The offal truth

Author: Fergus Henderson
Photography: Antonia Pesenti

You may think you don't like offal, but what's that chicken skin on your plate? Fergus Henderson prods the wobbly bits and shows us just why the organs are vital.

"Do not be afraid of your cooking," a wise man once wrote, and I think the same could be said of your eating. I have something of a reputation as a nose-to-tail man, an avowed eater of offal. But it saddens me to see offal treated as a culinary dare or grim penance. I don't want you to try offal because it's morally important to eat the whole beast (though that is certainly a very good reason). I want you to try it because I think you'll like it, and because, to quote that same wise man, there is a set of delights - textural and flavoursome - that lie beyond the fillet. No gel or foam can come close to the mystery and magic of a meaty, giving piece of nicely cooked offal.

So let me take you by the hand and gently lead you into the world of innards and extremities. In fact, I think you might already be part of the way down the path, even if you think you're relatively innocent of such things. Roast a chicken and what are the first parts everyone goes for? The crisp skin and the nutty, sticky wings. Skin and wings: offal and offal.

Chewing the cud would appear to be the perfect exercise for an ox cheek destined for the pot; braised gently, the fat and muscle break down to a giving plate of joy submissive to the fork. Ox tongue, brined and gently boiled, deserves a prize for the best-behaved organ. It knows no bounds in culinary uses: thinly sliced, it is quietly devastating - especially in a tomato and mustard sandwich.

Now to the kidney, surrounded by suet. If you manage to get a calf's or lamb's kidney in this pristine state, simply roast it with plenty of salt. Freed of its fat, membrane and sinew, you no longer have an organ of elimination but a gleaming jewel.

Roast bones are reluctant to give up their marrow (tools and a wee wrestle are required), but once the rich content is freed, spread on toast and sprinkled with salt, it'll bring anyone back from the edge.

The trotter is a vital thing. Vital from the pig's perspective because it stands on them, but vital to cooks, too. At St John we make what I call trotter gear, a jelly of cooked-down trotters and other goodness salvaged from the foot. It's a wobbly magic potion with untold uses in the kitchen. Rabbit, squirrel and guinea fowl benefit from its unctuous potential. A game pie, too, is one of trotter gear's finest moments, but whatever the meat, the gear will soothe and counsel it though the sometimes traumatic heating experience.

Oxtail you should be familiar with, but let's not overlook the tail of the pig. Kids love them. I love them. Texturally speaking, they represent the perfect midway point on the beast, the purgatory, if you will, between fat and flesh. Breadcrumb and deep-fry your oven-poached tails, and stand well back - they spit.

There's something reassuring, meanwhile, about a salted pig's liver hanging in an airy room. Thinly sliced and fried with a splash of vinegar to just soften, it's just the thing to add to a salad of boiled eggs and radishes. Not far away, physiologically speaking, we have the spleen. The spleen's been the victim of some bad PR what with all the venting, but in addition to being a bit of a romantic (swelling, as it does, when one is in love), it also makes for good eating. Rolled in bacon and sage, poached, and then served cold with raw onion and pickles, it's a joy.

Now imagine biting into something that goes "crunch!", and then gives. It's not a chocolate truffle, but a lightly poached and lightly breadcrumbed calf's brain - a cheeky fried cloud of deliciousness.

Brains are relatively easy to get, but fresh blood can be tricky. Whenever we come by some we make blood cake, a blood sausage cooked in a loaf tin, sliced, fried in duck fat and served with a fried egg on top. A little secret: rather than the little cubes of back-fat you'd traditionally put through a blood-pudding mix, we use little bits of gently cooked pig's head. It produces a far more giving result.

And, yes, I haven't yet mentioned tripe. I didn't want to lose you too soon - even now it seems to put a tremble through even the bravest tummies. So rather than a dish, I want to leave you with an idea: good tripe can achieve that rare culinary feat - the moment when food steadies and uplifts at the same time.

Thank you for indulging me in this offal odyssey. I'd best give you your hand back now before you start to worry about what I might have planned for it.

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