Authors: Nina Edwards
The question of delicacy or otherwise became a vital factor in class distinctions. Pepys might ape the aristocracy by gorging himself on hearty dishes of offal, but someone who aspired to be middle-class may well have felt the need to separate themselves from working- and often also from upper-class
choices. Such class values have been absorbed by many cultures today, and it is in the detail of what is eaten, and by whom, that status shows its teeth.
Today the English may look to Ireland, Scotland and Wales rather than to home-grown offal credentials. The British may claim that the French and Italians are more enthusiastic about offal, although French chefs have been heard to talk of the British as if – though they cannot cook – they regularly stir up boiled tripe and onions, portions of haggis in sporrans north of the border, gristly faggots and, further south, plump fat backsides with black pudding fryups and steak and kidney puddings. However, when Escoffier was working at the Carlton Hotel in London during the First World War, his menus, though elegantly in French, make little mention of offal ingredients, unlike recipes written during his work in France. Provisions were scarce and offal was one of the few meats that did not require coupons, so one can assume it was an hidden ingredient.
Steak and kidney pudding. This traditional British dish is made with beef and lamb’s or pig’s kidneys and steamed within suet pastry for several hours. Some recipes suggest making a small hole in the top just before serving and pouring in further gravy.
The period following the Second World War underpins many of the modern British attitudes to food. Significantly offal was not subject to rationing and provided badly needed vitamins and protein, but food writers at the time demonstrate that French terminology made these available cuts seem more appealing. Offal parts were grilled
, and tripe was made acceptable by being presented
Is offal eaten as part of everyday fare today, even among the affluent classes? In a blog for Waitrose, arguably the most upmarket supermarket in southern Britain and a cathedral to the modern foodie, where one might expect to find the new offal-eaters, most customers interested enough to fill in an online questionnaire specified offal as the food they liked the least. The few who claimed it was their favourite – all of whom appeared to be male – wrote with an air of naughty bravado. The supermarket recently introduced a new offal-based line of ‘Forgotten Cuts’, but it has not sold well.
Has offal fared better in southern Europe, as it has to some extent in the southern states of America? There have long been examples of curious snobbery surrounding offal. Marco Polo, who despite his Venetian palate was well used to a panoply of rustic dishes, nonetheless denigrated Chinese peasants from the city of Kin-sai: ‘As to people of the lower classes, they do not scruple to eat every kind of flesh, however unclean, without any discrimination.’
In Italy and Spain offal may have fallen out of favour among the younger generation, but they each have a long tradition of its consumption. Eight out of nineteen of the illuminations of the butchery trade in the medieval
manuscripts of the Cerruti family of Verona show the purchase and domestic preparation of internal organs, feet and heads. Testaccio, the district of Rome which housed its slaughterhouses into the 1970s, divided carcasses into quarters, the prime cuts going to the aristocracy, the second in line to the clergy, the third to the middle classes, the fourth to the military – and all that was left, the
or ‘fifth quarter’, was the offal.
is made with beef or veal knuckle, gently stewed until the marrow is tender and the meat is about to fall from the bone.
Offal does make up approximately a quarter of the weight of a carcass, but all the same, the idea of a
quarter, something that strictly does not make sense, hints at its uncertain status. Testaccio is still known for its long-established restaurants that serve
specialities such as
, or tail, stews and ragu,
, or cow teats, and
, or spleen. Boiled or stewed tripe is still eaten widely in Italy. Pasta sauces are enriched with ground organs like
, angel’s hair with chicken giblets and pecorino cheese, and there are many dishes of calf’s liver; grills such
as fritto misto
of chicken liver;
, or calf’s feet boned and flavoured with capers; and melt-in-the-mouth
. Boiled or fried brains are again cooked in a tomato sauce, or fried up with liver and sweetbreads
in fritto misto
. The ancient
is the small part of lamb and veal intestines, after
, or grass, left undigested there. The unweaned calves are killed just after feeding so that the milk left inside their intestines when cooked acts with the rennet present to become a sort of soft cheese, and is usually served with
. Son-of-a-bitch stew, made from anything available on the American settlers’ trail, relied on the same ‘marrow-gut’ for its distinctive flavour.
was traditionally made with
, or cured pig’s cheeks, though increasingly the less fatty pancetta is used. Similarly
, the odds and ends from inside a sheep, should contain not only liver, kidneys and heart, but also lungs and other matter, though these tend to be left out today.
