Food: Talking tripe

Lip-smacking, sticky, honeycomb tripe with trotters; We would greedily pick bits of porky morsel from the tiny bones, splashed generously with malt vinegar and dunked into fiery English mustard

I first ate pigs' trotter about 20 years ago in the scruffy back kitchen of a pub in Fishguard, Pembrokeshire. The owner was partial to the trotter, having grown up in the north of England - as indeed had I. My family, however, didn't ever seem to have trotters; steak and cowheel pie, perhaps, the odd lamb's testicle, even, but not feet of pig.

If I remember rightly, the publican recalled how his mother used to cook it; I am vague about this, as the occasion when trotter was on offer was often around two in the morning, we had been "locked in" since closing time, consumed a great deal of whisky and indulged in several games of liar dice.

This is the time of the day - or night - when a trotter is just the thing. There were usually a couple of them, sitting in the bottom of a heavy pot, having been stewed gently for a couple of hours in the oven with a bit of seasoning and a splash of water. As you might guess, this was no boned-out-stuffed-wrapped-steamed thing; it was simply the trotters, all curled, twisted and unrecognisable from slow braising, complete with sticky, glossy skin and a superb aroma.

We would greedily pick bits of porky morsel from the tiny bones, splashed generously with malt vinegar and dunked into fiery English mustard. Sometimes, the ginger tom would jump on the table for a bit, whereupon one of us - with deadly accuracy considering our state - would cruelly dab a spot of mustard on its nose. It never learnt, that daft moggy. Every time, there was an instant, shocked expression, swiftly followed by a leap off the table in trajectory mode. (By the way, I love cats.)

Another of my favourite late-night suppers is a handsome bowl of tripe. Some swear by this as a great hangover cure, along with cold curry and French onion soup, also eaten cold. Late at night, with fluffy boiled potatoes, it is the greatest soaker-up of the alcoholic binge, being both intensely savoury, rich and easily digestible. And if the tripe is to be especially sticky and lip-smacking, then a trotter buried in it whilst it cooks makes all the difference.

Traditionally, the foot used in a dish of braised tripe is often from a calf, and the celebrated tripes a la mode de Caen is not complete without one. This Normandy classic is made in a special shallow, though fat, pot called a tripiere, and is cooked extremely slowly over a period of about eight hours, or overnight.

The thought of tripe and trotters may not exactly be high on your list of gastronomic treats. But I do urge you to try them if you have never had the chance or inclination. The following two recipes are relatively simple to prepare, favourites of all dedicated gourmets and cheap to boot.

Pieds de porc Sainte Menehould, serves 4

Many recipes that I have read for the initial cooking of trotters - ie, before they are turned into actual "dishes" - give no indication whatsoever of the transformation that takes place over this period. They turn into a twisted mutant shape if left as they are, so need tethering. The best thing to use is a small piece of wood (cling-filmed and then wrapped in foil), roughly the shape of a trotter, and flat. Tie each trotter securely in three or four places to its piece of wood and put into a deep dish that will take them tightly. This method will ensure a more recognisable trotter, once cooked.

The French term Sainte Menehould refers to various fatty and gelatinous cuts that are bread-crumbed and then grilled or baked, resulting in a crusted surface. One of the very best examples is the one that uses breast of lamb (a much underrated cut), a recipe for which can be found in An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, by Elizabeth David.

4 pigs trotters, singed of any surface hair with a blow torch or over a gas flame, then well rinsed

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

1 large onion, peeled and sliced

3 sticks celery

4 cloves

2 bay leaves

3-4 sprigs of thyme

salt and a few peppercorns

water

1-2 tbsp flour

2 small eggs, beaten

1 tbsp Dijon mustard

4 tbsp white bread crumbs

a little melted butter

Pre-heat the oven to 275F/140C/gas mark 1

Distribute the vegetables, herbs and seasoning in and around the trotters. Just cover with water, bring up to a simmer, skim off any resultant scum, cover and braise in the oven for 112-2 hours. Test with a small sharp knife here and there (this can be confusing considering the amount of bones) for tenderness. They should feel a bit floppy.

