Back in the day our grandparents would not have thought twice about eating offal. In fact, I have an extremely strong memory of watching my Papa chow down on tripe like it was a big bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. Gross.
In recent times, however, many cutting-edge chefs are bringing things like offal back into fashion and so, we are seeing things like liver, kidneys and sweetbreads on more and more menus. Thing is, a lot of it is pretty darn tasty if you can just get past the initial shock, so I find the best thing to do is to ease yourself in.
Entry Level Offal
Now I know that the thought of eating animal innards can be more off-putting than a photograph of your Nanna staring down at you when you are trying to get busy but, the trick is all about baby steps, so I am going to start this guide with something you have undoubtedly had before. I am, of course, talking about Pork Crackling which I am sure you have chomped your teeth into every Sunday for thirty-something years.
Pork scratchings, as crackling is perhaps better known, are quite simply fried chunks or strips of pig skin which are seasoned and served cold in pubs and bars as a salty snack. Sure you can get them in most pubs but you really should try the scratchings at Red’s True Barbecue – they come tossed in a really spicy seasoning which is just out of this world.
Level two would be Beef Cheek and Oxtail. Like the pigskin, these are often offcuts from the production of generic beef. Both these cuts are incredibly cheap- mainly because they are tricky to cook and require long slow braising for optimum results. However, when they are correctly prepared- they’re one of the most tender, the most flavourful and most succulent cuts of beef out there.
I had the Braised Oxtail with Smoked Ewes Cheese a few months back from Tender Cow at Mackie Mayor which I hope is still on the menu because it is fantastic. Tender Cow are not afraid to use offal and unusual cuts of meat, so I urge you to try there first if you are an offal-virgin.
If beef cheek is what you are after on the other hand, look no further than The Refuge by Volta. They have a Massman Ox Cheek on their menu- flavoured with Islamic herbs and spices and cooked low, slow and long. My mouth is watering at the mere thought.
My final entry-level dish to suggest would be Chicken Livers. As far as liver goes, the chicken variety is pretty mild in flavour, but it is still strong if you aren’t used to it. The only other thing to get over is the fact that they are a tiny little liver- which is enough to turn the stomach if you aren’t prepared.
Now I ADORE chicken livers, and I can eat them whole after some light cooking with onions and wine. But, like wine and coffee and beer, it is one of those things you get a taste for in adulthood. So, I suggest you start with a delicious Chicken Liver Pate. It is a bit of a classic on a starters menu, but the pate from Fress really stands out to me. It has a creamy, dreamy texture and a beautiful boozy undertone and comes served with sweet toasted brioche and their homemade pickles.
Once you have mastered the beginner’s guide to offal- it is time to move on to the intermediate level. Again, like before, I am going to ease you in with something you have more than likely had before, that is assuming no vegetarians are reading this… which I am guessing there aren’t.
Blood is another product that is typically wasted in the meat industry, and one of the only places it goes is into Black Pudding. Not only is it delicious, but it is also really really ridiculously good for you. Well, sort of. Black pudding has been dubbed a superfood before now due to its massive iron content and the fact that it practically contains every vitamin under the sun.
To be specific, black pudding is made with pig’s blood, which is mixed with oats and spices and formed into a sausage. It is typically sliced, fried and served at breakfast time, but lots of chefs are using black pudding quite creatively in all manner of dishes. We love black pudding up here in Manchester, and that is because of Bury Black Pudding – a local treasure which is known all over the world as one of the finest black puddings in the world- so keep your eye out for it on menus.
Ox Tongue is one of those things which has fallen out of fashion recently, but it seems to be creeping back in. I remember when I was a teenager, I was sat down at my grandmother’s house and went to town on a plate of unidentified sandwich meat. There I was, proper shovelling it down my gullet thinking ‘what delicious mortadella ham this is’ (give me a break, I grew up in Cheshire) before my grandmother looked over at me with a huge grin and said ‘are you enjoying your tongue, my dear?’ I went positively green.
But that was at least ten years ago, and I’ve grown up slightly since then. I can now say with confidence that Ox tongue is, in fact, delicious. My only advice would be to never EVER look at a picture of the full thing as it will put you off for life. If you are looking for a pleasant experience, however, I would head for some Korean Barbecue at Anneyong and cook it on the hot plate (So Hae is what it is called on the menu). If that doesn’t tickle your fancy, there is an Ox Tongue Terrine on the menu at TNQ at the moment which I hear is excellent.
You might think that heart belongs in the advanced category of this piece- but you would be wrong. Hearts are really good, and out of all offal, the texture is perhaps the most like ‘normal’ meat. I must say, I have never tried the heart of a larger animal like a sheep or a cow- that always just seems a little Game of Thrones for my liking- so I stick to poultry and the hearts of my enemies only.
The Duck Hearts at The Bay Horse Tavern are perfect. They are just breaded, lightly fried and come served with a little blackberry puree for dipping. Like I say, they are seriously good, the only thing I cannot get over is how many ducks go into one small dish- but you have to remember with all offal that it is only a by-product that would otherwise go to waste.
Advanced Offal Consumption
Now it is time for the hard stuff so if you do not feel you are ready- turn back now. Let’s start with the age-old classic kidneys. Now, I’m going to be honest, I actually hate kidneys because of the texture which is almost rubbery and the fact that I think they taste of ammonia (that was a polite way of saying wee).
Maybe it is psychosomatic from being familiar with the function of the kidney thanks to my medical parents and GCSE biology- but they just aren’t my cup of tea. That was, however, until I sampled the Rosemary Lamb and Kidney Suet Pudding from The Lowry Hotel. Honestly, it is fantastic and has so much meaty flavour and was like eating something from a time gone by. I’m not going to say I am converted just yet, but let’s just say I’ve given kidneys another chance.
Calves’ Liver is one of those things that I am just desperate to cook for some friends at a Halloween dinner party. You know, calf liver, fava beans and a nice Chianti. That old classic. Now, calves’ liver has an overpowering taste which creates a bit of a Marmite situation. Love it or hate it, when it is cooked properly, it cuts like butter and melts in the mouth. Look no further than Fegato Burro e Salvia at San Carlo Cicchetti. Italians love a bit of calves’ liver, so this is cooked in that style, pan-fried with butter and fresh sage – just delicious and If I could write that noise he makes in Silence of the Lambs, I do assure you I would.
Brushing over the can of worms that is brain (because it seems that Zouk have taken it off their menu) I should point you in the direction of probably the most advanced slice of offal known to the modern human – tripe. Whenever I think of tripe I think of a couple in the 40’s – happily splashing lashings of vinegar onto the stretchy, rather unfortunate looking membrane, slopping it all over their chins and onto a napkin tucked into their tweed clothes.
I think perhaps that this is an image that many people share when it comes to tripe and it’s something that enters into the mind when you see it at the butchers. If you want to give it a try though I will point you in the direction of somewhere where you’d expect it to be good – Yang Sing. They offer Ox Tripe Stir Fry – cooked up with ginger and spring onion and so if you can get past the idea of eating it, let me know what it’s like please.