Where Does Nose-To-Tail Eating Go Next?
As I walked past the meat section of the supermarket the other week – that overlit, glacial corridor where even the choicest bits of steak are made to look worryingly grey – I couldn’t help but notice the disparity in price between the different cuts of meat. I realised at that moment that I’d never taken the time to properly compare the prices between a pig’s blushing chops and the ropier parts of the beast.
My findings were this: pork liver was £2.20 per kilo, the pork loin steaks retailed for around £6.25 per kilo, and some fancy-looking teriyaki-coated pork belly slices came in at £10 per kilo. Not exactly a “stop the press” discovery but seeing that price disparity got me thinking about how offal might just be the most underrated and the most overrated part of the animal. Underrated in the sense that it’s often ignored by most regular shoppers but overrated in how it’s lauded as manna and the sign of a refined palate by many professional chefs. If you don’t like offal, you’re probably not going to be sitting at the cool kids table during the next MAD World Summit.
Regardless of whether you’re a chef chasing a Michelin Bib Gourmand, though, buying the unloved offal and often-forgotten cuts of meat is still one of the best ways to get bang for your buck at the butcher's. Not only are liver and kidneys much cheaper than the sexier, more marketable slabs of breast and thigh but they’re packed with a lot more flavour. A little goes a long way when it comes to the humble kidney; for example, an organ with a musty, mineral flavour that adds a real brunt to whatever dish you deploy it in.
Even at HG Walter (the bougie butcher’s near my flat), you can nab 250g of chicken livers for just £1.75. Eating the whole animal and treating every last part of its anatomy with reverence has long been a proponent of Fergus Henderson. Fergus, whose seminal Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking gave the face of modern British cooking a much-needed facelift, caused a sensation when he opened up his St. JOHN restaurant in 1995. Typical dishes on the menu included pigs' ears, trotters, and tails along with the hearts and bone marrow of various other critters. The Smithfield restaurant has even been known to serve squirrel when they’re in season.
Convincing artists and actors that bone marrow was just as worthy of its place in a fine dining setting as a filet mignon was no easy feat but St. JOHN wasn’t the first restaurant to specialise in these deep-cut cuts. Many of Britain’s Chinese restaurants have long included everything from snout and trotters to chicken feet and oxtail on their menus. Whole animal eating has always been there (minus, perhaps, the squirrel) if you were willing to look for it. In Chinese culture, there’s a strong belief that taking an animal’s life is a very serious thing to do and that none of an animal should therefore be allowed to go to waste. It’s a damn sensible outlook, and one I think we should all try to adopt in our day-to-day lives.
Dishes like pressed pig's ear and deep-fried tripe are staples in countless spots across the UK’s many Chinatowns. The ox tripe kebab at Camberwell’s Silk Road, a nod to the restaurant’s Xinjiang roots, is one of my favourite renditions of offal in the capital.
When talking about off-cuts it’s impossible to ignore regional sausages like the Thai sai krok Isan and the Vietnamese dồi tiết – a pungently delicious cylinder of pork blood, pork fat, and basil that always hits the mark. Those sausages are what a Richmond would be if it wasn’t such a coward and had a lot more guts. Literally. Manteca, a new-ish nose-to-tail restaurant in Shoreditch, has an Italian-inspired menu that sees eye to eye with the Viet and Thai belief of incorporating the whole pig. Standout plates include a crisp and juicy pig's head fritti as well as a pot of pig skin ragù that comes complete with a sail-sized chicharrón of more crispy pig skin. But where does an English chef get the chutzpah to put something like that on the menu?
“I got a copy of Nose to Tail Cooking by Fergus Henderson when I first started cooking,” says manteca’s executive chef Chris Leach, “that was a book I used to enjoy looking at for inspiration and then, when I moved to London, I used to eat at St. JOHN a lot – that was always my go-to place. It was inspiring to be there. It was just no-nonsense, straight up, ‘it is what it is’ on the plate cooking and real, hearty flavours.”
Manteca achieves a similar no holds barred impact through its dogged commitment to using up every part of the pig. Not many restaurants in the UK can say that their best-selling dish is a pig skin ragù, yet, for manteca, that’s very much the case. Part of the appeal for a chef like Chris involves the difficulty of turning those unloved bits of meat into something loveable. Being able to work well with offal is a sign that you know what you're doing in the kitchen and a real test of a chef’s skill.
