Offal is traditionally a humble offering; indeed the words humble and offal are synonymous, referring to the "ombles" or innards of the deer which were usually fed to the dog. Peasants might bake them in a pie, hence "eating humble pie". There's nothing
humble, though, about the prices charged in some top restaurants these days for offcuts of animals, the cheeks and brawn, oxtail and pigs' trotters and other bits and pieces, Pierre Koffmann's signature dish at his Michelin three-starred restaurant, La Tante Claire in Chelsea, is Pieds de Cochon aux Morilles: the rear pair of a pig's trotters, boned, braised in veal stock with wine, port and vegetables; then stuffed with a mixture of fried sweetbreads, morels and minced chicken breast, and served with areduction of the cooking juices.
Offal is the basis, too, of what many believe to be Albert Roux's most masterly dish at Le Gavroche, where he was the first chef in Britain to win three Michelin stars. This is a pot-au-feu, a peasant staple rather than one of his classical mousselines or souffles. The texture and flavour of this magnificent soupy stew depend on the judicious preparation of ox tongue, oxtail, shin of beef and vegetables, simmered for three hours and served with toast spread with marrow from poached marrow bones.
Simon Hopkinson, co-proprietor of Bibendum, is a long-standing champion of offal, with a passion for kidneys and liver, tripe, sweetbreads and brains. Especially brains, which he says are highly nutritious, with a wonderful creamy texture and melting consistency.
"If only one could persuade the British eating public to rid themselves of unneccesary squeamishness about brains," he says. "I suppose it's the way they look, where they come from and, of course, their name that puts so many people off. However, I thin k if one were to hand round dishes of deep-fried pieces of brain at a drinks party, many people would proclaim: `These are absolutely yummy. What are they?'"
Jean-Christophe Novelli at the The Four Seasons in Park Lane prefers offal to any other ingredient. "Unfortunately I have to limit the number of these dishes I can put on the menu because a lot of our guests are Americans and they don't feel happy with offal." (Americans call them variety meats, a euphemism replacing the less appealing alternative, organ meats.)
Bruno Loubet, who is about to open a new restaurant, L'Odeon, is another chef who is mad about offal. Of many splendid dishes, none is quite so succulent as his calf's cheek casserole. "Calf's cheek is about the cheapest and also the tastiest cut of veal," he says. "Unfortunately other chefs are beginning to discover it."
Offal comes in and out of fashion. The gory instructions in a book of British meat cookery published in the early 1950s thrilled my 13-year-old son, who is going through a gruesome stage. He read with interest how you must split open a head and slice thebrains. Or skin the tongue, cutting out the small bones at the root. And how to cut off all flaps, gristle and tubes from an ox heart. He looked in vain for a recipe for boiled eyes, though he was impressed by a colour illustration of grisly innards, tongue, heart and livers, not to mention the smile (or sneer?) on the face of the wrinkled pig's head.
Fondness for offal is a deeply emotional business, reaching mysteriously across time, race and creed. Around 2000 BC in the Middle East, the Sumerians bred a thick-tailed sheep so they could use the desirable tail fat (the tail weighed a fifth of the whole animal.) At the other end of the beast, roast (or boiled) head is a famous delicacy, none more so than boars' head, pride of place at a feast. For those who prefer not to look into an animal's eyes, there's brawn - meat extracted from the simmered pig's head, combined with tongue, ears and cheek. The love of offal goes back far. Many dynasties ago Chinese emperors sat down to a meal which incorporated thousands of ducks' tongues. In Tudor Britain, larks' tongues were considered the height of luxury at a banquet.
Most parts of beasts are enjoyed by some people somewhere; the Spanish and Italians love fries (testicles - called fries because they are sliced and fried); pigs' tails are essential to Caribbean "soul food" stews, lending them a gelatinous quality; justas cows' heel does for Lancashire folk in a tripe and heel pie. Here are two delicious modern recipes designed not to deter the average British home cook.
GRILLED LAMBS' KIDNEYS WITH A DEVILLED SAUCE Serves 4
12 lambs' kidneys milk vegetable oil 212 oz/75g butter scant 3oz/80g shallots, chopped 2 teaspoons brown sugar 1 teaspoon tomato paste 12 teaspoon coriander seeds, coarsely crushed 312fl oz/100ml red wine vinegar 16fl oz/500ml water 1 garlic clove, crushed with the side of a knife 1 bay leaf 1 sprig fresh thyme 1 tablespoon sweet mango chutney 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce salt and freshly ground pepper honey or Tabasco sauce (optional)
Remove any fat from the kidneys, then peel off the thin membrane. Cut each kidney in half, then cut the core from the centre. Put the kidneys in a bowl and pour over the milk to cover. Leave to soak for 3 hours in the fridge.
To make the sauce, heat 1 tablespoon oil with 20g/23oz of butter in the saucepan. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until lightly golden and softened. Stir in the sugar and cook for 2 minutes. Add the tomato paste and coriander seeds and cook for a further 2 minutes, stirring well. Stir in the vinegar and water, then add the garlic, bay leaf, thyme, mango chutney and Worcestershire sauce. Leave to simmer for about 45 minutes, or until the sauce has reduced by about half. Stir from time to time.
Pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a clean pan, pressing well to be sure all the liquid goes through. Reheat, then add the remaining butter, cut into pieces, and tilt the pan to melt the butter and swirl it into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Taste the sauce: if you find it too sweet, add a dash of vinegar; if too sour, add a tablespoon of honey; if not spicy enough, add a few drops of Tabasco. It should have a good balance between sweet, sour and spicy.
Prepare a charcoal fire or preheat a cast-iron ridged grill pan. Drain the kidneys and pat them dry with paper towels. Thread them on to skewers and brush all over with oil. Grill the kidneys over charcoal, or on the grill pan, turning as necessary, unt i l they are cooked through. Test by cutting into one: a drop of blood should appear. Reheat the sauce if necessary. Serve the kidneys with the sauce.
Recipe taken from `Bistro Bruno: Cooking from l'Odeon' (to be published this year by Macmillan).
CALVES' LIVER VENETIAN STYLE Serves 4
3 mild Spanish onions, peeled and very thinly sliced.
5 tablespoons vegetable oil 8 exceptionally thin slices of calves' liver, cut into small squares salt and pepper 1 tablespoon chopped parsley 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar Cook the onions in 3 tablespoons of the vegetable oil until completely cooked through and soft. They may take on a little colour during this time but it doesn't matter; the most important thing is that they cook slowly, which can take up to 30 minutes. In a large, not too thick frying pan or wok, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil until smoking hot.
Season the calves' liver with salt and pepper and toss briefly in the hot oil for about 20 seconds. Drain in a colander. Add the onions to the pan and similarly toss briefly in the oil until golden brown and slightly scorched in parts. Return the liver to the pan with the parsley and, finally, stir in the vinegar. Serve without delay, and not without mashed potatoes.
NB: The final cooking of this dish - that is, after the initial cooking of the onions - should not take more than about 1 minute.
Taken from Simon Hopkinson's `Roast Chicken and Other Stories' (Ebury Press £17.99). !Reuse content