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Hock, stock and
two steaming trotters

Until recently, total carcase utilisation, or ‘nose-to-tail eating’ had been practised since time began. While today we continue to enjoy meat, heaven forfend if what we eat looks anything like a piece of dead animal. Courtesy of sterile supermarkets and their meat aisles, we no longer have to think about the heritage of what we are eating, but times are changing. With the combined advent of austerity and a return to celebrating local produce, ‘nose to tail’ is making a comeback. Tastes and habits will not change overnight, but this return to the way our predecessors ate for millennia is a welcome addition to the 21st Century menu

Ofally good

Elderflower pork cheekElderflower pork cheek

When it comes to total carcase utilisation, an area not to be overlooked is offal. Seen as a delicacy in many countries, it is less popular in the UK; consequently a lot of home-produced offal is exported to other countries. As a result, offal that is available to the domestic market offers chefs good value for money.

Offal includes a wide range of cuts from the more recognised products such as oxtail, tongue, kidneys and liver, to more speciality cuts such as sweetbreads, fries (lamb or beef testicles), tripe, cheek, suet and feet.

“These bits aren’t scary,” insists Jennifer McLagan, author of Odd Bits (see below). “They are simply bits of meat. Unfortunately lack of familiarity has caused people to be wary of them, but we really shouldn’t be throwing them away; not only does it not make financial sense but I see it as a moral issue too as we should honour the animal that has died to feed us.

Braised oxtail with star aniseBraised oxtail with star anise

“I urge people to try the ‘unusual’ cuts of meat. I think the problem is between people’s ears – they don’t like the thought of offal but they might well enjoy the taste if they can only get over their prejudice. Of course not everybody will like every part of all animals, but they really should give it a go.”

For anyone wanting to dip their toe into the offal arena, Jennifer recommends starting off with heart. “Heart is one of my favourite pieces of meat to cook with – it is very cheap, so flexible and easy to cook. If chefs feel they need to introduce customers to heart gently, then alternate pieces of steak with heart on a kebab or simply add it to a beef stew for extra depth of flavour.”

The whole hog

Pig's head terrinePig's head terrine

Breaking down and maximising use of the carcase not only ensures consistency but also saves on supplier costs. It is, however, important to understand ‘yield’ – how much meat you can expect from the animal – before taking this approach.

“While pork shoulder, belly, loin and leg continue to be popular choices, we have witnessed a resurgence in more traditional dishes, with the recipe for Ham Hock Terrine being one of the most downloaded pages from the BPEX website,” observes BPEX Foodservice trade manager Tony Goodger. “Pigs’ trotters and cheeks, which respond well to slow cooking, are increasingly appearing on menus alongside exciting dishes making use of the knuckle, hock, offal and head. Brawn, for example, is made by cooking the head of the pig to release the meat, which is diced and layered into a terrine and set with jelly from the cooking stock. It makes a perfect starter or lunch-time platter served with pickles and crusty bread.”

Eblex Cutting Specification ManualTo encourage caterers to make more of the entire carcase, EBLEX has produced 320 beef, lamb, veal and mutton cuts  – each with its own detailed cutting specification  – which feature in its Meat Purchasing Guide and Cutting Specification Manual available to download from www.eblextrade.co.uk

For more information on pork, visit porkforcaterers.com and request a copy of The Complete Guide to Pork for the Professional Chef. The booklet has a number of recipe ideas including: Pig Head Terrine with Herbs, Kidney and Hock Pie; Stuffed Pig Trotter with Black Pudding and Chestnut; and Elderflower Wine Braised Pork Cheek and Root Vegetables.

Fergus Henderson

Fergus Henderson - photo courtesy of Laurie FletcherFergus Henderson - photo courtesy of Laurie Fletcher

Mention the delightful Fergus Henderson – co-owner of St John restaurant in Smithfield, London – to anybody even remotely interested in nose-to-tail eating and you will probably be met with either a sigh of “I haven’t eaten at his restaurant yet but I’m definitely going to;” or a wide grin and sense of awe by those who have already made the pilgrimage to what many view as the Mecca of total carcase utilisation.

However, suggest to this self-effacing man that he somehow started something when he opened St John in 1994 and Fergus’s eyes will fix yours through his trademark round spectacles and he will gently but very firmly tell you that you have it wrong. “This is no trend,” he insists. “This is common sense. I really can’t get my head around the fact that chefs don’t use the whole animal – and more fool them. Surely it’s only polite that if you kill an animal, you eat it all. I find the idea of just eating the bit in the middle rather unsettling. What’s more, it’s delicious – all those different textures and flavours.”

Fergus appears genuinely perplexed that not all meat eaters share his fundamental belief that if you kill an animal, then you do not cherry pick and throw the leftovers away. “Unfortunately people are used to pink stuff wrapped in plastic and don’t like it when meat really looks like meat,” says Fergus who sources all his carcases direct from the farms where they lived. “My pigs grew up in piggy heaven. And just look what you can get from a pig’s head. What could be nicer than a piece of pig’s cheek? Or pressed pig’s ears… the combination of the soft jelly and crunchy cartilage,” he sighs as he too is in piggy heaven at the mere thought of the dish.

Reflecting Fergus’s no-nonsense yet Michelin-star-winning approach to food, is the restaurant itself. Here no music plays, no art adorns the walls and no carpets muffle your tread. “I don’t think restaurants should be about décor and background music,” declares Fergus. “The eater should be the focus. After all what’s better than the noise of wine glugging, cutlery on plates and people’s conversation?” What indeed? Clearly a formula that tastes good to others too judging by the esteem in which this outwardly somewhat unprepossessing eating place is held.

When asked if he sees himself as an ambassador for nose-to-tail eating (on the day EC visited him he had just returned from a working visit to the States), Fergus treats the absurdity of the question with the response he believes it deserves: silence and a wry smile. Clearly not then. However there are many, many out there who would disagree with him.

www.stjohnrestaurant.com

Odd Bits - How to cook the rest of the animalOdd Bits
How to Cook the Rest of the Animal

by Jennifer McLagan
Cost: £20.00

Jennifer McLagan is on a crusade to bring the nose-to-tail style of cooking back onto our dining tables. Her mission: restoring our respect for the whole animal, developing a taste for its lesser known parts, and learning how to approach them confidently.

Much more than a cookbook, Odd Bits delves into the rich geographical, historical and religious roles of these unusual meats. McLagan’s enthusiasm for her subject is contagious, and her insight and humour should get even non-believers to consider the pleasure of odd bits.

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