IN PRAISE OF OFFAL

Beijing, 27 August 2012

I am currently reading a book on the Catholic Church’s campaigns against heresies in the Middle Ages, which culminated in the Albigensian Crusade against the peoples of Provence (1). I am at the point in this sorry tale where the heretics – whose only heresy seems to be not to have liked priests very much – were forced to furtively meet in the woods at the dead of night as the forces of the Church Universal raged and ravaged all around them.

I rather feel like one of these heretics when it comes to eating offal.  In the more developed countries, when I say that I love eating liver, or kidneys, my interlocutors normally look at me as if I have confessed to eating newborn babes in some hideous satanic rite.
heretic eating babies
Even my wife, who has followed me down many culinary paths, will not accompany me down these – with one or two notable exceptions as we shall see. So I am reduced to furtively scanning restaurant menus when I am on business trips, to see if I might strike lucky this time and find a dish of offal to feast on.

Liver is often on menus, as are kidneys. They are best sautéed quickly so that they are nice and brown on the outside but still pink inside, and the liver should come with fried onions on the side. Mmm, so good …


After that, the search becomes difficult. I come across tongue from time to time. Boiled and eaten with mustard, and with boiled potatoes on the side, it’s one of the few offal dishes I’ve got my wife to like.

After that, it’s almost always in France that I have found other offal dishes. For instance, I can still find tripe on menus there. I’ll find tripes à la provençale, which is tripe cooked with carrots, onions, tomatoes, white wine and a few spices.

Or there’s tripes à la mode de Caen, which differs from the provencal version only by the replacement of tomatoes with calves trotters and a glass of calvados. Still on tripe, there’s andouillette, which is a sausage made with pork tripe (sometimes mixed with veal tripe), seasoned with onions, pepper and other spices; it has to be eaten with a mustard sauce. This is another offal dish which I’ve got my wife to like! I made it a point to eat it whenever I went to visit my mother in France, because the andouillettes of Burgundy are extra good; now that she’s dead I’m not sure what I’ll do …

I also used to find ris de veau, veal sweetbreads, on French menus, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. Cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce, they are absolutely delicious.

Many, many years ago, my French grandmother served us grandchildren brains, deep-fried. That was a little difficult to eat, I must admit; brains are very rich and quite quickly become rather nauseating.

But another dish she made, which was absolutely exquisite, was pot au feu made with marrow bones. Digging out the marrow from the bone, spreading it on bread, adding a little salt, popping it into the mouth. Ahhh, s-o-o-o-o good!

France has sustained my love of offal, but even in the UK I’ve found some excellent dishes. Not in England, mind you, where they are prissy about the meat they eat, but in Scotland. When my wife and I were university students in Edinburgh we discovered haggis, which is a pudding containing a minced-up mixture of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. It is imperative that it be eaten with “neaps and tatties”, turnip and potatoes; their sweetness and smoothness are the perfect counterpoint to the haggis’s sharpness.

I think haggis must be the only offal dish about which a poem has been written. In his Address to a Haggis, Robert Burns exclaimed:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak yer place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm.

(The poem goes on for several more verses, but we can skip them)

Scotland also introduced me to blood pudding (but not my wife; she didn’t follow me on this one). Blood pudding is made by cooking blood with fillers and then letting the whole congeal; in Scotland, I think the fillers were oatmeal and fat. I know it doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it is really very good; it has a sweet taste that is very soothing.

And finally, once, in a restaurant in Slovakia, I noticed that they were serving beef testicles on the menu. I had a colleague in the office who raved about them, telling me that they were absolutely delicious. He also told me – one of those strange factoids that stick in one’s head unbidden – that they are called Rocky Mountain oysters in the American West. They are a common dish out there, the prevalence of ranching and thus castration of young bulls leading to a healthy supply of them. I understand they eat them deep-fried. Mine were cooked in some sort of heavy sauce. Good, but nothing special.

There’s lots of offal I haven’t eaten, but it’s not for want of trying. Out of curiosity, while writing this I checked to see if there are recipes for other types of offal – lungs, for instance, or intestines (chitterlings), or other bits and pieces – and it looks like human beings used to eat everything from any animal they killed. As they should have; apart from everything being good to eat, it’s a sign of disrespect to mother nature that we disdain what she offers. We have become ridiculously fastidious and picky about our food. So come on, follow me and become offal-eaters!

