How to…cook (and enjoy) offal, pluck and other unusual meat cuts

| 8th March 2011
Half a pig’s head doesn’t sound like a promising choice for a romantic supper for two. But for chefs Fergus Henderson and Valentine Warner, it’s just the ticket

‘Imagine a cheek…. It’s the perfect layer of fat. Offering it to a loved one is very romantic.’ We’re discussing the merits of eating tongues, tripe and tail and Henderson, renowned for championing less popular cuts such as tripe, oxtail and cheeks, is enthusiastic. Founder of the St. John Restaurant near London’s Smithfield meat market, Henderson also has another branch in Spitalfields: St. John Bread and Wine. At his restaurants, critically acclaimed for his ‘nose to tail’ cooking; offal, ears and other unusual cuts are on the menu.  Think crispy pig’s tail or roasted bone marrow and parsley salad. Unadventurous types who prefer commoner cuts of meat, read on. You might just be tempted to branch out. Or become a vegetarian.
Henderson has always eaten tripe and trotters (his mother was from Lancashire and regularly served them up) so these unusual parts are no big deal for him. In fact, he’s trying hard to convince me that this is a treat that the rest of us are missing out on. For foodies like him, this isn’t about thrift (although these parts are cheap) but taste. ‘I don’t want to bully people into eating it but it is jolly delicious,’ says Henderson. ‘The texture and flavours are fantastic. We’re a nation of people who eat pink meat in packets. It’s a great shame.’

But in this day and age of cheap cuts why buy trotter when you can buy sirloin steaks for next to nothing? For an omnivore like me the most compelling reason to tuck into the whole animal is that as a result, nothing is wasted.  It’s a view that is central to Henderson’s cooking: ‘It seems wrong to just eat fillets and legs if the other bits go to waste. We have this very strange view of animals as just fillets. It seems polite to animals to eat it all.’ Making a virtue of using every part fits into his holistic view of food that he describes as seasonal and local; ‘common sense cooking’.

But Henderson is not the only chef putting these cuts back on the menu. TV chef Valentine Warner who fronts BBC series, What to Eat Now, shares a similar taste for unusual cuts. His next book, The Good Table out next September, will feature recipes that use things like liver or tongue. ‘The first time I tried brain fried in butter on toast it was so creamy and delicious I thought: “I’ve landed,”’ says Warner. He says he developed a passion for offal, partly in disgust at how much of the animal is wasted. ‘With the current food crisis and the discussion about where we get our food and the impact of growing it, it is essential we have respect for the animal by eating it all instead of it going into pet food. If it’s edible, cook it! Eat it! These things are delicious.’

So why have they fallen out of fashion? These days most people are likely to baulk at the thought of eating offal and pluck. The term offal applies to things that fall out of the carcass when it’s hung up, so intestines and tripe. Pluck is the term used for things that have to be removed by hand such as kidneys, heart and liver. It wasn’t always this way. If you take a look at old cookbooks such as Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a guide to running a Victorian household, which contained over 900 recipes, you’ll find methods for dressing a sheep’s head or tips on how to prepare trotters. We have a long history of eating these things.

‘It used to be that for people with less money, these parts were all that was affordable, and those with animals wouldn’t think of wasting a scrap,’ says Valentine. ‘Now we have gone from being a nation of smallholders to a wasteful nation of shoppers and as our relationship with nature and animals has lessened, information [on making the most of a carcass] is no longer passed on and inherited, so recipes and tastes are lost. Offal shouldn’t just be associated with hard times as these things are very tasty. Who knows: maybe we will have rationing again in the near future and find our feet with these tasty things again. I would rather eat tripe from a good cow than sirloin from a poor cow.’

In other parts of Europe such as Spain and Italy, and elsewhere around the world, there is a strong tradition of making the most of the whole animal. Warner experienced this on a recent trip to Lapland. ‘We killed a reindeer. Between eight of us we finished the whole thing. We stripped it clean and pretty much ate everything apart from a bit of its stomach. We mixed the blood with flour to make dumplings and cracked all the bones for their marrow.’

As someone who’s never ventured beyond steak and kidney pie, I can’t pretend I’m not squeamish. But talking to both chefs, it’s hard not to be bowled over by their passion and sensible logic. If you’re a meat eater who enjoys chops, why be put off by tongue without even trying it? ‘People have these weird perceptions,’ comments Warner. ‘They don’t think twice about eating hairy pig-skin [pork scratchings] with a pint of beer. They’ll eat black pudding for breakfast, but ask them to try a stuffed heart and they’ll say “no thanks.”’ He has some advice for anyone willing to have a go: ‘Just jump in, starting with kidneys: lightly flour them, chop them up and fry with bacon, butter and onions. When they’re golden brown, sprinkle with sherry vinegar and have them on toast. Or fry a slice of venison liver with some tarragon and a few capers. Then go on to tripe, stuffed heart or poached tongue.’

So I did. But instead of cooking it myself I decided to try a lamb sweetbread [thyroid gland or pancreas] and tongue salad at London's Hereford Road restaurant. The chef and co-founder Tom Pemberton, is the former head chef of St. John Bread and Wine. Served up with minty green beans and a creamy dressing it was surprisingly tasty.

Buying these cuts can prove tricky though. Warner says you’re most likely to get them at a butcher’s in a countryside town where these cuts never went away, rather than at a London butcher. It might take a little extra effort but if you want it it’s there. Even if you decide to not to eat the whole hog (head and all) there’s something about this no-nonsense, no-waste celebration of the whole animal that puts our current meat eating habits under the spotlight. For some though, this may all be too much to stomach.

Top Tips for Cooking Offal

Want to have a go but no idea where to start? Fergus Henderson has some answers

Heart: It's organ that must have done a lot of work, but it’s delicious. To cook ox heart, trim the fat off and marinade it in vinegar, oil and garlic overnight. Then grill it.
Tongue: Such a well-behaved organ. Hot or cold, it lends itself to many things. It’s a joy: lean, beautiful and meaty.
Ear: Because of the cartilage it’s best to prepare this in jelly. You get the crunch of the cartilage and then bite into soft jelly. You don’t just boil it up. These things require love, care and attention.
Tail: This is a fantastic combination of fat, flesh and bone. Good braised, or shallow-fried in bread crumbs.
Snout: Somewhere between fat and flesh. Gives a sticky nudge to salads.
Brain: A rich little joy whether poached, in bread crumbs or on toast. It’s best with a little bit of crunch and it has a lovely give.
Tripe: A miracle. There’s nothing like it. It steadies and uplifts at the same time… Try and find unbleached tripe as the bleached stuff is a bit grim. It does take eight hours of cooking time though.
Trotter: Brings incredible stickiness to any dish you add it to. Great in stew or pie.
Sweetbread: A lovely nutty nugget. Great fried up with peas, chicory and sausages in a pan but it’s also good in a terrine.
Kidney: The breakfast of champions: devilled kidneys on toast are the perfect way to start the day.
Liver: A funny one. It’s the biggest filter in the body and yet it’s always been on menus. It’s great, nourishing and rich. Pan-fried it’s delicious. Roasted whole it’s silky. Yum.

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