“Till cramm’d and gorg’d, nigh burst With suckt and glutted offal.” •Milton, Paradise Lost X. 633
Mathematically impossible of course, but as it’s an Italian phrase, a large dose of artistic freedom and licence is allowed, nay, is mandatory; hence the ‘fifth quarter’, used as a euphemism for offal.
Which serves as a reminder that meat doesn’t just come pre-packed in styrofoam coloured packaging; at least not naturally. Which is why I keep talking about offal.
Technically it’s defined as: “those parts of a meat animal which are used as food but which are not skeletal muscle”.
The term comes from “off fall”; originally named after those pieces which fall away from a carcass during butchering and originally applied principally to the entrails. It’s since been extended and now covers all of the “internals” including the heart, lungs & liver (collectively known as the “pluck”), all the abdominal organs and extremities: tails, head & feet (which I talked about in this post) along with the brains and tongue. Bird offal is known as “giblets“.
Another, archaic, English word for these insides, especially those of deer, was “umbles”, a term which survives in the expression “to eat humble pie” (to be apologetic or submissive).
The taste and texture of offal depends a lot on the particular organ, and on the species and age of animal from which it came. Offal from calves is generally held up as the finest, providing as it does, large organs of a more delicate flavour and texture. Lamb’s offal is also good, but sheep, pig, and ox offal inclines towards a more coarse flavour and texture (or so say some. Me? Bring it on please!).
Offal doesn’t keep well, so is either prepared and cooked quite soon after slaughter or turned into a product suitable for storing more long-term such as brawn, haslet, paté and some sausages.
The type of offal used (or indeed whether any is used) in any given culture depends very much on the favoured meat animal, which may in turn depend on those weird, stupid, just plain dumb, religious dietary laws. Muslim countries use a lot of lamb offal — as they’re too fixated on some bearded sky pixie ramblings to make the sensible choice and also eat pigs. The Chinese on the other hand, sensibly, have numerous ways of dealing with the organs from pigs.
Offal is a great source of protein, and some organs, notably the liver and kidneys, are particularly nutritionally valuable. In most parts of the world, especially the less ‘developed’ countries, it’s prized accordingly. In the English-speaking world, however, the pattern is a little different, at least in more recent times. In North America, there has been and still exists a squeamish attitude which prompted the title “Unmentionable Cuisine” for a (hugely readable and enjoyably written) book by Schwabe.
In Britain, where there used to be no, or anyway few, qualms about eating offal, consumption declined in the last half of the 20th century, although offal was in fact still eaten in processed foods — where it is not “visible” — and its use is increasing again recently as people rightly go for the “nose to tail” approach .
This squeamishness? Heads and feet tend to remind people that (shock!) this food is of animal origin. And a certain ambivalence about eating certain bits of an animal’s anatomy, such as testicles, is expressed through the used of euphemistic names.Rather unsurprisingly, in the USA, they refer to “organ meats” or “variety meats” instead. Euphemism is all. Some offal has rather surreal shapes and those strong flavours, which are not to everyone’s taste. And the meat of feet and ears is characterised by textures which are gelatinous and crunchy at the same time, a combination which is more disliked in the western world, although greatly appreciated in the Orient.
This coming month, I’m taking another short-story writing course at City-Lit, so as well as limbering up the unused & foggy brain muscle and putting down ideas for that, I knew I also wanted to keep on writing here. Both long-form articles and more “flash-fiction” type quick pieces. This one has to be one of the former as Val just asked if it was going to be “meaty”, as in deep, rich & full of flavour. I promised it would be and then immediately flashed on the old Who compilation album, “Meaty Beaty Big & Bouncy”
I always thought The Who were the guvner band. The Stones were great, of course, but The Who were somehow more real, more mine, tougher yes — real hard Shepherd’s Bush boys — but also curiously vulnerable. And this compilation in 1971 made it easy for an impecunious 14-year old such as I, to round up all the singles and B-sides in one easy gulp. And, believe it or not, it was only today that I found out that the title was named after the four of them — in order Daltrey, Moon, Entwistle and Townsend. Who knew, eh?
Then straight after that I heard Tracey Chapman singing “Fast Car” on the radio & immediately felt tears prickling. I hadn’t heard her voice for ages. My lovely younger sister Liz — who died of breast cancer many years back, Feb 2005 — loved her.
Anyway, enough of the nostalgia; instead moving onwards and upwards in as optimistic a manner as possible. I don’t have the bandwidth to handle more than one writing site at the moment, so STP is going to be the focus until such time as the COVID brain fog dissipates. I apologise for banging on about this but I saw this new definition today, useful for when some well-meaning person asks how you’re doing:
P𝐚𝐧𝐝𝐞𝐦𝐢𝐜 𝐟𝐢𝐧𝐞 — 𝑛𝑜𝑢𝑛 — “a state of being, in which you are employed and healthy during a pandemic but you’re also tired and depressed and feel like shit all the time.”