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1. R.I. Moore, The War on Heresy, Profile Books, 2012
Heretic eating babies: http://theyelessowl.net/2011/02/
Liver and onion: https://www.justapinch.com/recipes/main-course/beef/pan-seared-beef-liver-onions.html
Kidneys: https://greatperformersacademy.com/health/ketogenic-diet-grocery-list-21-keto-foods-you-need-to-have-on-it
Boiled tongue: https://www.enjoyyourcooking.com/cooking-tips/boiled-beef-tongue.html
Tripes provencales: http://www.recettes.net/recettes-et-idees/plat/tripes-a-la-provencale,,1026.html
Andouillette: http://www.lesfoodies.com/myma/recette/andouillette-troyes-moutarde-meaux-1
Ris de veau: http://www.marieclaire.fr/cuisine/ris-de-veau-croustifondants-aux-salsifis-parfum-tonka,1212284.asp
Fried brains: http://spaceamigos.com/2764605/que-voce-acharia-de-comer-um-cerebro-na-proxima-refeicao
Marrow bone: http://unmetiercasappend.hautetfort.com/archives/category/histoire_de_la_medecine/index-2.html/
Haggis: http://www.thepinsta.com/haggis-neeps-and-tatties_9RnBOfoMGJRG21fi*1CZ0jyyuXwXy7MWsPGUng7Ktrg/
Blood pudding: http://www.shawmeats.co.uk/product/gluten-free-black-pudding/
Testicles: http://chefdepaprika.com/2012/05/hungarian-veal-testicles-stew-paprikas-recipe/

ITALIAN FOOD

Beijing, 5 August 2012

My wife and I once compiled a list of the foods and recipes we each brought to our marriage as culinary dowry from our mothers’ kitchens: she is Italian and I am Franco-British. Without a possible shadow of doubt, her contribution has dwarfed mine. Through her, I entered a magical land of taste which I have never left nor ever wish to.

I had my first glimpse of it when I visited Italy as an impecunious student in the 1970s. In those days, simply by flashing a student card one could access University cafeterias, where for a ridiculously cheap price one got a three-course meal, a small bottle of wine, and a coffee. Mmm, even now, after all these years, I still remember with crystal clarity those few weeks of initial revelation. The pasta, just a little hard – al dente – with velvety tomato-based sauces and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese! The meat – veal, beef, pork, chicken, whatever was on the day’s menu – grilled to juicy, tender perfection! Accompanied by a simple tossed green salad, with perhaps a few slices of tomato, drizzled with a little wine vinegar, a generous portion of virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Then just a piece of fresh, ripe fruit of the season to round it off. Washed down with a simple, robust wine, no fuss, no pretensions. And to cap it all, a strong expresso. After such a meal, I had been revitalized and was more than ready to endure another round of museums and churches.

This was just the start. My wife took me by the hand and led me through a fairytale land of food: pastas of all dimensions and geometric complexities accompanied by an astonishingly wide spectrum of sauces; dried and cured meats from every animal and every part of the animal; pizzas and foccaccias; cheeses, whose variety leaves my French cheeses in the dust (let’s not even mention British cheeses); fruits whose names even now I know only in Italian – nespole, cachi, fichi d’India; wines of a breathtaking range which all those fussy French wines can never hope to emulate. And the food always cooked with a minimum of artifice, allowing its essential goodness to come to the fore. Lord, may the cooks in Paradise be Italian!

I was reminded of this cornucopia – indeed, became quite homesick – when my wife served up bresaola for supper last night. From time to time, we feel the need for food from home, and last night was one of those times. For those of you who do not know bresaola it’s a dried beef meat from one of the Italian Alpine valleys, the Valtellina. It’s difficult to find in Beijing, and – even more important – to find of good quality. It has to have the right ratio of fat to lean, it has to be sliced very thin, it must not be too salty. Last night’s bresaola was of excellent quality. And we ate it with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. That’s all. Nice and simple. And delicious.

plate of bresaola

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bresaola and lemon: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_KYIV6yDsmVc/TT8vBvfQjkI/AAAAAAAAAQw/CON9w_ZJAQs/s320/SDC12179.JPG