Carefully lift out the trotters, flicking off any clinging bits of veg, and put onto a plate to cool completely. Strain the liquor into a bowl - this can be used for savoury jellies or as an enricher for gravies and sauces.

Pre-heat the oven to, 425F/220C/gas mark 7; also an over-head grill. Once the trotters are cold and stiff, take a serrated knife and cut in half lengthways, with the knife running between the cloven hoof (the bones will now be soft and should not offer any resistance to the knife, and this is also the most natural divide through the foot). Lay the eight halves onto a plate. Season lightly and then dust each one with the flour. Mix together the eggs and mustard and brush this liberally over each trotter. Roll in the breadcrumbs and put onto a wire rack. Place trotters onto a large baking tray and trickle over a little of the melted butter. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes and then finish off under the grill if necessary, so that all are crusted and golden. Serve piping hot with:

Sauce gribiche:

1 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard

2 tbsp tarragon vinegar

salt and pepper

275-325ml/10-12 fl oz. groundnut - or other flavourless oil

a little lukewarm water

112 tbsp capers, drained, squeezed dry and coarsely chopped

5 sprigs tarragon, leaves only, finely chopped 5 hard-boiled eggs, yolks only, sieved

Liquidise or whisk together the mustard, vinegar and seasoning. With the motor still running, start pouring in the oil in a thin stream. When you have used about three-quarters, switch off and taste for acidity and seasoning. The mixture should have started to thicken somewhat and may need thinning down with some of the warm water; the desired thickness of the finished sauce should be similar to bottled salad cream. Continue adding more oil if necessary and also some water perhaps. When this basic dressing is complete, stir in the capers, tarragon and egg yolks. Note: If you wish to serve the trotters as pieds de porc vinaigrette - the classic of all respectable French charcuteries - then simply put the split trotters (unbreaded) directly into a deep serving dish, cut side up, and spoon over only the basic dressing. Sprinkle with parsley and finely chopped onion. Serve with a pot of cornichons on the side.

Braised tripe with onions, serves 4 heartily

Recently, I found some really beautiful unbleached tripe in a Halal butcher in Portobello Road, west London, near to where I live. It was the honeycomb variety, which, for tripe aficionados, is the only one to have. All it needs is a good scrub with a stiff brush, plenty of washing and a couple of blanches in boiling water. Note: If you cannot find unbleached tripe, the other will do; the finished dish may not be quite as pungently flavoured, but the texture will be there.

400ml/15fl oz dry white wine

1x400g tin chopped tomatoes

4 cloves garlic, bruised

2 carrots, peeled and sliced

3 sticks celery, sliced

3 bay leaves

2 cloves

3-4 sprigs thyme

1 tbs redcurrant jelly

570ml/1 pint beef stock

75g/3oz butter

900g/2lb onions, peeled and sliced

1.8kg/4lb tripe, cut into thick slivers and blanched in boiling salted water, then drained

1 pigs trotter (split in half by the butcher) singed of any surface hair, then well rinsed

salt and pepper

3-4 tbsp good red wine vinegar

3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

Put the first 9ingredients into a stainless-steel or other non-reactive pan and bring up to a simmer. Reduce by half. Then add the beef stock and reduce once more by half. Strain through a sieve into a bowl and put on one side.

Melt the butter In a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Tip in onions and allow to flop over a gentle heat. Once melted and soft, cook until a rich golden colour; this can take anything up to one hour. Preheat the oven to 250F/130C/gas mark 12.

Add the blanched tripe, bury the trotter within and then pour over the wine/stock mixture. Gently mix all together and add some seasoning, using plenty of pepper. Bring up to a gentle simmer, put on the lid and braise in the oven for about four hours (or more), checking from time to time and giving the odd stir. The most effective way to check whether the tripe is cooked is to eat a bit, but it is difficult to overcook tripe, which is the great beauty of the dish.

Once the tripe is cooked, remove from the oven and lift out the trotter. Remove its meat and skin from the bones with a knife and fork, chop up and add back to the dish. Add the vinegar and allow to simmer ever so gently, for a further 30 minutes or so, until the tripe is sticky and a deep rich brown. Stir in the parsley, check for seasoning and dish up with plainly boiled potatoes.

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