“If we take a real honest look in the mirror, if you’re paying $100 for a Michelin-starred meal and it’s [raised to] $101, it doesn’t matter. If you’re paying $10 for a sandwich and it’s $10.10, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “No one can tell me with a straight face that’s impossible.”
I think it’s great. I think we could get it to work quite easily. Then take that 1% and feed it back up the supply chain, to the small producers & farmers to help them de-carbonise their processes. And it’s a much easier & more do-able ask than demanding that people only buy local or have to give up meat or that they must take the revolution to the streets to demand that The Man gets rid of the big supermarkets and other polluting agri-businesses. I mean some of us are a lot older now — the street fighting man/woman of our youth is a little less limber nowadays…
This idea comes from the deeply, deeply weird but fertile brain of the Spanish chef Ángel León of Aponiente, in El Puerto de Santa María. He’s mentioned briefly on Salute The Fish & his credo here could be read as “pretentious, moi?” bollocks.
Except. Except, that it’s a fish restaurant, one unlike pretty much any other, one that’s aiming to totally eliminate fish from their menu within a few years. Instead, acknowledging as they do that less than 20% of the available marine flora & fauna is harvested; that most popular fish stocks are dangerously overfished and that global warming has set the marine ecosystems & its biodiversity into what may well turn out to be a death spiral, they instead utilise edible plankton & edible crustacean shells, use marine sugars, seaweeds and sea vegetables, whilst they make their ‘cheeses’ & ‘charcuterie’ from what traditionally are fish discards.
His latest menu was, before the country went into lockdown again (how many more times will we have to hear those words…) and I quote:
“an edible interpretation of the tidal marshes. There would be emerald puddles of plankton butter and marine bone marrow and burrata forged from sea snails. For León, the star of the season was the gusana del mar, a species of sea worm.”
They’re obviously doing something right (if you consider that the award of 3 Michelin stars is the benchmark. I mean I honestly don’t, I think the Michelin system is deeply flawed, deeply divisive and pretty much non-inclusive of anyone other than a very few favoured stars, so I wouldn’t depend on that as a marker, but then this is probably a discussion for another post).
Anyway, I’m still a lot, lot slimmer than the European tyre guy, and I totally think that León is doing the right thing. He’s said:
“Respect and recycling form a mentality and a way of life”
This ‘rice’ or actually the grains from the sea eel-grass is his passion now and, in conjunction with the University of Cadíz, he’s been experimenting on them for the past 3 years or so.
And this laser-sharp focus seems to be paying off.
“The first thing you notice is the texture: taut-skinned and compact, each grain pops on your tongue like an orb of caviar. It tasted like the love child of rice and quinoa with a gentle saline undertow.”
He’s hoping that the team can encourage governments to assist its growth along coastlines everywhere it’ll grow — obviously in Asia and the Americas but, above all else as it’s so close to home, on the African Mediterranean coast — hoping to get them behind a plan to turn millions of hectares into a source of sustainable, local and nutrient rich food, a source that also acts as protection against coastal erosion and a potent weapon in the fight to reduce climate change.
A pig-breeder friend of mine, Martha Roberts, breeds Old Spots in Wales and she mentioned, in passing in a Tweet, the now extinct Dorset Gold Tip, a ‘breed’ that apparently originated in the 19th century from a Tamworth crossed with a Berkshire (and possibly with some additional Gloucester Old Spot ancestry, of course). A (relatively rare) breed, it had slightly lopped ears, with (like the Tamworth) a reddish base to its coat, black spots whilst the hairs had gold tips, giving the breed its name.
This is claimed to be a picture of one of them although as I’ve moaned before, some of these ‘breeds’ are little more than a few herds ginned up in a 19th C. marketing attempt to differentiate your truly excellent stock from that of your neighbours, horribly scraggy, mongrel types, ones bred only a few hundred yards away but still, just across the border in another county; Wiseman in his “A History Of The British Pig” (op. cit.) is rightly excoriating about the problems with using this type of precise geographical nomenclature with any breed.
Bred for quick growth, early maturation, a lot of fat — from those more halcyon times when proper fatty bacon was more desirable for most people — and extreme size (some specimens were so large they were allegedly unable to even raise themselves to stagger out of their pens). By 1955, only one boar was officially still registered (although the Dorset Gold Tip Pig Society managed to limp on until 1961) and the breed will have become extinct by the 1970s.
They’re really just an historical curiosity, a brief road-stop, so I’ve not bothered adding this to the main category of rare breeds.
