Tonight, I will be serving my dinner guests offal: squelchy, sinewy, anatomically unambiguous body parts. My guests want to know why. Am I in league with their grandmothers? Do I realise that eating organic has nothing to do with eating organs? Perhaps I secretly hate them?
Not at all. Haven't they seen Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on telly, eulogising his cows before slaughtering them and tucking in to their livers? Or Fergus Henderson, currently celebrating 10 years of serving up pan-fried bowels to the beau monde at his London restaurant, St John?
My only question is whether to serve pigs' ears on a bed of lightly-sautéed cows' brains with a blood jus? A stew of assorted tongues, trotters and tails? Or, perhaps, I should follow a recipe? Indeed, fortunately for me (and my guests), Hugh and Fergus have both published explicitly detailed cookbooks in which they explain how to turn guts into gourmet cuisine.
Flicking through Henderson's recently republished Nose to Tail Eating, I flirt with the idea of Pea and Pig's Ear Soup and toy with the prospect of Warm Pig's Head, but finally settle on Cold Lambs' Brains on Toast as my starter. Unfortunately, my plans hit a stumbling block: lamb's brain is an illegal substance in this country. Not on grounds of taste, I hasten to add, but because, like cows' and goats' brains, they are banned inside the EU, in case they give us mad cow disease.
Henderson has included the recipe because he believes it is "important to have the recipes written down so that when lamb's brain is freed from its sentence we shall be ready to celebrate its liberty". I'm with him all the way. Free the mind. Save the cerebrum: if only so that I can eat it for breakfast.
There is a legal alternative: pig's brain, which Fearnley-Whittingstall describes as "quite delicious, tasting mild and slightly sweet" in his River Cottage Meat Book. To get one, I must buy a whole head and extract the brain myself with a special powered saw. I go off the idea of brains. He also introduces me to some very entertaining euphemisms. Testicles, for example, are known as "fries" in the culinary trade. They are very popular in Spain, where, due to a lack of imagination, eating bull's testicles is believed to enhance masculinity.
I settle on a menu: Hugh's Pigs' Trotters and Tails Ste Menehould for starters and Fergus's Stuffed Lambs' Hearts for main course. Reading the recipes, I notice that cooking offal takes a bloody long time. My starter will take more than five hours to prepare and the main close to three. I'd better go out and find myself some innards.
"Got any pigs' trotters?" I ask my butchers, P J Frankland, "or pigs' tails?" Jackie Frankland, who has been a butcher for six years, seizes the opportunity to offload some offal. She does have some pigs' trotters. They are quite popular in this part of London, especially with the Caribbean community. But she only has one pig's tail. It came in attached to half a pig. In fact, the half-pig's head is out the back. Would I consider buying that? Her son, Martin Frankland, brings it out and I'm momentarily tempted by the pig's brain I can see nestling a few inches below the ear. But I'm told that either I go the whole hog or I'm out on my ear: the brain is not for sale independently.
Just as I'm handing over my £4.50 for six trotters (the tail is thrown in), a man pokes his head round the door. "I'd just like to thank you for the lovely oxtail you sold me last week," he says. "Delicious." Am I the last person to join the viscera revival?
Now I need to buy those lambs' hearts. According to Hugh, it is important to know where your vital organs come from, as they are vulnerable to the build-up of toxins and growth of cysts and tumours. He recommends buying from a small producer, preferably organic. Luckily, I live near a farmers' market and, an hour later, I am the proud owner of two hearts (50p each) from happy lambs. Unfortunately this means my guests will only get half a heart each, but, unless I get home, they'll be eating sheep sushi.
I start preparing the pigs' trotters and tail. It's certainly a good introduction to the animals that gave their life for my dinner party: washing the trotters under the tap feels like shaking the hands of the now absent pigs.
Left to simmer for three to four hours, I work on the hearts. Under Henderson's orders, I trim excess fat nodules, obvious sinews and the flap at the top "that looks like the bit that has a string to tighten at the top of a knapsack" - thanks Fergus. Then I scoop out the blood clots at the base of the ventricles with my finger. I do that several times because the slurping sound is so good. Then it's simply a case of stuffing those ventricles with sage and garlic to my hearts' content. Hearts safely in the oven, I have a look at the trotters. They look like the sort of dinner even a dog wouldn't touch. The bones have burst through the skin and are sticking out at right-angles. I feel slightly nauseous as I follow Hugh's instructions to de-bone and cut them into chunks, ready for "crumbing and crisping".
According to Fearnley-Whittingstall, trotters are a respected ingredient in French cuisine and were a signature dish of one of London's greatest chefs, Pierre Koffman. They are packed full of flavour and cook down to a "unique glutinous stickiness". If so, why are mine smelly heaps of gristle and skin? The words of the chef Anthony Bourdain, in his introduction to Nose to Tail Eating, come to mind: "A trained chimp can steam a lobster. But it takes love and time and respect for one's ingredients to deal with a pig's ear or a kidney properly." I realise I may be the chimp. I should also confess that Hugh never intended the dish to include a pig's tail.
Thirty minutes later, I am presenting Pigs' Trotters and a Tail Ste Menehould to my guests. "It looks like fried skin and fat, and it tastes like fried skin and fat," says my sister. "It's okay when you can only taste the breadcrumbs," says my second guest, a former vegetarian, encouragingly.
The tail goes down marginally better. My sister gnaws at it enthusiastically, before remembering it is a pig's tail, and turning green. I bring in the bisected organs. "You've really made a pig's ear of this, haven't you?" says my sister, poking at her dinner. "You just haven't got the guts to eat it." I snap back. "You've got to face the offal truth: it's tripe." says my third guest, my housemate.
Enough! I scream. Eating offal is not a laughing matter. "Offal offers us a chance to pay our respects, in a full and holistic manner, to the animals we've raised for meat," I say, quoting Hugh. These sheep died for this meal and you won't even try their hearts.
My guests tuck in. "It's got a beautiful taste, very lean, very dense. I feel like I'm getting the best bit," says my housemate. The former veggie is equally enthusiastic: "I don't like kidney, but this is totally different: it tastes like ordinary lambs' meat, only more intense." I breathe a sigh of relief: the lambs have not died in vain and I'm not a totally disastrous cook.
But will I be entertaining with entrails again? I look around at the uneaten trotters, the half-gnawed pig's tail and remains of the aortas. In future, I'll stick to pork chops, but I wouldn't say no to a bleeding sheep's heart.Reuse content