In praise of offal….
Just a quick warning that if you’re slightly squeamish, you may want to give this blog a miss as I’ve been thinking about offal and yes, am going to write about it in its gory glory. Call it organ meat or variety meat if you will, they’re all the same – an animal’s internal organs, not working as muscles or bones. Frankly delicious but admittedly a differing texture to cooked muscle. Offal lovers make up a rather underground sect; it seems like something we need to keep hidden and almost worse than an appreciation of morris dancing or the literary merits of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.
It’s conflicting though and much as I love most offal, yes, there are memories of hideous school liver and bacon, with the liver so grey and overcooked it closely resembled a rubber sole on your plate. I can’t face tripe and brains particularly are for me, a no go but because of what they are not the flavour. Tasting a kidney sausage in Ireland, we were united with our old lurcher in finally finding something neither of us would eat.
For the most part though, I will choose offal over meat when it’s on a menu and a flash fried piece of calves liver, lusciously pink and juicy, is as good as a steak any day. I remember unctuous braised and stuffed lambs hearts from my grandmother’s stove and David’s father’s unbeatable faggots – minced lungs, heart and liver shaped into meatballs with sage and breadcrumbs and wrapped in caul fat, the lacy membrane keeping the organs in place. Thinly sliced, spiced and quickly roast shreds of ox heart are fantastic from the wood fired oven and kidney turbigo a long time favourite on a cold winter’s night with creamy mash and sautéed cabbage.
On travels abroad, other cultures seem to relish and embrace offal much more with market stalls devoted entirely to it. In Spain, the offal butchers will proudly have a variety of tripe on show arranged with hearts small and large, clusters of kidneys, glistening slabs of claret red liver, various glands, cheeks, heads and tails. In Thailand and Hong Kong, we’ve seen butchers with pigs’ and goats’ heads piled up and trays of chicken feet amongst many other bits and pieces and the meat market in Mumbai which we saw during our month in India was unforgettable – if you want details, let me know; at this point, I’ll just say I was glad I wasn’t wearing flip-flops. In Africa, I’ve been offered meat with no distinction between muscle and offal whilst in Laos, locals greedily hogged the offal for themselves and automatically served muscle to Westerners with a rather condescending smile, implying we didn’t know what we were missing.
And this seems rather the way – to be surprised when us Brits show some enthusiasm for offal followed by a softening of attitude when they recognise a shared passion. Our last trip in old town Malaga saw this happen in a tapas bar where the daily specials included meltingly slow-cooked pigs cheeks and fast-roast yet equally delicious sweetbreads – when we chose these over the expected regular menu choices of tortilla and paella, we were looked after fantastically well, like family.
Last week we got some ox cheeks from the Dartmouth Butchers . They were cooked very slowly overnight in the cooling wood fired oven with some stock, red wine, onions, garlic and peppers to a perfect state of falling apart. We could have served this simply with mash or tossed it through some pasta with lots of grated Parmesan but David fried a little red onion, garlic and mushroom and used that to line some halved yellow peppers. On top of this some of the pulled ox cheek and then topped with thin slices of tomato. Into a hot oven for about 15 minutes then a sprinkle of cheese and under the grill for 5 or 6 minutes to brown up the surface. On top of a slice of bread it made a fantastic lunch for a bitter March day and is a shoe in for our next book.