The chef Margot Henderson was 10 when she catered her first party, a birthday celebration for her younger brother Robin, then 5, in their hometown, Wellington, New Zealand. “Our mother was a complete health nut who would feed us apple cider vinegar and honey,” recalls Henderson. “I wasn’t going to let my brother suffer like I had! I made a whole spread of oranges and jellies and cooked snails from the garden with garlic, parsley and breadcrumbs.”
This innate talent for hospitality would become the foundation of Henderson’s four-decade career in restaurants, which started when she moved to England in 1984, soon working in some of London’s most acclaimed kitchens. In the early ’90s, she met her future husband, the chef Fergus Henderson, now 60, when he served her a dish of pigeon and peas at a pop-up restaurant where he was cooking. “It was perfect.” says Henderson, 59. “I fell for his food and for him. It also helped me identify how I wanted to cook, which is slowly and gently.” The couple, who have been married for over 30 years and have three children together, share a bold, elegant approach to cooking that emphasizes the quality of their ingredients, and their respective empires — Fergus runs the three meat-focused St. Johns restaurants in London; Henderson runs the restaurant Rochelle Canteen, also in London, as well as the catering company Arnold & Henderson with her business partner, Melanie Arnold — have helped define contemporary English cuisine.
When the pandemic forced the closure of Rochelle Canteen’s second outpost, at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, in 2020, Henderson was ready for a new challenge, and her longtime friend the investor and former gallerist Max Wigram came to her with a proposition. That same year, Wigram, who lives between London and Somerset with his wife, the fashion designer Phoebe Philo, had purchased the Three Horseshoes pub, a former 17th-century coaching inn in the Somerset village of Batcombe, a two-hour drive southwest of London. In addition to recruiting local talents such as the interior designer Frances Penn, who reimagined the pub’s five cozy bedrooms, and the landscape gardener Libby Russell, who planted herbs and wildflowers in the surrounding gardens, Wigram enlisted Henderson to oversee the kitchen. “I’d always dreamed of having a pub in the countryside,” says Henderson, who now commutes between London and an apartment in the Somerset town of Bruton. Since opening last April, the pub has drawn crowds attracted by the menu of hearty fare such as rabbit pie and braised beef stew, and by the warm simplicity of the dining room, with its flagstone floor, rustic 19th-century furniture and oversize fireplace.
On a windswept December afternoon, the mood inside was festive. Branches of mistletoe hung from the ceiling and Christmas wreaths decorated the doors. The occasion was a winter solstice lunch — a meal, as Henderson put it, “to mark the end of the old year and the beginning of the new one.” As guests trickled into the pub’s low-ceilinged bar, they were greeted with glasses of Prosecco and plates of freshly shucked Maldon oysters served with lemon. At 2 p.m., the group made its way into the private dining room for lunch, and at dusk, when taxis arrived to collect some of the attendees, the meal was still in full swing. “This is what I love about parties,” said Henderson as she poured a glass of red wine for a friend. “The more chaos and mess, the more fun.”
The attendees: The Hendersons and Wigram, 57, invited friends from the food world — including the chefLee Tiernan, 47, a St. John alumnus, and his wife, Kate, 43, who run the restaurant Formerly Known as Black Axe Mangal; the Paris-based chef Rose Chalalai Singh, 43, a frequent collaborator of Henderson’s; and the restaurateur Geoffrey Leong, 47 — as well as the jewelry designer Solange Azagury-Partridge, 62, and her husband, Murray Partridge, 65; the artist Kate Boxer, 62, and her husband, Charlie Boxer, 61, who owns the South London deli Italo; and the interior designer and furniture dealer Jermaine Gallacher, 34.
The table: In Henderson’s 2012 cookbook, “You’re All Invited,” she lays out her rules for dressing a table: “Flowers and candles are best low so they are not blocking anyone’s view. Tables should be long, narrow and not too wide so people can actually be together. The most important thing is for your guests to have fun. Just keep it simple and don’t get too fancy.” Accordingly, the communal table in the private dining room was dressed sparely with a white linen tablecloth and decorated with yellow candlesticks and vases of flowering holly, old man’s beard and sloe berries foraged from the gardens.
