JON FASMAN | ACCOUNTING FOR TASTE
Offal is is the bold diner's favourite dish, and the restaurateur's too: buy cheap, sell dear. But in the first of his new weekly food columns, Jon Fasman worries that fashionability may be driving up the price of a juicy cheek or a well-pressed ear ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
A few weeks ago, on the cusp of summer's end and the beginning of fall, I found myself on a family friend's farm in the western corner of Loudoun County, just beyond (at least for now) the ever-unfurling sprawl of the DC suburbs. The mother and daughter who run the farm are the eighth and ninth generation of the same family to work that same land. Before Virginia was part of a country called the United States, their forebears were tending cattle on the same patch of earth. The air had the fetid heaviness of late northeastern summer: I smelled decay and finality rather than fecundity and life.
We went into a low farmhouse to admire the contents of a freezer chest, which held what remained of their spring slaughter. They raise cattle, and they raise them well: the cows eat grass and roam freely, giving them a rich, full beefy taste, with none of the insipid flabbiness of battery-farmed beef.
The freezer was nearly empty: we took home about 30 pounds of beef-chuck, short ribs, ground beef, marrow bones--and left roughly the same. What surprised the mother, though, was how quickly the off-cuts had gone. The heart, tongue, lights and liver used to be giveaways; now they had a freezer full of hamburger and chili meat while the kidneys ran away with the steak.
Perhaps this shouldn't be such a surprise. Offal may be enjoying its gourmet moment now, but farmers and butchers have long kept choice cuts like tongue and oxtail for themselves. Besides, the farm's price list spoke for itself. Prime cuts such as filet mignon went for $25 per pound; porterhouse was $18; and T-bones were $13. But tongue was $4 per pound, oxtail was $3 and heart was $1. We got a beautiful six-pound sack of marrow bones for $6: it produced a rich, satisfying soup that fed us for days.
A few days ago a friend sent me Fergus Henderson's newest cookbook, "Beyond Nose to Tail". Like his first book, "Nose to Tail Cooking" this one is not for the faint-hearted. It contains recipes for pressed pig's ear, confit of pig's cheek, and dandelion and chicken and ox tongue pie. (It also has wonderful recipes for vanilla ice-cream and treacle tart. This is like a Ferrari having excellent brakes: essential, but hardly the point.)
The book's first recipe centres on salted pork fat left in the refrigerator for a month; as a romantic dinner Ã deux, Mr Henderson suggests a halved pig's head, roasted whole with foil over the ear "so it does not frazzle".
Mr Henderson's restaurant, the St John, in Clerkenwell, is widely if informally credited with returning offal to the high-end table. I have eaten three memorable meals there, and I hope to return again. I am especially fond of their signature appetiser, a roast bone-marrow and parsley salad. It comprises three roasted bones that I would guess weigh about half a pound, a tangle of parsley, a small mound of coarse salt and a few little triangles of white toast. It costs £6.60 ($13.42). A half-pound of bones from the high-end farm I visited in Loudoun cost me $.50; presumably a restaurateur, buying in quantity from a larger farm would pay less.
If this doesn't explain offal's fashion, it at least helps explain why restaurateurs love it so dearly. Sure, it's new and interesting; it lets high-end diners fancy themselves macho, adventurous, far too sophisticated for something as plebian as a steak. But restaurants do not exist to expand diners' palates; they exist to make money. Most of it may still be made on booze and bottled water, but compared to other meat offerings on any menu, offal offers huge profits. At least for now, that is. Offal-proselytising chefs should beware their success. After all, the average cow offers about 50 pounds of sirloin and a few hundred pounds of ground beef. Unless genetic modification takes a frightening turn, though, it has only one tongue and only one heart.