Everything you've ever wanted to know about the world-famous roasted marrow bones at St. John in London.
After twenty years of serving roast bone marrow to his guests at St. John in London, chef Fergus Henderson has not lost his enthusiasm for the dish that has become shorthand for his aggressively humble style of cooking. While the bone marrow "has taken on a quality of its own" as an all-time classic, Henderson remains committed. "I suppose I'm married to the dish. It's very close to me." He adds: "There's never a dull moment between me and the bone."
"I’m married to the dish. It’s very close to me."
Arguably the inspiration for basically every other bone marrow and toast dish on menus today — and a huge reason why there's so much bone marrow on menus now, period — the St. John roast bone marrow and parsley salad is the only dish to have been on the St. John menu continuously since the restaurant opened in October of 1994.
What attracts Henderson to serving roasted marrow bones is the physicality of it, the gnawing, the sucking, and the chewing of perfectly cooked bones. ("It's a bit cheeky," Henderson says of the plate.) The roasted bone marrow has not changed over the years. "It still gives such joy," he explains. "It always has."
Henderson's strategy is simple: "Celebrate the bone." To that end, marrow bones are cooked until precisely the right moment, paired with a thoughtful salad, toast, and then presented to the guest to attack as they will. The dish continues to captivate diners, and Henderson is modest when he says that "quite a few" tables order the bones each night. "The roasted bones, it's big."
Below, the elements of the roast bone marrow at St. John:
1. The Bones
The dish begins with veal marrowbones from London's famous Smithfield Market. Henderson uses veal (not older beef) for its flavor; beef bones would be overpowering. The prep is minimal. The bones are placed on a roasting pan and put into the oven. The amount of time they spend roasting varies a bit with size. On busy days at the restaurant, this step will be done ahead of time and the bones will take a second trip into the oven to warm them up for each order. Henderson explains that there's something of an art to knowing when they're done. You have to catch the bones at the right moment, when it's hot in the middle." he says. "You want to get your bone hot, but not running away."
2. The toast
"We don't waste our leftovers," says Henderson when speaking about the bread he uses for the toast served with the marrow bones. To that end, the restaurant uses bread from the nearby St. John bakery that's often a day old or, as Henderson puts it, "what remains from the day before." The bread is a white sourdough, made with stone-ground flour. Before being served, the bread is toasted on the grill.
3. The Salad
While the parsley salad served with the roasted marrow bones seems simple enough, there's quite a bit of thought behind it. The salad was actually the first component of the dish that Henderson knew for certain. He brought it with him from his time at The Globe in Notting Hill and it is an ode to chef/writer Rowley Liegh's "late night salad." The components are humble: Parsley, shallots, and capers are dressed with olive oil and lemon juice and seasoned with sea salt and pepper. And yet.
In his landmark 2004 cookbook Nose to Tail Eating (recently given a reboot) and in conversation with Eater, Henderson explains his "Sultana Bran theory" of capers. Just as too many or too few sultanas — better known to Americans as golden raisins — disrupt the "crunch to chew ratio" in raisin bran, too many or too few capers unbalances the salad. Like raisins, capers guarantee the diner will experience what Henderson describes as the "Ho! Ha! moment[s]" of surprise and delight as they eat. Ultimately, the salad is a bright, acidic counterpoint to the rich marrow.
4. The service
For Henderson, part of the appeal of his classic roast bone marrow is that the dish isn't really done when it hits the table. The bones are served immediately after they come out of the oven with the toast and a generous pile of parsley salad. The dish is also served with coarse, "wet" grey sea salt from Brittany and instead of a marrow spoon, a lobster pick. (The St. John folks are currently looking into having a custom marrow spoon manufactured, but even if they did it would only be for retail lest customers swipe them from the tables.)
It's up to the customer to add the crunchy kick of salt and to figure out just how much marrow and salad they want on their toast. "You can do with your bones as you wish." The diners, then, finish composing the dish themselves. "The magic doesn't stop in the kitchen," Henderson says. "It caries into the restaurant, which is nice."