It seems that I may just be on the precipice, balancing perilously between good taste and Good Taste. What’s the difference, I hear you ask? Well, probably about 30 years of food conditioning for a start. What on earth are you actually talking about, I further hear you cry? In one shuddering word, guaranteed to send people fleeing for cover: Offal.
Offal seems to evoke a love it or hate it response. Those that remember brawn being cooked up when they were kids, or pigs feet being used to enrich stews, have fond memories of it (even my mother has affectionate memories of gnawing on a pigs trotter when she was a toddler. Not that she would touch them with a barge pole now). Everyone else was probably born some time after the end of the 1950s.
What is sad about this decline in popularity is the disappearance of more unusual cuts of meat from the supermarkets. To order a trotter or oxtail takes some canny planning – you need to inform your butcher about a week in advance to make sure you have your exotic meat in time for cooking. This wasn’t always the case, of course. In more frugal times, everything but the squeak, moo, cock-a-doodle or baa was used and even the animal’s natural clothing was put to good use. Our parents, grandparents and ancestors beyond knew that the best flavour lay outside of the flesh. After all, why do we, even now, put kidney in a Steak and Kidney Pie, yet the kidneys are not readily eaten as the main meat on a plate?

This leads to another question. Why have we become squeamish about eating foods with names like "Head Cheese" and yet we'll devour Black Pudding, which is, essentially, blood sausage? Why is eating one part of an animal delicious, whilst another part is considered horrific? I think as a whole, we have become uneducated about our food. We are brought up being served roast dinners and hamburgers and sausages and steaks and chops. We know that this is just the flesh of the beast. We don’t know for sure what’s in burgers and sausages but we hope that it’s 100% pure meat. Even so, if it disguised so that it looks palatable, we will enjoy it. Offal is impossible to disguise, save for grinding it up and stuffing it into a skin or shaping it into a patty or smothering it in sauce. Tripe looks pretty unappetising with its honeycomb texture; Sweetbreads look like glands; Haggis does resemble a grass stuffed sheep’s stomach; Trotters look like dainty pig’s feet; Tongue does resemble a big old slab of, well, tongue. As for brains....if you have a particularly lurid imagination all these things remind us of our own body. How many of us have seen the Night of the Living Dead where the zombies begin devouring the body of the couple burned alive in the truck? We see them tucking into entrails with gusto, biting into their victim’s hearts with relish. They know that the sweet, sweet offal will keep them (sort of) alive.
The organ meats, as they are unpleasantly referred to, are jam-packed with vitamins and minerals. Liver is particularly high in Iron (although gout sufferers (who, ironically, are often liver-lovers) can’t touch the stuff because of its high purine levels).

Of course, I’m not suggesting that we should turn into cannibalistic zombies. However, what the zombies were exercising (or exorcising) in the movie was their primordial instincts of survival, to eat whatever food was available and this is exactly how we have survived for so many years.
Sadly, not all of us enjoy eating meat on the bone anymore or chewing on entrails. We prefer our meat to come in nice square chunks that don’t really taste of anything because of preservatives and short life spans. I think it’s time for a change. The tide is turning and people are demanding a better variety of organic meat. The supermarkets all have organic meat ranges, many are now supplying veal and game which was previously very hard to get hold of. Chicken Liver Pate and Sliced Calves Liver never seems to leave restaurant menus, but brains in black butter sauce seems to be a relic from the days of fine dining. I recently read in Gourmet Magazine about a restaurant in the US that had marrow on the menu. And by marrow I mean the essence of what sustains us, not a large courgette. The prepared bones are served, vertically, with long and narrow spoons, made just for scooping marrow out, to be served on toast. Other places serve pigs face, served as part of a Misto Bolito. Some people, like my Great Grandfather, relish eating the Parsons Nose at Christmastime.
Perhaps if you’re wary of trying a variety meat (as the Americans euphemistically refer to them), think of it this way: If you’re prepared to risk a wholly unpleasant experience by eating the hottest curry in a restaurant, eating unusual meat will probably be a lot more rewarding and surprising. Prepared in the right way, it can taste as good or a lot better than a cheap cut of intensively farmed steak, which is flavourless and watery. And if you’ll eat the kidney element of a steak and kidney pudding or pie, then what’s to stop you there? Oxtail is a good old-fashioned cut to ease you into the idea of offal. It is a rich, gelatinous meat with bags of flavour (which must come from the all the exercise of flicking away flies) and is so much better in a stew than just plain old stewing beef. Or how about granny’s favourite, tripe? This used to be recommended to people with delicate stomachs, which immediately suggests that it must be delicate meat. These days it is served in spicy, tomato rich sauces rather than the milk it used to be poached in. Try splitting a trotter and putting it in homemade chicken stock or soup for a richer, thicker finished dish.
A little bit of bravery is all that is required, and leaving your squeamishness at the front door. This weekend I’ll be facing my own personal fears in true gourmand style: I will be buying some chicken livers and cod’s roe to try. I will keep you posted.


Anonymous said...

Reading this blog brought back some child hood memories of dad butchering a pig, leaving it hang in the haymow door. When ready, mom would cook the head or something because she would make headcheese that was delicious with vinegar put on it. She would also do something with the tongue and I actually thought it was good. I used to love Liver and Onions but never fix it. try to figure out who I am. My mom also loved blood sausage but we would have nothing to do it with. I can still see her at her spot at the kitchen table eating the blood sausage with relish and we all grimmacing and thinking uck! Another variety meat that I used to love was liver sausage with a Durkee spread than I can not even remember anymore.

FreyaE said...

"Created by Eugene R Durkee in 1857, this is the sauce that made him famous. Always good to have on hand to spice up left-over turkey and chicken sandwiches, great as a salad dressing, perfect in potato salad. The sauce that made Eugene Durkee Famous, thus the Famous Salad and Sandwich Sauce name." This sauce is still available through for $4.50/jar. Obviously gourmet, I'd be excited to try some.

Anonymous said...

This history of this sauce is good to know. If you have never tried it, you will indeed enjoy it. I first had it in Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA