Oh, you are offal…
Over the last few years Miss South and I have tried many things in our ongoing voyage of discovery for good food, sometimes confronting long-held prejudices in a quest for enjoyment and understanding. Offal, unintentionally, has been at the fore of our experiences; with memorable contributions including Fergus Henderson’s ox heart, Robert Owen Brown’s tripe, a barrel-load of black pudding, Portuguese gizzards, tongue and liver, and savoury dux* from the Borders. There’ve been some epic fails too – I’ve not tried devilled kidneys since I badly botched them a few years ago – but generally our forays into offal have been enlightening and enjoyable.
This post’s all about the journey from pig pen to plate over 48 hours. It deals with, and shows, some of the reality of this process, and some of the less common dishes which until recently many butchers, cooks and consumers would’ve taken for granted. Needless to say, if you’re of a delicate disposition, you may not want to continue to read this, and there will be some photos you may find a little challenging. If however you’re curious about how to make faggots (or savoury ducks) and black pudding, or wonder about the place for real, fresh food in this modern age, please read on.
As I stared, transfixed, at a bucket of virulently bright red pig’s blood, I wondered if I’d feel squeamish at some point in the day: after all, I was due to witness some fairly hardcore activities and elements which are normally out of sight and out of mind to the average consumer. Would it be watching the butchering of the pig which was destined to be our dinner; during the divvying up or transport of various cuts and bits; or would it be when we were making a selection of offal-based edibles from a series of unmentionables?
The art of enjoying ‘the fifth quarter‘ tends to inspire a certain amount of bravado, especially with blokes as they tuck masochistically into a lump of wobbly indeterminates. I’m not sure if I can adhere wholesale to this testosterone-fuelled stance. Yes, I’d suggested we used a wide selection of different pig parts for our Northern Stars supper club meal; yes, I was more than ready to prepare and partake in such dishes; and yes, I was damnably curious about the whole process. But I did wonder if at some point, I might feel just a wee bit peely-wally…
The impetus for this process was featuring Porcus pork as the main for supper club, and at first it was the prime cuts we were interested in. However ambition and curiosity, coupled with the opportunity to use any part of the this wonderful free range beast, soon got the better of us and we decided to try something more ambitious. So, I kept reminding myself, I was the driving force behind this and I only had myself to blame!
Nipples on or nipples off?
Watching Dan from Porcus lugging in the two sides of the carcass, and sharpening his knives (testing the blades on his fingernails, a simple but effective trick) was fascinating. I’d never seen a full pig butchered before, and watching (and feeling) different cuts was a really important experience for me. If you care about what you cook, you should know what you’re cooking; seeing the fresh, firm, well-muscled flesh it was obvious that this porker had enjoyed a lot of limbering about on moorland pastures, keeping trim and honed. Its flesh was pink and bright… none of the traits of pale flabby mass-produced pork.
He deftly broke down each side into individual components, following the natural contours of the muscles and bones; expertly cutting the tenderloin out, trimming the loin and belly, and removing shoulder and fat for the faggots. That’s when we had the debate about whether we should remove the nipples for diners of a more delicate disposition… we decided to keep them on for completeness.
While Dan was busy butchering the animal, SJ and I admired the haul of caul fat and other offal which had come from the abattoir. They’d set aside several hearts and livers for us too, looking like props from a horror movie in their plastic bags. We then wrapped everything up in the Porcus trademark brown paper packages, and laid it out for the camera. There was a LOT of pork product there, as you can see here…
Once we were sorted and loaded, I began the drive to Manchester. Going, I may add, incredibly cautiously… I couldn’t help envisage what would happen if someone drove into the back of me or if I took a corner too fast. I didn’t relish tasking a valeting service with cleaning litres of blood from the inside of my boot… too Pulp Fiction. Shudder. When I got to North Star (incident-free but later than planned) we ran through our ingredients checklist; the chefs excitedly inspected the various cuts of pork, and we worked out a running order for the prep. I donned my apron, washed my hands and got ready for an intense few hours.
