When Fergus Henderson’s St John opened its doors in London almost 30 years ago, it helped revolutionise what modern British cooking represented — harking back to the days of old, simplicity and a return to whole animal butchery and cookery.
Its signature dish of roast bone marrow, sourdough and parsley salad is revered by many (myself included) including the late, great, Anthony Bourdain, while Fergus’s first cookbook includes everything from duck hearts, to tripe and brain.
But, is Northern Ireland ready for a return to the cuts, organs and varieties of old?
Offal, and other parts of the animal less favoured in the kitchen, may have had a bad reputation for many. For older generations, boiled or fried cuts until the point they’d have to be identified by dental records, have sullied the relationship. A younger generation, put off by the idea in the first place.
There’s nothing to be particularly scared of when it comes to offal, and there are baby steps along the way. Not all of it is for everyone.
I remember a leading Belfast restaurant here serving bone marrow on its menu, the first time I’d seen it in the city. But it was served as a ‘gratin’ — mixed with breadcrumbs akin to a light stuffing. There wasn’t that boldness as to whether Northern Ireland was ready to scoop out quivering yellow masses of barely solidified animal fat. A few spots in Northern Ireland will serve sweetbreads, when available. Often the thymus gland of a lamb, they are creamy, dense, but quite subtle, with some gamey tang. Think a more adventurous chicken nugget — a good place to start.
Rabbit was on the menu during a recent trip to Shed Bistro on the Ormeau Road. It’s not offal, but it’s a bolder step to put Thumper on the menu, for some. It’s not a challenging flavour for nervous palates — think stringier dark meat chicken as a rough guide — and a beautiful and subtle flavour, especially when in the right hands.
You’ll find liver on menus here, on occasion. Of course, its butter-laden, smooth, blitzed cousin has remained a popular bistro classic. But pate forgoes the textural challenges some find with the liver itself. However, cooked well, chicken livers are especially good. During a visit to London a couple of years ago, I first gave brains a go. Coated in a light, crunchy batter, the mottled exterior of the tempura makes way for a soft, subtle, tofu-like constituency. For this one, it’s all about presentation and perception.
Lamb and beef heart is another falling in to this category. It’s essentially a lean muscle which can be flattened out, seared and served pink.
“The texture is just what you’d imagine it would be,” a Belfast chef tells me when discussing offal, and, in particular, testicles. It’s something what has fallen so far off the menu that when I searched online for them, a Wikipedia entitled ‘Testicles as food’ popped up, indicating just how far removed from the dinner plate they now are. For many, they are still a stretch, including me. Many of the seemingly less appealing parts of the animal are actually often among the most nutritious. Liver and kidneys are both lean, rich in iron, vitamin A and B12.
A lot of offal does take a more deft hand than most to make the most out of it, though. It’s hard to truly mess up a piece of lean and tender beef in a hot pan, but getting sweetbreads properly prepped, poached, and browned in butter is one for the professionals.
So, while there is a growing trend towards meat-free alternatives (something I’ll be exploring in a future column) in a bid to reduce our consumption and the carbon footprint left behind, if we are going to eat meat, we should embrace as much of the animal as possible.