Now don't go yuck, because I can taste them now, lightly crisped and moist having been floured and fried in a touch of dripping (most things were fried in dripping in our house). I was unaware as to what these morsels were at the time, for I was not a fussy eater.
People seem lot pickier these days. And not as daring. Think of the person who first slipped an oyster down his throat. I can tell you, a plate of sliced and fried lamb's balls looks a damn sight safer than a glistening, greeny-grey, mucous-like creature sitting in a shell.
Liver does not have a great track record, either. We all have horrific memories of school liver, cooked till grey and leather-like. But slices of lamb's liver are now turning up on the tables of the smartest restaurants as part of a table d'hte menu, carefully cooked and with verve. I have seen the delicious dish of liver with Dubonnet and orange making a welcome return.
This recipe I first came across years ago in Margaret Costa's Four Season's Cookery Book. It is remarkably good and well worth buying a bottle of Dubonnet for (Miss Costa offers the choice of calf's or lamb's liver. Use lamb's; it isgood in this preparation and much cheaper).
Briefly, the dish involves frying some chopped or sliced onion and garlic in a little olive oil and butter until lightly coloured. This mixture is then drained. Some sliced liver is fried in the left-over fat until just cooked through, then removed and kept warm with the onions. Fresh orange juice is now added to the pan with a couple of good glugs of Dubonnet, reduced until syrupy, and quickly used to gently reheat the liver and onions.
Orange and lemon rind can be added and also some chopped parsley. Grilled back bacon is suggested as an accompaniment, but I would advocate streaky, and grilled until crisp. Mashed potatoes are de rigueur. Kidneys are somehow more acceptable than liver in many people's view. I suspect it is to do with the inclusion of them in such stalwart dishes as steak and kidney puddings and pies (by the way, I agree with the playwright Alan Bleasdale as to the excellence of a Fray Bentos steak and kidney pie. It is one of the great tinned products of all time). The beef kidney that is used for puddings and pies is rarely cooked on its own as it is too strong and turns out tough and dry. It needs the fat and gristle from stewing steak to enrich it and, in turn, the beef benefits from the kidney's savour.
Another kidney - on the acceptance scale - is the simply grilled lamb's kidney that used to be part of the Victorian and Edwardian trencherman's breakfast. Some country house hotels still offer it.
Veal kidney is reserved for the cream of dishes and fattest of wallets. It is rare to find it except in the most enterprising of butchers. The flavour is delicate and rich at one and the same time, also tender and silky of texture.
The cooking of it is a brief affair. Either roast it in a hot oven, still with a thin coating of suet, for about 15-20 minutes, and then allow to rest for 10 minutes before slicing. Or brush the raw slices with a little olive oil and cook on a very hot ribbed grill (cast-iron, with a corrugated surface and placed directly over a gas flame; essential kitchen equipment to be sure) for about 30 seconds on each surface.
This is my favourite way, and also gives the edges of the kidney a charred flavour which adds a special dimension. Prepared in this way, a dish of veal kidney needs no other adornment than a drizzle of the finest olive oil and a squeeze of lemon. Sea salt - Maldon is best - and a generous grinding of pepper are all that is necessary. Serve a salad of chicory leaves, dressed with a perky mustard vinaigrette, for a perfect meal that has taken you about 5 minutes to prepare.
The choicest - and rarest - inner bits are sweetbreads. Lamb sweetbreads, in the spring, are one of the great treats of the gastronomic year- so do not go buying any of those frozen lamb's sweetbreads from New Zealand that are packed in plastic tubs. Wait until the optimum moment, then speak to your butcher.
Now, veal sweetbreads (ris de veau) are a different matter entirely. First of all, they are ridiculously expensive - about £8.50 per lb, wholesale, and anything up to £12-£13 per lb, retail. However, they are quite the most delectable pieces of offal imaginable. Their texture is meltingly tender, and the surface becomes deliciously crusted when fried in oil or butter.
Veal sweetbreads are sold as two distinct cuts. One from the pancreas (stomach or noix), commands the highest price and is also the most luxurious and tender. The other comes from the thymus gland (throat sweetbreads or gorge). Even though it does not quite have the same luxurious qualities, with careful, gentle cooking it is every bit as delicious. I would probably prefer it to be braised.
I must warn you that outside large cities these veal sweetbreads are difficult to find. However, if you make a special journey, buy a quantity and freeze them, wrapped in many layers of cling-film and sealed in a plastic bag. Make sure they are sweet-smelling - as all fresh offal should be - when you purchase them. Once home, rinse them quickly, pat dry and freeze.
I suppose that of all these offal cuts, the most easily found throughout the land would have to be calf's liver. So with that in mind, here is a simple recipe that is dear to my heart - often ruined in faux-Italian trattorias the world over - and one of the most perfect plates of food it is possible to eat, when cooked with care.
Calf's liver with butter and sage (fegato al burro e salvia)
Ingredients: 110-150g (4-5oz) unsalted butter
freshly ground pepper
4 thin slices of calf's liver, about 110g (4oz) each, any nerves removed
1 peeled and bruised clove of garlic
several sage leaves
sea salt, preferably Maldon
halves of lemon
Preparation: In a large frying-pan melt about one-third of the butter until foaming but not changing colour (or use a small frying-pan twice). Pepper the slices of liver and lay in the butter. Keeping the heat moderate, fry on one side for about 1 minute, when it should be lightly singed with brown around the edges - the classic appearance, I think.
Quickly turn the slices over and cook for a further minute. These timings are approximate. I cannot see the slices of liver you will end up with, so allow for a little give and take. Remove the liver to a previously warmed serving dish. Tip away the used butter and add the remaining fresh butter to the pan. Heat gently with the garlic clove for a moment, just enough to flavour the butter, and then discard the garlic.
Turn up the heat and allow the butter to froth. Throw in the sage leaves and gently cook until they turn slightly crisp. Do not be timid here. I promise you they will crispen, and it will happen around about the moment when the butter starts to turn nut brown. Immediately remove from the heat and sprinkle a little salt over the leaves. Spoon over the liver, and don't forget to serve the lemons.
This colouring of the butter and crisping of sage is what the taste and texture of the dish is all about. If you burn the butter and sage irretrievably, chuck them out and melt some more.