If "offal" is a visceral word for you, if it makes you feel squeamish,
go read something else. I'll understand. Really.
Call it what you will – abats, offal, or variety meats – chances are you’ve eaten it unless you follow strict dietary laws against the consumption of certain animal parts. Fancy designer sausages with “natural casings” are packaged in pig guts. All of the parts of a pig are used, producing brawn, forcemeat, salami. And it is not limited to pork products. Oxtail soup comes from the same steer that furnishes your T-bone steak, a good pâte will be made with the livers of some sort of fowl, steak and kidney pie owes part of its flavor to a cute little lamb, osso buco is dependant on the marrow found in veal bones, and that’s just the start of it.
Abats (sing. and pl.) is the French word for all those bits and pieces that are presented so appetizingly that you don’t realize what you are eating. The French classify abats as the “noble” variety and “the others”. In the first category are found brain, heart, liver, kidneys, tongue, and sweetbreads. These are sold as they have been butchered. The rest, which are integral parts of the animal rather than individual organs, are often partially prepared before being offered for sale.
Tripe (one of four stomachs, the honeycomb is considered the best) is cleaned and scalded. Feet and heads have the hair scraped off. Marrow is sometimes detached from the bone and presented as “spinal cord” but is usually offered as sections of bone cut crosswise so the marrow is exposed. When presented with no meat attached to the bone, the marrow is used in a dish called Entrecôte à la moelle (beef steak cooked in marrow fat).
Other items included in the second category are udder (cow only), lung (cow, steer and calf), spleen (cattle, sheep and lamb), ears (pig), tail (steer), feet (sheep, lamb and pig), nose (cow and pig), and head (pig, lamb, rabbit)¹.
While all of France has common recipes using abats, there are some that are more regional than others. Here are four that are typical of Provence because that is the area I know best and that is where my heart is.
There is an area of Provence called the Baronnies, a mountainous region just south of Nyons where they don’t raise much except lavender and sheep. I went to a wedding there once, held in a stone chapel perched on the edge of a river gorge. The wedding feast was held later that evening in a more mundane building, the community center of the bride’s home village.
The wedding cake, rather than being a tiered white frosting affair, was a gigantic glazed gingerbread house which the guests first demolished and then devoured. Before that happened, though, every woman present was given a gingerbread shingle from the roof to take home and put under her pillow.
Among the many dishes served that night was one I fondly remember, Pieds et Paquets a la Baronnies, or “Feet and Packets in the style of the Baronnies”. It was made with the feet and stomach (tripe) of young sheep. The meat had been removed from the feet and chopped. The tripe was cut into triangles of roughly 15 centimeters on a side. In the center of each triangle was placed a bit of chopped parsley, a bit of pork sausage meat, and the chopped lamb. Salt and pepper were added and the points of the triangles folded over to form little packets. These were put into a cast iron pot and covered with a mixture of tomato concentrate, garlic cloves, chopped fresh tomatoes, white wine and water, then cooked very slowly for about 4 hours. It was served with a hard local wheat (épeautre) : grain that has been boiled in a boullion, a recipe that dates back to Medieval times.
When you consider that veal is not a very popular dish in Provence, a surprising number of calves are raised in the river valleys there. They are slaughtered young and shipped across the border to the Italians, who adore veal and prefer it to beef. But the Provençals keep the heads for themselves because they adore a spring and summer dish called Tête de veau sauce piquant (Calf’s head with spicy sauce).
You start by buying half of a calf head which has been cleaned and scalded. It is split lengthwise so you get half the tongue, brain, nose and cheek, the most desired parts.
The brain is set aside to be poached and sliced at the last minute. The rest of the head is put in cold water with carrots, leeks, an onion stuck with several cloves, and a bouquet garni, simmered for 90 minutes, then deboned, sliced, and arranged on a platter. It is dressed with a vinaigrette to which has been added chopped onion, minced chives, strong mustard, and câpers. The sharpness of the mustard, vinegar and câpers is a good counterpoint for the fat of the veal².
Provence is home to many Algerians and this is one of their dishes which has found its place there, too. The French name is Brochettes de foie de mouton au cumin (Sheep liver kebabs with cumin). Cut the livers into 2 centimeter squares, dip them in oil, roll them in powdered cumin and thread on skewers. Salt and pepper them and cook over a fairly hot barbeque fire just until they are pink inside. Couscous is the ideal accompaniment for this.
This one is not limited to Provence; I learned the recipe from north Italian relatives. But it is a Mediterranean dish so I am including it. The French call it Cœr de génisse farci (Stuffed beef heart). Technically, a génisse is a young virgin cow but if you are unable to determine the exact morality of the animal I suggest you settle for a calf’s heart; beef would not be tender enough. While being technical, it must also be noted that the French do not consider heart or tongue variety meats on a commercial basis because they are both a muscle. All that said, here’s the recipe.
You need a fresh heart which has been opened at the top with all the small nerves removed. This will give cavities for stuffing. Mix together finely ground sausage meat, minced parsley, lard, salt and pepper, then firmly stuff the heart. Put the top of the heart back, wrap it in leaf lard and tie firmly with cooking twine. Brown it in a pressure cooker, add half a cup of white wine, half a cup of water, a bouquet garni, a carrot and two onions. Cook under pressure for 45 minutes. Throw away the bouquet garni and leaf lard, slice the heart before serving.
¹The head of the rabbit is commonly cooked when making stew to give more flavor. Some people eat the head but I always take it out before serving the dish. I can't stand the sight of those long teeth.
²With smaller families being more normal today, the head is often skinned from the skull before being rolled and tied with all the loose bits neatly tucked inside. The housewife can then buy just a portion of the roll.
offal by sneff