Offal is the subject of a food revival, but will nose-to-tail dining gain favour in spite of our squeamishness?
Taking its name from its destiny of falling off the butcher’s knife and onto the floor, offal is by association an afterthought, and rarely a provocation for a watering mouth and a rumbling tummy. As such, offal has become a foodstuff worthy of championing through causes associated with sustainable agriculture, food waste and nose-to-tail eating in an effort to challenge the gag reflex that comes courtesy of the notion.
But offal may be on the cusp of a revival. Jamie Oliver, whose foodish words so many take as gospel, has just announced the appointment of chef Jon Rotheram at Fifteen, formerly sous chef at the offal-loving St John Restaurant. Fifteen is relaunching at the end of the month, complete with a menu that’s faithful to the ethos of nose-to-tail (a term coined by St John’s Fergus Henderson), including lamb sweetbreads and suckling pig.
And further offal prime time is just around the corner. Sustainable food organisation Ethical Eats has announced its second Nose-to-Tail fortnight for June. Designed to encourage diners in the capital to try offal and less loved cuts of meat, the campaign aligns respected restaurants to bang the drum for the unusual yet tasty. The campaign is now more relevant than ever, says Charlotte Jarman, following recent revelations of consumer consciousness around meat: “The silver lining of the horsemeat scandal is that people are starting to take much more of an interest in where their meat comes from and how it is produced. Using as much of the beast as we can is one of the things we can do to offset those higher costs, alongside eating meat less frequently and thinking of it more as an ingredient, less as a big slab of protein in the middle of the plate.”
So in light of finding horsemeat in our lasagnes and kidneys in our KFC we’re becoming discerning about our dinners. But while butchers are still enjoying the meat wave found in our desire for daily dinners of chicken, beef and lamb, there seem to be no reports of an uptake in rarer cuts or entrails. The consumption of offal has made a transition from peasant to posh, and was a foodstuff originally heralded for the poor. It has, however, skipped the home cooking mainstream on the whole, and been superseded to the haute cuisine of high-end restaurants where a chef can turn a gibbly bit into something delicious with great reverence.
Using as much of the beast as we can is one of the things we can do to offset higher costs, alongside eating meat less frequently and thinking of it more as an ingredient
“In the past, even the recent past, liver, kidneys, trotters, tripe and more were all commonplace,” says culinary anthropologist, Anna Colquhoun. “There is no culturally inherent reason why we here in Britain don’t eat offal. It seems to many as something we simply don’t do: the Italians eat tripe, the French eat sweetbreads and all sorts including horse, frogs and snails, and the Chinese love chicken’s feet, but we just don’t, it’s not in our cuisine.”
Though we’re content with eating animal muscle, venturing into the lesser-known territory of insides has the power to turn us green. Many studies have linked offal’s unpopularity where its name identifes its origin (eye, tail), as opposed to the more euphemistic ‘pork’ or ‘beef’ (though it doesn’t explain why the same doesn’t apply to lamb or chicken). In his book Animal to Edible, Noelie Vialles identified two logics that were adopted in eighteenth century France, that of the zoophagan – those that acknowledge the food was formerly a living entity – and the sacrophagan – those that prefer to disassociate the plate from the farm, and therefore more likely to be repulsed by offal.
Tom Hunt, founder of Bristol’s Forgotten Feast finds fault in the disassociation with food society has progressively imbibed, with the popularity of processed, packaged foods leading to culinary cleansing. “Everything is packaged as if it’s not meat and encased in plastic – it’s a very clinical environment. There’s a disconnection with our food and where it comes from.
“People will go to top restaurants and eat offal because they’re being daring, but they’re still detached from the process of seeing the hunk of ugly meat.”
He highlights skills as another factor to aversion: “A lot of people don’t really know how to cook it.” Offal recipes are somewhat a rarity in even the best-selling food magazines and popular cookery TV, so there’s arguably a lack of filtration into the everyday repertoire of home cooks. But it’s not just a lack of skillset, suggests Tom. It’s equally about valuing what we eat: “If people value their food, they waste less. If someone makes their own loaf of bread, they’re not going to want to throw it away, so the same goes if you reared your own pig – you’d cry if someone threw that away.”
Two logics were adopted in eighteenth century France — that of the zoophagan, those that acknowledge the food was formerly a living entity, and the sacrophagan, those that prefer to disassociate the plate from the farm, and therefore more likely to be repulsed by offal.
At the KERB street food market in London’s King’s Cross, Cristiano Meneghin is on a mission with his Tongue ‘n Cheek stall, serving up underrated cuts such as pork cheeks in a Porto wine reduction, ox heart (‘Heartbreaker’) burger, ox cheeks with vegetables and ox tongue with salsa verde. For him, offcuts are “part of the Italian way” and sees the step away from their use as economic and social issues. “It’s much easier for big businesses to work with the main cuts of meat, because it’s easier to divide, simpler, and easier to make money. Supermarkets will just weigh a piece of meat and give you a price. But a butcher will have a relationship with the customer, and talk about different cuts. People are forgetting how to use these types of meat.”
Through his market experience, Cristiano says his customers are usually open minded, but typically scared to try something new. “I get a funny reaction when I sell tongue, people recognise it as part of the animal. Realising it’s part of an animal that looks like you is not something we usually experience. But the rump steak is the bum of the animal, and sometimes I say as a joke, ‘would you rather eat your bum or your tongue?’ What’s the difference? It’s just a piece of meat.”
Offal is there to be enjoyed, and celebrated, according to Lebanese chef, food writer and offal enthusiast, Anissa Helou: “The texture, delicate in some, chewy or simply unusual in others… makes offal all the more highly prized. And finally and more importantly, eating offal means you waste very little of the animal. There is something very satisfying in knowing that all the edible parts of an animal are used. Some parts will produce elegant meals, others hearty ones but all will be delightful, that is if you go beyond the initial prejudice!”
When cooked properly, brains will melt in the mouth, kidneys will be chewy without being tough and ears will have an addictive crunchAnissa Helou
While chefs like Anissa will continue to adore offal in the realm of food-lovers and adventurers, a greater alteration in our food system will be the ultimate cause of offal to re-enter our midweek meals, says Anna Colquhoun. “For some ‘foodies’ [nose-to-tail] is more trend than real change. For while meat is factory-farmed and shipped from the cheapest producers wherever they are and however they operate, even prime cuts will remain cheap in the supermarket and people are unlikely to forgo them.
“As the costs of meat production increase – and not just in terms of feed and transport but also in terms of awareness of the hidden costs, i.e. those to the health of animals, workers, consumers and planet – meat production and consumption will, I hope, decrease. And at that point I will expect to see offal re-entering the norms of our cuisine,” she says.
They say you can eat all of the pig except the squeal, but perhaps we should swallow our own squeals, tuck in, and enjoy.
This feature originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Digest Magazine