IN PRAISE OF OFFAL
Beijing, 27 August 2012
I am currently reading a book on the Catholic Church’s campaigns against heresies in the Middle Ages, which culminated in the Albigensian Crusade against the peoples of Provence (1). I am at the point in this sorry tale where the heretics – whose only heresy seemed to be not to like priests very much – were forced to furtively meet in the woods at the dead of night as the forces of the Church Universal raged and ravaged all around them.
I rather feel like one of these heretics when it comes to eating offal. In the more developed countries, when I say that I love eating liver, or kidneys, my interlocutors normally look at me as if I have confessed to eating newborn babes in some hideous satanic rite.
Even my wife, who has followed me down many culinary paths, will not accompany me down these – with one or two notable exceptions as we shall see. So I am reduced to furtively scanning restaurant menus when I am on business trips, to see if I might strike lucky this time and find a dish of offal to feast on.
Liver is often on menus, as are kidneys. They are best sautéed quickly so that they are nice and brown on the outside but still pink inside, and the liver should come with fried onions on the side. Mmm, so good …
After that, the search becomes difficult. I come across tongue from time to time. Boiled and eaten with mustard, and with boiled potatoes on the side, it’s one of the few offal dishes I’ve got my wife to like.
After that, it’s almost always in France that I have found other offal dishes. For instance, I can still find tripe on menus there. I’ll find tripes à la provençale, which is tripe cooked with carrots, onions, tomatoes, white wine and a few spices.
Or there’s tripes à la mode de Caen, which differs from the provencal version only by the replacement of tomatoes with calves trotters and a glass of calvados. Still on tripe, there’s andouillette, which is a sausage made with pork tripe (sometimes mixed with veal tripe), seasoned with onions, pepper and other spices; it has to be eaten with a mustard sauce. This is another offal dish which I’ve got my wife to like! I made it a point to eat it whenever I went to visit my mother in France, because the andouillettes of Burgundy are extra good; now that she’s dead I’m not sure what I’ll do …
I also used to find ris de veau, veal sweetbreads, on French menus, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. Cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce, they are absolutely delicious.
Many, many years ago, my French grandmother served us grandchildren brains, deep-fried. That was a little difficult to eat, I must admit; brains are very rich and quite quickly become rather nauseating.
But another dish she made, which was absolutely exquisite, was pot au feu made with marrow bones. Digging out the marrow from the bone, spreading it on bread, adding a little salt, popping it into the mouth. Ahhh, s-o-o-o-o good!
France has sustained my love of offal, but even in the UK I’ve found some excellent dishes. Not in England, mind you, where they are prissy about the meat they eat, but in Scotland. When my wife and I were university students in Edinburgh we discovered haggis, which is a pudding containing a minced-up mixture of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. It is imperative that it be eaten with “neaps and tatties”, turnip and potatoes; their sweetness and smoothness are the perfect counterpoint to the haggis’s sharpness.
I think haggis must be the only offal dish about which a poem has been written. In his Address to a Haggis, Robert Burns exclaimed:
Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak yer place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm.
(The poem goes on for several more verses, but we can skip them)
Scotland also introduced me to blood pudding (but not my wife; she didn’t follow me on this one). Blood pudding is made by cooking blood with fillers and then letting the whole congeal; in Scotland, I think the fillers were oatmeal and fat. I know it doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it is really very good; it has a sweet taste that is very soothing.
And finally, once, in a restaurant in Slovakia, I noticed that they were serving beef testicles on the menu. I had a colleague in the office who raved about them, telling me that they were absolutely delicious. He also told me – one of those strange factoids that stick in one’s head unbidden – that they are called Rocky Mountain oysters in the American West. They are a common dish out there, the prevalence of ranching and thus castration of young bulls leading to a healthy supply of them. I understand they eat them deep-fried. Mine were cooked in some sort of heavy sauce. Good, but nothing special.
There’s lots of offal I haven’t eaten, but it’s not for want of trying. Out of curiosity, while writing this I checked to see if there are recipes for other types of offal – lungs, for instance, or intestines (chitterlings), or other bits and pieces – and it looks like human beings used to eat everything from any animal they killed. As they should have; apart from everything being good to eat, it’s a sign of disrespect to mother nature that we disdain what she offers. We have become ridiculously fastidious and picky about our food. So come on, follow me and become offal-eaters!
1. R.I. Moore, The War on Heresy, Profile Books, 2012
Heretic eating babies: http://theeyelessowl.net/2011/02/
Liver and onion: http://paleodietlifestyle.com/quick-paleo-meals/