4. Finally? Finally, feastings.
Tonight, we’re having pie, mash & peas, with some liquor if I can dig out sufficient parsley. The Tourtière (spiced meat) pie comes from the Canadian team at Manchester based Blue Caribou (they also do a banging poutine)
The substance known as Bovril. An umami bomb, ready to explode in your stocks. Well, “explode on your taste buds” kind of thing, not in the pot. That’d be really messy. Like war. Which is where Bovril first came into its own. And — in view of the current cluster-fuck known as Tory Brexit Britain, whose effects could well turn out to be as damaging as a war — this jar should be added to your stash cupboard.
Bovril was (partly) named after the same Edward Bulwer-Lytton novel that influenced a whole 30s’ sub-cult of esoteric proto-Nazis and was then later referenced in Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things”. Who then went onto heft a Nazi salute into the air at Victoria Station after inhaling rather too much Bolivian army marching powder with his comrade in arms, the very mighty Iggy Pop.
How’s that for cause & effect? Naaah, maybe not. But take some hot Bovril and add some sherry; you’ll not regret it. And you probably also won’t go on to flash a Nazi salute either. More in Wiki on Bovril.
I bloody love lardo; the way it melts onto your tongue almost before you put it into your mouth, the fat hit and flavours as it slips down the throat. I must order me some, soon. I’d written a little bit about it in this post back in 2017. Today, I came across this picture of lardodi Arnad being stored in a chestnut-wood box. It’s a thing of deep & wondrous beauty…
It’s simply made, from pork belly fat (read that again, PORK. BELLY. FAT) cured in rock-salt, rosemary, coriander seeds and black pepper for a period of around 6 months. Then served, equally simply as paper-thin slices on unsalted rye bread. An Italian man called Bonin, from the Aosta Valley slaughters just 3 pigs a year to make only around 30kg of this delight, which apparently has a delicate aroma of tannins from the wood. The boxes he hand makes during the long, cold, snowy, winter months, in his agriturismo, high up close to the Alps.
The author, activist Michael Pollan (who I’ve flagged herein more than once, as I consider him a really hugely important writer about food and the politics of food) has said:
“Cheap food is always popular among political leaders because expensive food leads to revolution … keeping food cheap is appealing to powerful interests in society. This will not change until the true costs of that cheap food are accounted for, like healthcare, diet-related diseases & environmental costs. The falling price of food is the reason Americans have tolerated falling wages since the 1970s”
He flagged The Little Donkey Farm outside Beijing to my attention when talking in Fool Magazine #2 about the way food production in China is changing, as it competes hard with the West and as its rising middle-class tastes aspire to eating and living the same way.
China continues to grapple with a daunting problem: how can they feed nearly one-fifth of the world’s population with less than one-tenth of its farmland, all the while encompassing these changing tastes. Thirty years ago, only around ¼ of the population were urbananites; now over 60 percent of the population live in the cities, in a China that is wealthier and more technologically advanced, with a diet that increasingly resembles that of the West. Where they now eat nearly three times as much meat as in 1990. Consumption of milk and dairy quadrupled from 1995 to 2010 among urban residents and nearly sextupled among rural ones. And China now buys far more processed foods, increasing by about two-thirds in less than a decade, from 2008 to 2016.
China does now have some of the largest, most automated and industrialised farms in the world, dwarfing those seen (& rightly vilified for their terrible treatment of the animals) in places like the US and yet they have a major problem with the way that their farms are setup. They’ve a farming tradition stretching over the 334 million acres of arable land, one that’s existed for four millennia. They have over 1.4 billion people to feed, but these giant farms that fuel Western diets are far harder to replicate here. Partly, because much of the terrain is desert or mountains but also, importantly, because the farmland is split amongst around 200 million farmers. China’s agricultural landscape looks less like a monoculture blanket of green than a patchwork quilt. One that they’re finding hard to unravel…
And this leads us directly to this farm. It’s one of many efforts being tried in attempt to square this apparently insoluble triangle. It’s the first Chinese Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm where four hundred families pay an annual membership fee and get — in exchange — a weekly share of the fresh harvest. Another 260-odd families also rent small plots of land, for their own garden.
This PDF has more background and is worth your while taking a few minutes to read it.
They have pigs there. Not in a huge indoor factory, but outside — under cover, in pens — wallowing and digging around in very deep bedding made of rice bran & straw which is, crucially, inoculated with various fermented liquid bacteria. This means that their waste is broken down incredibly quickly — which means no smells — and with no need to turn it as the pigs do that themselves. Every couple of years the bedding is swapped out and used as fertiliser on the fields.
Rice bran is a whole fascinating new subject which I’m reading avidly about; more words on that here soon. Starting with nukazuke or fermented vegetables. Chef Tom Hunt has an explainer piece here.
And the piece title? A donkey called “Professor” became their mascot; they’d intended using it to help cultivate the land — rather than using tractors — but, at least at the beginning, realised they had no one with any experience of harnessing a donkey to a plough, so it spent most of its time grazing. And fertilising.