On a recent late afternoon trip home, I was persuaded (by my children) to purchase ‘homemade’ style pies from a very reputable roadhouse. With my youngest in tow, we waited our turn to select four delicacies from the warmer, the smell of the fresh pastry and roasting meats tantalising my taste buds. But, mixed within the tempting aromas was a smell I recognised from childhood, one that I associated with my grandmother, that of steak and kidney!
I was never a lover of offal. As a child I refused to eat kidney, lambs fry or tripe and in some ways I think my dislike led to the period in my teenage years where I choose to be a vegetarian. My grandmother claimed offal was ‘peasant food’, cheap cuts that were both healthy and filling. But was offal really only eaten by the lower class?
We have all heard the phrase ‘eat humble pie’ – to apologise and face humiliation for making a mistake. But did you know the expression derives from ‘umble pie’, a pie consisting of minced offal, in particular from a deer. The word umble evolved from numble (after the French nomble) meaning deer’s innards. One would have to conclude then that to eat ‘umble pie’ was certainly a step down the social ladder – something that would cause embarrassment.
But we know that there were many intricate and challenging dishes served to royalty and the upper class that contained offal. A good example is ‘engastration’ where one animal is placed inside another and roasted – chicken, within a goose, within a swan. Each animal is deboned, spiced and forced inside the next, with accompanying stuffing containing ground offal.
And things were not always what they seemed. A traditional Yorkshire dish, known as ‘savoury ducks’, actually contained no duck meat whatsoever! Known elsewhere in England as ‘faggots’ this meat ‘pattie’ was actually made from minced pig’s heart, liver, bacon and pig belly fat.
Nor were sweets (desserts) immune from the ‘offal’ treatment. There is evidence to suggest that puddings, including ‘spotted dick’ were consumed in the medieval period and included suet – minced raw fat obtained from beef or mutton. And sweetbreads were NOT sweet breads!
Sweetbread is a culinary term for meat obtained from glands (such as the tongue or testicles) throat and pancreas from beef, pork and lamb. The sweetbreads were commonly soaked in salt water then poached in milk, with the outer membrane removed. It is believed that the delicacies were called ‘sweet’ as many of the glands are rich tasting, opposed to the savoury flavour of muscle meat. The word bread may come from ‘frombrede’ or brǣd’ meaning roasted meat.
But how much offal do we (middle-class Australian’s) eat today? You might be surprised to learn that you consume more than you realise.
Gelatin – though not technically offal, I think it should be included. Gelatin or gelatine is a flavourless foodstuff, derived from collagen obtained from various animal by-products. It is commonly used as a gelling agent in food and is found in most gummy candy as well as other products such as marshmallows, gelatin dessert, and some ice cream, dip and yogurt. Gelatin is a mixture of peptides and proteins extracted from the skin, bones, and connective tissues of animals such as domesticated cattle, chicken, pigs, horses and fish.
Supermarket Pies – did you know that the meat in your “meat pie” doesn’t have to be beef! Muscle meat from buffalo, camel, cattle, deer, goat, hare, pig, poultry or sheep can be used to manufacture meat pies, and the type of animal doesn’t need to be specified on the label. However offal does, but ONLY if the pie is manufactured for sale in a supermarket. A local butcher, baker or ‘pie store’ can add what they like!
Sausages – exactly the same applies as with pies, so buyer beware!
Pâté – I was surprised to learn that many connoisseurs where unaware that traditional pate contains the livers of ducks, chickens and turkeys.
Black and White Pudding – Black Pudding is generally made from pork blood and oatmeal and White Pudding contains pork meat, suet, bread and oatmeal. Both continue to be very popular in the UK and Ireland.
In our ‘throw away’ society, we think nothing of discarding ‘out of date’ food stuffs, excess fat on meats, the outer leaves and skins of vegetables and four day old leftovers. Had we been forced to hunt, scavenge or bake all our own food, as our medieval ancestors were required to do, we might feel differently about excessive wastage. Nor do I believe that ‘offal’ was only consumed by peasants. Given the continued popularity of offal products in modern society, one must assume that we are attracted to the taste, just as the upper class were throughout history. Sweetmeats and Pâté are recorded as ‘delicacies’, certainly not dishes that I would expect to see served only to the poor.