Southern Italian spleen sandwiches, or
pani ca meusa
, found their way to New York as
. Cow tripe, or
, is traditional in Madrid, where
callos a la madrileña
is a popular tapas dish, and across Spain liver, heart, kidneys with sherry, brains, bull’s testicles (or
) and tongue are typical. Portugal produces a variant on black pudding, cooked with flour,
. In one Portuguese tradition residents of Oporto disparaged those of Lisbon as lettuce-eaters (
); they returned the compliment, calling the Oporto people tripe-eaters (
). The latter term originated in the fifteenth century, when sailors would be given all the prime cuts of meat to sustain them on their voyages, and the inhabitants of the port would be left with the remaining offal alone.
As in France, the Italian regions have their own speciality dishes, such as
(great paw) in Emilia-Romagna, a sausage made from a boned pig’s trotter stuffed with pork offal. In Florence an offal speciality is
, with tripe from the fourth stomach of the cow, cooked in a broth containing onion, celery, carrot and tomato, and often sold on the streets from a
, served in a bread roll with
. In Milan tripe is cut into thin strips and cooked for a long time to tenderize for hearty
In this beef tripe stew the deep crenulations of the honeycomb, from the reticulum chamber of a cow’s stomach, trap the rich tomato liquor.
As in medieval England, where bone marrow tended to be used in sweet dishes, in Italy pork blood enriches a chocolate dessert,
, made with cinnamon and pine nuts.
Throughout Scandinavia there are fish soups, stocks, offal-enriched fish dishes, terrines of calf, pork and veal organs. Denmark pickles many offal parts, used to enrich pork and veal dishes and for
, a pig’s head dish. Finland has sheep’s head,
, served with cabbage and potatoes as a Christmas treat. The smorgasbord, a traditional Swedish buffet that is also enjoyed in Norway, Denmark and Finland, includes fish offal, blood sausage, brawn and offal in sheep or pig’s stomach, a dish claimed to be the forerunner of haggis.
Whale blubber is a traditional Inuit food, full of vitamin
and omega-3 fatty acids. It has a similar flavour to arrowroot biscuits and in Iceland it is pickled in whey.
In Iceland the scarcity of both spices for flavour and of salt for food preservation has led to the use of smoking, drying, pickling and fermenting techniques. Some traditional foods now tend only to be eaten during the ancient winter festival of Þorrablót.
The dishes can be challenging, such as fresh or whey-preserved sheep’s head cut in half lengthwise, called
When it was produced locally, whey varied in taste, but today it is more often a homogeneous product that can make many traditional foods taste the same. In
the brains are removed and the hair singed away before boiling, giving the meat its distinctive smoky flavour. Sheep’s head brawn,
, is made from all parts of the head including eyes,
ears and tongue, set in its own liquor, pressed and compressed. To some extent it survives as an everyday item in Icelandic supermarkets. Whale blubber is an important element at such feasts, served pickled in whey, and has an unusual texture, ‘one side . . . stringy and tough, then the texture changes gradually, and the other side becomes so soft it can be cut with a fork’.
is made from internal lamb organs formed into a sausage shape, wrapped in intestine and suet and preserved in whey, and can be served roasted or smoked. Ram’s and lamb’s testicles are also preserved in whey. On Melrakkaslétta soured lambs’ trotters and trotters’ brawn are eaten.
is pressed sheep’s stomach, smoked and served in slices. Sheep’s blood pudding,
, and liver sausage,
, are staples of such feasts, served cold and in slices.
British blood pudding and haggis are similar to
, but are spiced and have a coarser texture. They remain popular ingredients in the Black Country in particular, and in Scotland, where both are available in some chip shops, fried in batter. The Scottish have seared sheep’s head, or
, and a sheep’s head broth known as
, sometimes made with feet and neck of mutton and stewed with barley, dried peas, carrot, turnip, leeks and parsley. Both are national dishes, though they have fallen out of favour. A pig’s head brawn, known as potted
, is markedly similar to its Scandinavian counterparts.