamprey eel, slow-cooked in its own blood. Rose Gray, a chef and owner of the River Café, cannot get pork from her favorite farmer at the moment and has replaced pork dishes with rabbit braised in Frascati, among other things. She also directed her staff to make sausage with ends of prosciutto and pancetta rather than fresh pork. "A crisis like this brings a certain resourcefulness," Gray says. "People my age lived through the war, when you had to make do."

In the early weeks of the outbreak, when even healthy animals were confined to their farms, chefs were bidding against each other for racks of lamb, offering double the normal rate. But they kept menu prices down and absorbed the difference until transportation restrictions eased. There may be further shortages in six to nine months, when the lambs in the cull would have been producing new lambs themselves. But for the moment, supply is in balance with demand. Europe's most eclectic culinary capital is still very much open for business.

--Jess Palmer

Published June 2001
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