"All those weird cuts and joints and bits of offal requires a bit more attention or a bit more skill as a cook,” explains Chris, “and that was always quite enjoyable to learn; that way of taking something that's a bit gnarly for a lot of people and turning it into something that's delicious and approachable."
Everyone knows there’s more to a pig than pork chops but even the more open-minded east London clientele have found the stuffed pig’s snout that ambles its way across manteca’s specials board to be a hard sell. Take a look at that dish, and it’s not hard to see why.
"It's visually quite arresting but it's also the only dish we do which I think is quite challenging.” says Chris, “because if that snout is put in front of you, there's no denying what it is, right? We do the pig's head fritti, which is essentially a head that's been pressed and breadcrumbed and deep-fried. But we could call that deep-fried pork and nobody would need to know any better. Once it's a whole stuffed snout, though, that’s a different story.”
While it might look rather intimidating, the truth is that that dish isn’t just extremely delicious but a statement of intent about what nose-to-tail cooking is about. Like Fergus Henderson braising a squirrel in duck fat, serving a snout so brazenly on a plate is a forthright call to action by the manteca team that immediately lets diners know they’re not fucking about. It’s a plate of food that is achingly in vogue (one that challenges supposedly adventurous eaters to have a go if they think they’re hard enough) yet remains strongly rooted in the traditions of classic French and British cuisine.
"That dish really is classic cooking in the sense that not only do you need butchery skills to take the snouts off but then you’ve got to use proper braising techniques; you’ve got to stuff it, wrap it in crépinette, and then you've got to get a nice colour on it and make the sauce. There's nothing modern or fancy about it, it's just an honest bit of cooking.” Like the food Chris used to be inspired by at St. JOHN, manteca’s snout is the epitome of “it is what it is” gastronomy – a dish that has nowhere and nothing to hide.
While a lot of chefs do bow down at the altar of Fergus Henderson, nose-to-tail isn’t just a fad that pays homage to a single restaurant in Spitalfields – it’s a way of thinking that forms the spine of many international cuisines. I don’t know who the first person to sauté a kidney in butter or whizz up a liver into a pâté was, but ask yourself the question: “how do I make something delicious from nothing?” for long enough and anyone with even somewhat decent kitchen know-how will inevitably be bound to come up with the goods. The deranged yet delicious late-night meals that I watched my flatmates construct at uni are testament to that.
Creativity often comes out of conflict and desperation. It’s why myriad countries across the globe have all turned to the intestinal tracts and pancreas at some point in their culinary history, usually when times are at their toughest. While meat, bacon, and butter were all rationed in Britain during the Second World War, other ingredients such as fruit, vegetables, poultry, fish, game, sausages, liver and all other offal were off ration, but not always available. The reason that we’ve kept on cooking those dark, mysterious bits of various four-legged and two-legged beasts during times of relative bounty (and the reason chefs like Chris Leach continue to wax lyrical about them) when you can get a polite packet of perfect pink mince from the supermarket is simple. Those organs taste damn good.
Most chefs would rather eat well-made off-cuts than a poorly cooked fillet steak. Most regular people would probably think the same if they had half a clue what to do with a lamb’s liver. Because of the skill involved in making things like kidneys not taste like piss, you’ve often got to pay quite a lot for those offal-y bits if you’re going out for a fancy dinner. The cod’s head at Fallow – a delicious creation that arrives gawping at you from a bright orange pool of sriracha butter – is £16. You might think that a dish made from the bits of a fish that most fishmongers chuck out at the end of the day would result in some sky-high profit margins for the restaurant but that doesn’t take into account the time and effort needed to make something so gnarly so tasty.
“Like with many of our other dishes, we asked ourselves what tends to go in the bin. It started with our fish supplier [Bethnal Green Fish] delivering a cod’s head the next day, and then we were serving it with sriracha butter sauce the following day. It instantly became a hit and now they send us all types of fish heads,” says Will Murray, chef and co-director of Fallow.
“The cost of the fish heads themselves are low in comparison to the other parts of the fish,” agrees Fallow’s other chef-director Jack Croft, “but the dish is labour-intensive which raises the overheads. One of the reasons for this is because we make our sriracha in-house which means fermenting our own chillies and garlic before blending, straining, and seasoning the sauce. Each batch of sauce is ready after three months.”