Fun with faggots
Let’s start with the faggots (yes, I know… I know.) After loads of research, comparing French, English and Asian variations, Deanna and Ben decided on a slightly posher class of faggot, using a mix of chopped liver, heart, minced shoulder, back fat, onion and unsmoked bacon with herbs.
So we chopped and minced the pork bits, mixing up with fresh parsley and adding the rest of the ingredients, seasoning and then rolling into patties. I was keen to muck in and help out as much as possible, so I rolled and flattened them before starting to wrap then in caul.
It’s often hard to source caul fat: some butchers will say it’s too difficult to get from their abattoir, others that there’s not enough demand so it’s not worth their while; I’ve even heard some people suggest it’s illegal. Trust me, it’s not, but it does rely on the co-operation of the abattoir to remove and retain this amazing stuff. It’s a web-like membrane of fat, which surrounds and supports the internal organs. Think of it as nature’s cling film, perfect for wrapping, binding and tying food: it melts and disappears during cooking, barding and basting the meat whilst helping it to retain its shape. Having never worked with it before, I was pretty fascinated by its delicate pinky-white tendrils, but had to quickly get over that and start using it, fast.
I started by tearing sheets of the caul off, but found a set of kitchen scissors helped me get more rapid results, and settled down to a routine of web slinging. Once we were done, rows of proud faggots sat on trays, ready for the next day’s cooking. Ben had also set up the pork belly to poach slowly in stock, in readiness for being pressed overnight, and trimmed out the pork loins. Once all that was in hand, it was time to move on to the blood sausage making…
Bloody good fun
I’ll be honest, this was my personal highlight: making our own black pudding from fresh pig’s blood. Having long entertained a desire to make my own black pud, I’d been gathering and gleaning tips from a variety of sources: this great post by fellow northern blogger Them Apples had piqued my interest last year; The River Cottage Cookbook, and forums provided a lot of information, old copies of butcher’s manuals, and my cherished and well-thumbed copy of Jane Grigson’s Charcuterie & French Pork Cookery were also a key references.
I love a bit of local Lancashire/Bury-style black pudding, but last year’s ‘Black pud-off’ had elevated Charlie Barley’s Stornoway black pudding to the top of the North/South charts. Texture and flavour varies massively with different styles, and I wanted to create something which sat somewhere between a boudin noir, local pud and Stornoway-style: a smoother texture than the local, but still using some cereal filling as a nod to wider British tradition. I settled on oats, and immediately thought of a local pairing with this… Todmorden brewery Barearts’ fantastic rich, complex-tasting vintage Oat Stout. If we were to use any liquid in the sausages, I couldn’t think of anything better than a superlative local craft ale, with hints of chocolate, caramel and anise flavours. Besides, I wanted to utilise some different spices and herbs in our own pudding, including fennel, so I thought the creaminess of the oats would work well with these and the oatmeal.
I’d originally intended to use dried pig’s blood, but changed my mind after reading more about food heroes such as Ireland’s McCarthys of Kanturk, Marc Frederic, and a few more discerning restaurants closer to home using the fresh stuff. After all, we had the real deal to hand, so why use some processed Dutch or Danish product instead? I’d done some homework already, but my decision did provoke the chefs to double-check the exact legal status (once again, it’s not illegal in the UK – though, but it’s generally more of a faff to source the fresh stuff, and some Environmental Health teams are a bit sniffy about it). Needless to say, we had to exercise extreme care and attention to ensure no cross-contamination in the kitchen.
Using the fresh stuff also made it more difficult to source good recipes and tips for how to use the bloody stuff too: I found a few suggestions for how to keep it from coagulating, but generally this kind of info was thin on the ground. So we had to ad lib it somewhat, which kept us on our toes.
