Talking tripe with Giles MacDonogh: Brexit, wine and intestines

Food

Image credit: Pixabay. Description: an Italian butcher’s shop.

It will be no secret to anyone who has read this section or spoken to me this term (though that’s not exactly a high number of people) that I am passionate about, or perhaps bewitched by, offal. It seems that there are two sorts of people in this world: those who believe that because offal is cheap, it must be disgusting, and the connoisseurs who appreciate the beauty of organs and whatnot. One man who embodies the latter is Giles MacDonogh. Mr. MacDonogh is something of a polymath, having written books on a number of subjects, ranging from the Third Reich to the gastronomic wonders of France, and I know that if there is one individual who can illuminate the murky (and often pungent) world of European offal, it is surely him. 

How could one make tripe nice?

I don’t think I’ve ever cooked tripe – but I know that if you don’t clean it properly, it is probably inedible, which is why it is so seldom served by non-specialists. It’s still the case in France, with andouillette, a sausage with tripe and other bits in it, which is how tripe is most often served to the French, that if you get a bad one it smells, quite literally, like shit when you poke your fork into it, and so it’s not going to get many admirers. If you get a good, authentic andouillette, served with a thick gravy and mashed potatoes, it is absolutely delicious, and the best andouillette is to be found in Troyes, in Champagne – but it has to be done properly, by an expert, otherwise people will be put off for life.

Are we at risk in Britain of losing our tripe dressers?

Well, I believe that it’s always been a fairly regional thing. My Spanish butcher in London always has tripe, and it’s always properly prepared, but many of our English tripe recipes, such as tripe and onions cooked in milk, are very much Lancashire recipes. Indeed, I believe that several Lancashire towns had multiple tripe restaurants until the 50s. Outside of Lancashire, I suspect that tripe was relatively rare, even when it was fairly popular. Tripe tends to go into pet food anyway these days. It’s difficult to get hold of because many butchers don’t order the whole carcass anymore. It can be obtained, but you have to be looking in the right places, and I suspect that, unless tripe becomes fashionable again, the tripe dressers may well be facing extinction.

Why do you think the British are so squeamish about the “cheaper cuts”?

I think our squeamishness is associated with historical wealth: the riches of empire certainly enabled some Britons to afford high quality meat, meat which was envied across Europe. However, another factor was coal, as it burns at a much higher temperature than wood, and therefore you could efficiently cook beef steaks and roast joints of meat. British ovens were a source of national pride. This explains why the English word “steak” is used across Europe. The ability to eat “proper” meat was a source of pride – we didn’t have to eat the “filth” that the French ate, though in France poverty was the mother of invention. Delicious dishes were made out of offal, because that’s what they had. A further reason why our butchers are so good is because the cold climate enables meat to be properly hung, whereas in warmer climes, Provence, for example, the weather was not good for hanging meat to make it more tender. In fact, the other day I was in Provence and bought a sirloin joint, and it was as tough as old boots, because it had not been hung properly. Offal, which has to be eaten almost immediately anyway because it goes off rather quickly, was favoured. 

Could Brexit change our eating habits, and could this lead to a resurgence in offal consumption?

Next March it’s very likely that we will see a price hike in fruit and vegetables – which are already bloody expensive, and have been noticeably low in quality over the last few months. As most of our fruit and vegetables come from the mainland, this is going to be very difficult. However, I don’t believe that this will affect British meat as much: we eat a higher percentage of our own meat, and there are all sorts of stories coming up that the British are not going to be able to sell their own meat on the continent. Given the number of sheep in this country, which is favoured by the rugged terrain of this land, we won’t be short of lamb. The price of meat has not gone up significantly, so our carnivorous habits will likely be unaffected, at least not immediately. Because the French know how to cook kidneys and liver, the price is very high because they’re valued – whereas here lamb’s liver, one of the nobler bits of offal, is absurdly cheap, because most people are afraid of cooking it. Sweetbreads, which are adored by diners, are very difficult to get here, probably because they all go into the restaurant trade. I doubt that Brexit will make us any more offal-friendly as a nation.

Does offal merit a wine pairing?

Oh very much so! In the old days in Paris the top Michelin-starred restaurants would always have a veal kidney dish, which would generally be done with lashings of cream or à la moutarde, and it would be paired with their best Burgundy. You would want the sort of wine with the aromatic potential and alcoholic strength to go with an elaborate, very rich and creamy dish with strong flavours. Lamb’s liver, which is much easier to get hold of than any cut of veal, is a strong flavour – you can’t eat a lot of it – and you need a strong wine to contend with that. 

What will it take to make offal popular again, particularly with youths?

My children aren’t exactly enthusiastic about most offal, though they do love sweetbreads. My daughter won’t eat kidneys or liver, but she will eat foie gras for some reason. It may well be that because my children have been brought up by such a peculiar father in such a peculiar way that they are exceptional in their tolerance of offal, but it really has to do with the parents. I suspect that for most people this sort of food is restaurant food, rather than for domestic cooking. It’s a stupid thing to miss out on, because they are so delicious, but I think that British people are reluctant to cook these things because they’re scared of attempting to.

If you want to make tripe which people of all ages will cross the road for, look to Rome: the Romans are mad about stomach. One great offal dish which separate the sheep from the goats, if I may put it that way, is pasta served with pajata, which is the intestines of a young, non-weaned lamb or calf which still contain the milk of the mother and is served with rigatoni. It’s a dish of tubes and tubes, and you can’t tell one tube from another tube – it’s beloved by the Romans, as Roman food is all about guts. There’s no great tradition like that in this country, and it seems unlikely that a trust in tripe will emerge in the near future.