Among the stranger corners of English cuisine is the history of using those parts of animals that might make us feel a little squeamish to produce tasty, nourishing food.
The correct term for these cuts that tend to make children screw up their faces in horror is offal. This refers to any of the internal organs and entrails of animals, although it also sometimes extends to the extremities of the animal. But our squeamishness about this area of the culinary arts is not justified. In fact, we unwittingly each offal every time we eat a regular sausage or spread certain types of pate on our toast. The traditional reluctance of the English middle classes to embrace these so-called cheaper cuts and dishes, is not replicated around the world.
In fact, in many other European and Asian countries, it is an accepted part of their cuisine that no animal part should be wasted. In recent years, it has become more fashionable for wealthier diners to eat offal dishes, and the nose-to-tail principle, which is less wasteful than traditional meat eating, has also helped to spur this change among those who regular patronise English restaurants.
But for the English working class, offal has always been on the menu. The reality of poverty and deprivation in the cities of the Industrial Revolution meant that no part of an animal could go to waste, leading to an array of uniquely English offal-based dishes, a tradition that was strengthened by the rationing and deprivations of the Second World War.
These days, you can find an enormous variety of offal dishes, many of them drawn from far flung parts of the globe, but there are many traditional English offal recipes that have become a familiar part of our culinary landscape. Here are six of the best.
The West Midlands is not well known for its culinary prowess, but faggots represent a significant contribution to English cuisine and were born of the tough conditions that prevailed for most people in the heavily industrialised towns of the Black Country – so-called because of the smoke and soot that blanketed the sky, streets and buildings of this region at the height of the Industrial Revolution.
Faggots are arguably the dish most easily associated with this region of the country. Faggots are large meatballs, made with pork offal and cheap cuts of meat including heart and liver, all mixed together with herbs and spice to produce an inexpensive, nutritious dish. The unique factor in faggots is the use of stomach membrane on the outside, which helps hold the meat in place.
Traditionally, this is a dish served with mashed potatoes, mushy peas and onion gravy. The dish caught on with the wider population during the Second World War, at a time when meat was particularly scarce and these days you will find faggot varieties all over England.
A distinctively English dish, devilled kidneys were once a popular form of breakfast for the Victorians, though the dish itself first appeared in England during the 1700s. It has continued to evolve and is now generally eaten as an appetiser or perhaps a light lunch.
The dish is made by frying lamb kidneys in a distinctive spicy sauce that is made with vinegar, mustard, a little Worcestershire sauce, cayenne pepper, and, depending on the recipe, a little fruit jelly. It is served usually with fried sourdough or white bread and garnished with fresh parsley.
Steak and Kidney Pudding
This is another classic English dish and perhaps the best known use of offal. It was a relatively late addition to Victorian cuisine, with the first recipe dated in 1861, but it soon became popular and by the middle of the 20th century, was eaten widely in all sections of society.
The dish consists of a suet pastry that is filled with a mix of diced beef, gravy, along with chunks of lamb or pig kidneys. The pudding is traditionally prepared though a steaming process, which helps to develop the rich flavours associated with this dish. Most often served with mashed potatoes and a selection of vegetables, it is a typically hearty English dish, perfect for cold winter nights.
Another quintessentially English comfort food, Oxtail soup had modest beginnings. It is believed to have originated in the East End of London, among the Huguenots who lived in the Spitalfields are of the city in the seventeenth century.
The dish is effectively a combination of beef tails and vegetable stew, and is typically a rich beefy soup, often enhanced by adding a bottle of stout, which adds more texture, depth and richness to the mix. Proper oxtail soup is the product of using large, tender pieces of meat and a long simmering process, of at least two hours, which ensures a remarkable and heady blend of flavours.
Tripe and Onions
The ultimate test for the offal-phobic, tripe and onions is a popular dish in the north of England, particularly in Yorkshire, although tripe is also well known throughout Lancashire and the West Midlands, those other industrial centres. George Orwell famously described the selling of tripe in his book The Road To Wigan Pier but don’t let you put that off!
Tripe is the lining of a cow’s stomach, but if that sounds a bit too much, it should be pointed out that trip is actually extremely high in protein, while being low in calories. In fact, it is one of the healthier meat dishes you can eat. Served fried with onions, you could definitely say that this is an acquired taste but there are few more authentic working class English dishes.
Life in the Black Country was tough, with horrendous conditions for those workers who worked in the factories and furnaces that powered the Industrial Revolution. Many of them were first or second generation rural farmworkers who had moved to the city, and the tradition of keeping livestock didn’t completely die. Pigs were a common choice, and you can see evidence of this tradition even to date in the use of stone pig ornaments on walls and buildings from Gornal to Walsall.
Inevitably, hungry factory workers would want to use every part of the animal, hence the development of dishes associated with pig’s feet or trotters. This may seem an unlikely food source, but in fact, this cut of meat is ideal for creating rich stocks and soups, while whole trotters are also the source of many dishes. Trotters have to be cooked for a long period of time, but the result, whether stewed or roasted, is a surprisingly tender and tasty dish.