THE BELLY OF THE BEAST

pig 2.jpg

... and the ears, brains, trotters and testicles. Christopher Hirst sets out to cook the cuts of meat that time forgot ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2011

In Milan’s immaculate food market at Piazza Wagner, you can find stalls selling neat piles labelled nervetti (calves’ feet), lingua di maiale (pigs’ tongues), musetto cotto (cooked nose), piedini e codini (trotters and tails) and testina (head). The different tripes from the first three chambers of a cow’s stomach are displayed in lush folds of white and grey. The Italians, who possess the finest domestic cuisine in Europe, retain a powerful appetite for bits of beasts customarily discarded in Britain and America.

Ethically, there is much to be said for total-body eating. After taking an animal’s life, the least you can do is use all of it. In the modern Anglo-Saxon world, most offal (the “off-fall” from a carcass) goes into dog food, but at one time we had more of a taste for strange meat. Brawn was a highlight of medieval feasts, and British dishes such as tripe and onions were popular until the 20th century. Today, just a few culinary stalwarts do good business by serving offal. The acknowledged leader of this gutsy movement is Fergus Henderson, who has been cooking pig spleen, trotter and head at his London restaurant St John since 1994. One of the city’s hottest new restaurants, Brawn (the name is a bit of a giveaway) serves head of veal, pigs’ trotters and, yes, the jellified meat dish known as brawn. Even in fastidious New York, Chris Leahy has lured the brave to his restaurant Lyon with veal-tongue salad and an entrée of beef tripe.

Lately the amateur cook has been encouraged to forage among the further reaches of the carcass: this autumn sees the publication of both “Tripe: A Most Excellent Dish” by Marjorie Houlihan and “Testicles: Balls in Cooking & Culture” by Blandine Vié, a curious Gallic combination of philosophy, history and humour that aims to “honour them and rehabilitate them in their rightful place at table”.

But do we have the guts to eat balls? And which other odd cuts of meat might suit themselves to home cooking? Co-opting my wife’s services as a far-from-eager tasting panel (she has never forgiven me for once serving her tripes à la mode de Caen under the guise of beef stew), we went on a nose-to-tail—or, rather, vice-versa—odyssey, starting with lambs’ testicles from our local Turkish shop in south London.

With a slight shiver, I bisected a couple of the testes, which were about the same size and shape as kiwi fruit. The butcher had removed the encasing white membrane, but it was up to his customer to deal with the peach-pink flesh, which has an uncooked texture akin to smooth paté. Bisected and fried in butter, as recommended in the aphrodisiac cookbook “Venus in the Kitchen” by the scapegrace novelist Norman Douglas, the mousse-like result was the reverse of arousing. When cut into strips, marinaded in alcohol and coated with breadcrumbs before being fried in butter—as advised in the cookbook “Buon Appetito, Your Holiness: The Secrets of the Papal Table”, which tells us that veal testicles were a favourite dish of the medieval Pope Leo X—they became a sort of miniature escalope and much more acceptable.

Moving upwards in the mammalian carcass, you come to thick-seam tripe from the rumen, or first stomach, of an ox. Not quite meat and not quite jelly, it is almost entirely tasteless, and its main asset is texture: much like pasta, it acts as a medium for holding other flavours. My rendition of trippa alla Fiorentina—a combination of sliced tripe simmered with onions, tomato purée and Parmesan—turned out to be a richly flavoured stew. In my opinion, it was very much like the version I bought from a cart in the streets of Florence. My wife managed to eat her way through a bowlful, but said it reminded her of Heinz tinned spaghetti.

Next stop on the anatomical journey was hearts. A recipe in Fergus Henderson’s book “Nose to Tail Eating” specifies stuffing lambs’ hearts with onions cooked with red wine and bread. After wrapping in pancetta, I tied the stuffed hearts with string before roasting them for two and a half hours. With some apprehension, we untied the blackened parcels, but they proved to be tender and tasty—somewhat akin to liver. Sautéed chicken hearts were even more to my wife’s taste: “Like lambs’ kidney but with a chicken flavour,” she said. But despite the advantage of economy (in Britain you get roughly 50 hearts for £1.30), they seemed to me as chewy as pencil rubbers.

A deviation from cooked organs was provided by bone marrow. A luxury enjoyed by James Bond’s boss M at Blades, his swanky club, this is the cheapest of all offal—a good butcher should let you have beef bones free. After roasting them at high heat for 20 minutes, we probed the hollow interior of the bones with lobster picks. The rich, buttery slurry was excellent on toast, its fattiness cut by Henderson’s accompaniment of a sharp parsley and shallot dressing.

Next came cheeks. Most beef cheeks go to professional restaurants and you can see why. This relatively inexpensive cut produced one of the finest beef dishes I’ve eaten. Seared, then casseroled with herbs and red wine for six hours, they were tender, sensuous and profoundly flavoured. Unlike most protracted braises, the rich, buttery meat did not collapse into shreds.

Ox tongue proved to be another economical treat. Buying one ready-salted will spare you the month-long marinade in brine required for a tongue. (Not what every-one would wish to encounter in the fridge.) After simmering it for three and a half hours with carrots, leeks and onions for added flavour, I peeled off its skin, then pressed it under weights to facilitate carving; slicing it thin overcomes the fibrous texture that some find off-putting. Served cold with a green sauce of chopped herbs and anchovies, the result was a meaty treat, piquant and delicate.

The head (at least in the case of the pig) offered a final, unexpected asset: pigs’ ears, a delicacy that takes a bit of preparing. First you have to singe off any hairs and thoroughly wash the ears in warm water (one cookbook gruesomely notes that pigs suffer from ear wax, just like humans). The recipe for Mississippi crusted pigs’ ears in James Villas’s “Pig: King of the Southern Table” requires them to be simmered for two and a half hours before being pressed for two hours. The great flaps are then successively coated in mustard, molten butter and breadcrumbs, and roasted for 20 minutes until “browned and crispy”. Not exactly bacon and not exactly pork, it was somehow both silky and crisp—but as my wife said, “I don’t know if I could be fagged to do it again.”

Despite this rebellion, I can see us returning to offal one day. From pig spleen, “a joy to cook with” according to Henderson, to the Chinese speciality of sow’s vulva, there’s plenty more still to try. But at present, a cheese omelette has never seemed more tempting.

 

Christopher Hirstused to be the Weasel in the Independent. His last article for Intelligent Life was on the world's greatest bread.

Picture credit: Diver Aguilar