The Complete Nose to Tail

The Complete Nose to Tail: A Kind of British Cooking

by Fergus Henderson and Justin Piers Gellatly

Published by Bloomsbury – £30.00

Pea and Pig's ear soup p. 19
Photograph of Pea and Pig’s Ear Soup by Jason Lowe

Fergus Henderson writes about food in the way that Beatrix Potter wrote about rabbits; his ingredients have their own perky, slightly wilful personalities. His quirkily anthropomorphic approach means that the ‘disciplining of vegetables is not to be taken lightly’, food needs controlling so it doesn’t  ‘misbehave’, ingredients should ‘get to know each other’,  and nettles must be sieved to ‘spiritually defeat’ them. Not that this is a cute or winsome book in any way. Its ingredients and its ethos are too charmingly brutal for that, with recipes containing instructions such as ‘with the textural side turned inwards, find part of the stomach with no holes in it’ and  ‘open the pig’s jaw and pull out the tongue’.

The Complete Nose to Tail brings together all Fergus Henderson’s recipes in one vast volume. The photography is suitably eccentric, at times even frightening;  images of a pig’s head being shaved with a disposable razor, an escapee from  a Magritte painting shielding himself from showers of brains, as well as the complete inner organs of an unnamed beast dangling down the front of a chef’s chest. There’s shock value in some of the recipes too, especially if Calf’s Brain Terrine or Duck’s Hearts on Toast are your idea of horror movies. But there’s a coherence to this book, an ideological purity that argues that nothing should be wasted and everything should, if possible, be enjoyed.

The prose reads as though it’s been translated from the Latin, with much reversing of verbs and nouns for emphasis. (That’s a huge compliment, by the way, in case you’re wondering.) I like the way Fergus Henderson writes very much and admire his refusal to resort to the impoverished lexicon of lesser food writers. His ethos of using the whole beast in his cooking extends to an insistence on using the whole vocabulary in his writing. His general shuffling about of nouns and objects means that Grilled, Marinated Calf’s Heart isn’t just a good dish, it’s a ‘wonderfully, simple, delicious dish, the heart not, as you might imagine, tough as old boots due to all the work it does, but in fact firm and meaty but giving.’

I’ve never met Fergus Henderson but whenever I see photographs of his jaunty, pink cheeks and circular spectacles, I think what good company he looks. If ever there was an advert for the advantages of eating everything, he would be it. No doubt the medical profession would swoon in horror at the thought of so much fat, cartilage, flesh and bone being chomped, guzzled and slurped, but Fergus Henderson certainly makes it look fun.

complete nose to tail



  1. I tried to look at this book in Waterstone’s yesterday but it was covered in plastic. I think you have persuaded me. Incidentally, talking of offal, did you see Lucy Worsley’s programme on Dorothy Hartley and her book Food In England on Tuesday?

  2. The book looks and sounds pretty scary. Are you meant to eat that shark’s fin of a pig’s ear projecting from the pea soup. It looks like culinary Jaws to me. Suspect your review might be more entertaining than the book.

    1. The shark’s fin of an ear is for photographic purposes only – one of the tamer pictures in the book, actually! You don’t sound eager to cook from this book, but I think you might enjoy reading it.

  3. I love this review, as I’m sure I’ll love the book. My mother, who was taught to cook by her grandmother on a farm, has always been a “nose to tail” cook and as kids we were served fried veal brains with the promise of “Eat it, it will make you smarter”. Now that we’re older and well on our way to master sarcasm, we’ve learned to respond with “As smart as that cow was, right?”. Boiled tongue, cockscombs, stuffed duck necks, kidneys and livers of various origin, all of these if properly prepared can be delicious as long as you keep an open mind. It would be great to teach mom a few new tricks 😀

  4. No impoverished lexicon at use in this review. As a fascinating read it sounds compelling; whether it would tempt me to get out a disposable razor and tackle a pig’s head is another matter. I believe in nose to tail eating and this book presents the reality; welcome as a balance to the disconnect that exists in supermarkets of sterile portions in polystyrene trays.

    1. Disposable razors aside, I think you’d find plenty of inspiration in this book, Sally. And it certainly has the added merit of being distinctive.

  5. Charlie, I am sharing this review all around because it may be the most brilliant and best-written review I have ever read on a blog. You are magic with words and language. I would never ever have imagined wanting to read a cookbook like this – I am not a tail, ear, tripe kind of girl no matter how many years I have lived in Europe, but you make the reading of this one sound like pure entertainment. Stunning. Again.

    1. That means a lot, Jamie – thank you so much for your generous praise. I’m thrilled if my writing has an impact. The review was entertaining to write and if it’s entertaining to read, I couldn’t be more delighted. Thank you too for sharing it with other people.

  6. I love the writing in these books but never realised how squeamish I was until I picked up nose to tail eating and realised I would never willingly cook anything that I needed to shave first. I also realised it was the preparation that put me off more than the food which certainly highlights the disconnection from the animal that a mildly adventurous home cook can feel. I like a book that challenges me a bit, and there are plenty of rewards with Henderson too (his chocolate ice cream recipe is brilliant).

    1. There are some excellent salad and vegetable recipes in this book too, along with a great section on bread and puddings. On days when you’re feeling a little delicate, these might be the ones to go for. There are certainly some very scary recipes that I will most definitely be avoiding.

  7. “The prose reads as though it’s been trans­lated from the Latin, with much revers­ing of verbs and nouns for emphasis” – what a joyous idea! I still sometimes find myself thinking back to Latin lectures on freat Roman orators when I write my posts – pretty sure that is where I picked up my habit of using three phrases to build tension in a sentence! I am not a hugely adventurous preparer of food, although I will eat most things, but this book sounds like a linguistic joy!

    1. Three phrases to build tension – the perfect ingredients for the best political speeches. I don’t think this is a book you would want to cook from, but I think you’d enjoy reading it.

  8. It’s very rare to find something that so dutifully conveys the absolute pleasure of a book in the simple and refined way you have here. What a beautiful thing to read, Charlie. And the book is beautiful too, in all ways. I haven’t managed more than an in-store flick so far, but it is so good: Fergus is a very fine writer, and one with a yet finer brain. And I think Jason was allowed to respect St John as faithfully in colour, with all the same shock and awe, as he did in the monochromed beauty of that first book, so many years ago in. It is close to a perfect bit of publishing.

    1. I’m touched by your response, Matt – thank you. And from your publishing perspective, I can see why you rate this book so highly. I hope that Jason Lowe is as delighted with the book as Fergus Henderson – it’s a daring piece of work.

  9. A wonderful review Charlie as your humor meets his!! I probably would have considered buying this book before but I am now curious and must dash out to the bookstore for a look!!

    1. I love your idea of ‘as your humor meets his’ – it sounds like a potentially messy affair as the two collide. The image made me laugh!
      Thank you, Karin – I appreciate your comment very much.

  10. I agree, a brilliantly written review, but I am more than a little scared at the prospect of buying this book. I’m not sure whether the photographs or the subject matter would make me whince more, though I admire the philosophy of eating from nose to tail. In Polish cooking, my grandmother would often fry brains for breakfast. If that didn’t put me off eating her food nothing would. I’ve also eaten lambs testicles in a Lebanese restaurant and they were good! I’ve yet to visit St John, but hope to one day. As to whether the cookbook makes my Christmas list – well, perhaps your review just inched it a bit closer!

    1. Your grandmother’s breakfasts sound very hardcore, Ren – no wonder you’re a little tentative about this book. You’re braver than me – the Lebanese lamb’s testicles sound slightly alarming!

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