Britain's Tongue, Kidney and Brains Boom

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Offal in a restaurant

Tough economic times have Britons eating their hearts out and swallowing their tongues. Not literally, of course. But offal — or "variety meats," as the food category is euphemistically called in the U.K. — is experiencing a surge in popularity, with sales up 67% over the past five years.

Retail and food experts say that worry over the high cost of prime meat cuts and the economic downturn have more shoppers checking out supermarket offal offerings. But the return to eating innards was under way even before this year's financial crisis, as celebrity chefs and restaurateurs have encouraged a return to cooking organs such as liver and kidneys, which once enjoyed a central place in British cooking. (See how farmers around the world prepare their crops for harvest.)

At ASDA, Britain's second largest supermarket chain and a subsidiary of Wal-Mart, offal sales were up 20% last month compared to November 2007. Sainsbury's, the country's third largest supermarket chain, is selling 48% more pig livers, 22% more chicken livers and 8% more pig kidneys than it was last year. Overall, sales of offal in the U.K. are expected to reach more than $62 million this year, according to industry analysts Mintel.

"It's price-driven," says Bob Cotton, CEO of the British Hospitality Association, which represents 60,000 hotels and restaurants in the U.K. "I couldn't say the British public have suddenly fallen in love with offal. That would be gilding the lily."

Perhaps. But as people buy more tongues, brains, chitterlings (intestines) and trotters (feet), price is not the only consideration. British chef Fergus Henderson, who had a hand in the trend back to organs when he opened his London restaurant St. John with an offal-filled menu in 1994, says taste matters — and every part of an animal can be delicious. "It was never a mission to start the offal ball rolling; it just seemed common sense, good eating," says Henderson, whose cookbook Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking was met with rave reviews in 1999.

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the author of several cookbooks and host of the River Cottage series on British television, also touts offal as an alternative to prime cuts. Recent episodes of the show included footage of a whole pig being butchered, with Fearnley-Whittingstall demonstrating how to cook every piece of the animal, a practice he encourages.

In other corners of Europe, where offal never really disappeared from the menu, eating organs is reaching new heights of popularity. Sales are up in Spain and have increased 15% in France over the past three months. France's National Federation of Offal Merchants is encouraging the trend with an annual, month-long promotion involving well-known chefs and the publication of a book of offal recipes from prestigious restaurants.

The U.K. has a long history of offal eating. "We once were a nation that ate everything," says Ivan Day, a food historian who specializes in British and European cuisine. Lancashire, an industrial area in northwest England, is famous for its offal dishes, including liver, kidney, tripe (the lining of a cow's stomach), cow's heel, sheep's trotters and elder (cow's udder). There were more than 260 tripe shops in regional capital Manchester a century ago, many of which sold faggots, a traditional English dish made from a mixture of pork liver, fatty pork and herbs wrapped in an intestinal membrane. Scotland, of course, is famous for haggis, which is made of the heart, liver and lungs of a sheep or calf, all boiled with oats and seasoning in an animal's stomach. (See pictures of Spain's annual tomato festival.)

Rationing in Britain during and after World War II meant people ate more simple foods, says Day. Families stopped passing on their offal recipes, and people eventually became squeamish about such dishes. "We became a nation of muscle-devourers, confining our carnivorous activities to the brown stuff that came in neat, little polystyrene trays with some cling-film over the top of it to make it look neat and tidy," he says. Many types of offal, especially brains, were banned when mad-cow disease struck in the late 1990s. Day says the revival now might be a sign of people yearning for more traditional dishes. "The English are only just growing up about food," he says. "They're only just discovering food." Or rediscovering it.

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