Charging high prices for sweetbreads and a cod’s head might seem like a counterintuitive way of making them more easily accessible to the general public but bringing the best out of those ingredients isn’t easy and expertise doesn’t come cheap. It’s also thanks to the impact of high-end eateries like St. JOHN and Fallow, and the trends they help to create, that we’ve seen a trickle-down effect with more offal being served at more affordable restaurants. It’s even spread into food media with newsletters like Ben Slater’s brilliantly tongue-in-guanciale Gristle providing “off-the-wall nose-to-tail fuckery” via a weekly dose of innovative, intestinal-heavy recipes.
It’s directly because of people like Fergus Henderson and his cult-like following among chefs and cooks that you’re now able to eat a prik laab of chicken, offal, and fried skin in the middle of Shoreditch; a bowl of crispy pig’s tails in Peckham; or an oxtail, bone marrow and anchovy flatbread in Canonbury. The latter is one of the signature dishes of Lee Tiernan, the chef and owner of north London’s FKABAM (Formerly Known As Black Axe Mangal). Tiernan was a disciple of St. JOHN and head chef of St John Bread and Wine, so no surprises there. But it’s fun to see how dishes like Tiernan’s flatbread – itself a riff on St. JOHN’s iconic bone marrow salad – are now starting to inspire a whole new wave of chefs.
Budgie Montoya is the head chef at Sarap, a bistro on 10 Heddon Street that specialises in modern Filipino cuisine and a spot that’s currently surfing snugly through the barrel of the latest nose-to-tail wave. “Nose-to-tail cooking as a philosophy is something that I always want to strive for,” Budgie tells Mob, “I genuinely believe that we as cooks have a responsibility for the whole animal. The reality, though, in a market like London, where the costs of running a restaurant coupled with the expectations of customers and the sheer amount of competition out there, is that it is a difficult and expensive exercise.”
Sarap is one of the hottest restaurants in London right now and a shining example of how nose-to-tail cooking can be cutting-edge and traditional at the same time. You can do some very literal whole animal eating at Sarap by pre-ordering the lechón (an entire suckling pig) for you and a troop of your mates to tackle over dinner, but that ethos is more subtly present in how the team there try to use up every precious scrap of flesh that enters the kitchen.
The rellenong crispy pata – a foreboding twice-cooked trotter stuffed with adobo pork rice – is a riot of crispy, crackly skin and unctuous pork-studded rice. It’s a rounded dish that eats exceedingly well and proves that even a pig’s stubby appendage can become a star in the hands of someone who treats it with the respect it deserves.
“I was always taught to value and be grateful for the food that was placed in front of me,” says Budgie, “I love all offal if only for the sheer fact that it takes a great deal of effort and love to make something that is often discarded into something beautiful and delicious.”
Budgie was not, of course, the first chef to beautify the trotter and his decision to use the pettitoe of a pig rather than the hock or knuckle traditionally used in crispy pata was a conscious decision. Budgie’s dish is as Filipino as it gets but it works in direct dialogue with one of the legendary dishes of haute cuisine: Pierre Koffman’s stuffed pig’s trotter.
Koffman’s La Tante Claire classic has influenced everyone from Marco Pierre White to Gill Meller but Sarap’s star plate is far from a diluted version of the Frenchman’s morel and sweetbread-stuffed pig paw. Budgie’s rellenong crispy pata is so much more than that; his gorgeous, gelatinous trotter isn’t a direct evolution of Koffman’s dish but an innovation that adds to its enduring legacy while still carving out its own path in the city’s gustatory canon. It is a dish that stands firmly on its own two feet. Or trotters.
Nose-to-tail eating has always had a symbiotic relationship with fine dining but the growing number of accessible and affordable options highlights how the game has moved on from the field of starched white table cloths. A plate of tripe shouldn’t have to cost the moon and, when done properly, cooking the whole animal should be both a sustainable and economical model for a restaurateur.
"We've tried to always keep our prices fair,” says Chris Leach, “and by trying to only buy whole animals you end up with a lot of dishes that kind of get borne out of necessity. Because you pay by the kilo for the whole thing, if you don't use it, you're still paying for it. That’s we try to turn every part of the animal into something that is delicious and good value." Eating offal just makes sense.