The food: Henderson planned the menu with her head chef at the pub, Nye Smith, 33, intending it as a showcase of the best of local, seasonal produce — or “a celebration of birds falling from the sky and roots pushing up from the earth” as she called it. For an appetizer, guests were served steaming hot game broth. Next came plates of sourdough bread, butter and langoustines with mayonnaise and lemon halves. The mains were a whole pumpkin roasted to an almost caramel-like consistency and an enormous earthenware dish of game pie with a top of golden, crunchy suet pastry. “It’s all very plain,” said Henderson, “We wanted to let the ingredients speak for themselves.” For the cheese course, one of the guests, Tom Calver, 42, the head cheese maker at the nearby Westcombe Dairy, had brought an enormous round of Cheddar that Henderson described as being “almost the size of a rock at Glastonbury.” Dessert was a sticky treacle tart served with dollops of quince sorbet. Later, the handful of guests who were staying over at the pub were served a late-night snack of cheese-and-spring onion toasted sandwiches, bags of chips and pints of organic cider.
The drinks: Following an introduction by Henderson, Luca Dusi, 49, the owner of the Italian wine shop Passione Vino, who regularly works with the teams at the St. John restaurants and Rochelle Canteen, talked the guests through his choice of Italian wines for the lunch. He’d selected a refreshing Pinot Blanc and Riesling blend to pair with the langoustines. For the main course, he’d picked two different reds from northern Italy — a medium-bodied, earthy one from the Valtellina region and a more intense, aromatic one produced in Val d’Aosta. A sweet Riesling dessert wine accompanied the treacle tart.
The conversation: One of the guests, Charles Dowding, 64, a local market gardener who supplied the beets, celeriac and parsnips that were roasted alongside the pumpkin, talked several guests through the “no dig” cultivation technique he helped pioneer — a low-intervention, sustainable approach to gardening that has earned him a large following on YouTube. Given the proximity to the holidays, vacation plans were also discussed: the Partridges planned to stay in Somerset for Christmas, Gallacher was Marrakesh-bound and the Hendersons were planning a trip to Thailand with Singh in the New Year.
The music: “I love the sound of people talking, so music should always come later,” said Henderson. After the dishes were cleared, the overnight guests put on a playlist that included Nina Simone, Beyoncé, Van Morrison and Prince.
The recipe for Henderson’s treacle tart: Since its introduction on the menu, this buttery, gooey dessert consisting of a short crust base and a filling made from treacle, breadcrumbs and lemon, has been one of the most requested at the Three Horseshoes. “There’s something so English about a treacle tart,” says Henderson, “and I find it very hard to resist.” To make the short crust pastry, combine 500 grams of plain flour, 250 grams of unsalted butter and 1½ teaspoons of salt in a mixer until it reaches the consistency of breadcrumbs. Meanwhile, whisk 2 eggs and ¼ cup of cold water in a bowl. In a separate large bowl, bring the flour and egg mixtures together, being careful to not overwork. Wrap the pastry in cling film and refrigerate or freeze for at least a few hours to let it relax. Roll out the pastry and line a tart tin with it. Blind bake, making sure the pastry is cooked. To make the filling, first heat 115 grams of butter in a pot over a gentle heat until the butter browns. Then melt 900 grams of golden syrup (if you can’t find it, try maple syrup) in a saucepan over a low heat and add the brown butter. Whisk 3 eggs and 125 grams of heavy cream together in a large bowl before slowly adding in the syrup and butter mixture and folding in 170 grams of breadcrumbs, 1 teaspoon of salt and the juice of 2 lemons. Fill the tart with the breadcrumb mixture and bake at 300 degrees for 45 minutes, then 280 degrees for 12 minutes. Serve with either a good thick cream or crème fraîche.