What's offal the fuss about?

By John Walsh

Odd Bits - How to Cook the Rest of the Animal offers carnivores something to get their teeth into. Photo / Getty Images
Odd Bits - How to Cook the Rest of the Animal offers carnivores something to get their teeth into. Photo / Getty Images

Every Christmas Day when I was young, I knew where to find my father at around 10pm, briefly abandoning the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show or It's a Wonderful Life on television.

He'd be in the kitchen, devouring a plate of repellent-looking grey meat. They were the turkey giblets my mother had cooked earlier, using the stewed liquid to enhance the gravy at lunch. She'd have set them aside - and my father would wolf them down as a late-night snack. "Ah, lovely," he would murmur, cutting into the atrocious neck, "Try a bit of gizzard?"

Maybe it's an Irish thing. The most famous offal-eater in literature is Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce's Ulysses, whose arrival in chapter four is heralded thus: "Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods' roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine." But nationalities vary in their appetite for the stuff.

Muslim countries go crazy for lamb intestines. The Chinese are all over pig organs. Since 1066, the French have devised ways of making offal palatable, serving up liver, sweetbreads, testicles and tripe at royal banquets.

The French chefs of the 19th century spoke of liver, tongue, animal feet and tails as "les parties nobles" or "the delicate bits".

In America, chefs called them "organ meats" or "variety meats". Native Americans sensibly ate every bit of an animal. The settlers, however, were less keen. Although Irma Rombauer wrote "variety meats provide welcome relief from the weekly round of beef, pork, veal, chicken and fish," in The Joy of Cooking in 1936, her countrymen did not share her enthusiasm. When Calvin Schwabe wrote a book about "foods seldom eaten by Americans, though standard fare for others," he called it Unmentionable Cuisine. And the British? Historically, we've always gorged on abdominal bits 'n' bobs, on tummies and brains, on pig heads and pig feet, on entrails that make less robust constitutions sick. Hannah Glasse provided recipes for ox tongue and cows' udders in The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747). Dorothy Hartley, the chronicler of English popular eating habits gave recipes for brawn, oxtail, bone marrow, tripe, pigs' ears and cow-heel pie in her Food in England (1954).

Though we've rather gone off offal in the last 40 years, nobody has done a better marketing job on roast bone marrow and similar delicacies than Fergus Henderson, founder of St John restaurant in Smithfield, central London. Henderson reinvigorated interest in "nose-to-tail eating"; the phrase was seized on by foodies, although Yorkshire pork butchers have long boasted that they sell every part of a pig "bar t' squeak".

The menu at St John features duck heart and ox heart alongside mainstream dishes, but the daily blackboard offers organ dishes. Last time I was there, I tried the spleen. It was yummy.

Now a comprehensive guide to preparing and cooking the unmentionable has appeared: Odd Bits - How to Cook the Rest of the Animal by Toronto-based Australian writer Jennifer McLagan. The frontispiece shows the ribbony, beauty of honeycomb tripe, but turn the page and you're confronted by a smiling pig, its head sitting in a frying pan. McLagan likes to stress the loveliness of "odd bits" but she believes in calling a spade a spade.

She has recipes for blood, and recipes for guts.

Refusing to refer to testicles as "sweetmeats" or giorelli (Italian for "jewels"), she gives a recipe for crispy testicles with onion, pepper and caper sauce.

"Mmmm," you can hear Homer Simpson saying, "crispy testicles ..."

Her book is divided into four sections, like the diagram of a cow you see on a butcher's wall.

Section one is the head, taking in brawn (or "headcheese"), pig's ear, pork cheeks, brains and tongue ("warm lamb tongues in ginger, mustard and cream sauce") concluding with the author's views on eyeballs ("my advice is to cut them in half; then you can remove the black centre, which makes them look less like eyeballs") and beef or ox palates, which were once a delicacy like tongue.

In section two, the aspirant foodie can find whole lamb neck, shoulder, veal breast, sweetbreads (not testicles, as popularly thought, but thymus glands) and pig's feet. Section three involves an Ali Baba's cave of "odd bits" - heart, liver, spleen, kidneys, stomach, intestines.

McLagan is fond of heart ("slowly braised, it becomes tender. Quickly grilled, it is flavourful and pleasantly dense") and offers a recipe for heart burgers, obviously a boon for Valentine's Day.

Taking a cue from Dickens, who wrote a whole tripe stew scene into The Old Curiosity Shop, she goes into raptures about tripe. She's tried blanket, honeycomb and book tripe, corresponding to three of the four chambers in a cow's stomach; but her favourite is honeycomb.

Haggis, chitterlings, sour lung soup and a cowboy dish called son-of-a-bitch stew (containing all the perishable parts of a milk-fed calf) all make an appearance.

We learn that Americans are banned from eating cow's udder or animal lungs, both available to the British foodie; that haggis is probably an English, rather than Scottish dish; and that the French wit Edouard Herriot once said, apropos of his country's famous intestine sausage, "Politics is like an andouillette - it should smell a little like s***, but not too much."

The book ends, inevitably, with bits from the back: veal shanks, ham hocks, bone marrow, oxtail and the aforementioned bollocks recipes. It's the close of an absorbing journey, even though we may not be disposed to knock up a confit of gizzards or a sanguinaccio alla napoletana (sweet black pudding and chocolate) any time soon.

We may have, in McLagan, a enthusiastic and knowledgeable cheerleader for the food that falls from an animal carcass when it's being slaughtered (hence "off-fall") but I fear she faces an uphill struggle to conquer Anglo-Saxon squeamishness about pistachio brain souffle, advanced headcheese and cold pig's ear salad.

Brain food

When it comes to brains, Jennifer McLagan admits, "There is no denying they have a serious image problem." She explains how to scoop brains from the cavity in a split lamb's head, examine them for "small skull fragments", soak them in water for six hours "to remove as much of the blood as possible", peel off the membrane without allowing the brains to fall apart, then poach them in a court bouillon before coating them in breadcrumbs and frying them. It sounds a lot of work to produce something that tastes like a savoury marshmallow. "Like many odd bits," says McLagan encouragingly, "it's their texture that will win you over - they are rich and creamy, like thickly whipped cream."

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