Washing hog runners (natural sausage casings) was one of the funniest moments of the evening… SJ had given me some tips, but running water through these long tubes provoked hilarity and amazement in equal measure. Although Ben had made black pudding before, it was with dried blood, and without casing, cooked ballontine-style in cling film. We elected to make long ‘Cumberland’ style links, rather than shorter sausages. Once I’d cleaned a few of them we started with the main mix and a test casing, stuffing it using a funnel and wooden spoon. It was a bit thick so we added a little more stout, then gingerly filled the long casings, before tying them off. We made four large puddings, one at a time. They sat, curled bright, shining and majestic on the work surface, before we poached them. I also made a few smaller links for test purposes, and took these home to poach, taste and reference before we used the main batch on the night.
Some things we learned the hard way. Firstly, it’s worth trying to use the freshest blood possible. As you’d expect, blood coagulates and clots over time, so we were only able to use a third of the container which had remained liquid. The contents had separated into three constituents: claggy, stringy ‘stuff’, bright liquid blood, and an amazing looking jelly-like element which glistened, looking incredible. In hindsight I’d have probably used some of the latter, as it’s likely it would have aided the setting of the final puddings. Ideally we’d have made this within an hour or two of the blood coming from the abattoir, so the coagulation would’ve been less of an issue altogether.
Secondly, poaching the puds. As we’d read, you need to be really careful when poaching the black puddings to cook them through: we were ultra-cautious when lowering them into water with a slotted spoon, before weighing them down so they were equally covered in water. The water itself was the very lowest simmer we could manage.I was curious to see how much the colour would change when poaching: as you can see they were a bright pink colour, a bit like giant beef sausages. After about forty minutes poaching they’d darkened, to a rather unappealing greyish hue rather than the black we’d expected: however they continued to firm up and darken more overnight in the fridge.
So how were they to actually eat? I was pleased with the texture… lighter in colour and less dense than a shop-bought black pudding, with a crumbly finish. It caused problems when I first tried to fry a round the next morning for breakfast: the pudding just felt apart in the heavy pan. Grilling or baking worked much better, as some of the fat rendered out and the exterior crisped and darkened beautifully. The taste was pretty good too; rather different to anything I’d had before, with the cumin, mace and especially fennel notes apparent – and the whole experience was much lighter and with less of pronounced ferric taste than a regular black pudding would deliver. They could’ve done with more seasoning though; the mix happily absorbed a generous amount of salt and pepper and we seasoned the rounds well before grilling them at the supper club. I ended up eating loads at home with some of Niamh Shields‘ excellent ham salt and a good grinding of black pepper, then dipping the pieces in Dijon mustard and eating with a cocktail stick. Delicious!
However it wasn’t just what I thought, it was all about the diners at the supper club. Thankfully they were well received by everybody on the evening – the decision to pair them with the Lancashire black pudding worked exactly as we’d hoped, allowing a comparison. One guest, who’d summoned up the courage to try black pudding for the first time, preferred ours to the ‘real’ thing: so I think we’ve hit upon a kind of blood ‘gateway drug’. Having done it once, I’m gagging to make more – refining this recipe, trying a more traditional Irish recipe, making morcilla – so it’s probably not the last you’ll hear about home-made black pudding on here.
The final recipe is below… apologies for the lack of precise quantities of ingredients, but we did it by eye and taste. Yes, taste… Ben demonstrated his cojones by tasting the mix for flavour. He’s a braver lad than I am… but then he’s a real chef and I’m not!
Northern Stars Black Pudding
- Fresh pig’s blood
- Mixture of feather and back fat
- Natural pork sausage casings
- Barearts Vintage Oat Stout (8.8%)
- Finely milled oats
- Fennel seeds
- Ground cumin
- Smoked paprika
- Black pepper
Soak 500g of stoneground medium oatmeal with 1 bottle of Vintage Oat Stout overnight.
Coarsely mince pork fat, and mix thoroughly with oatmeal, and toasted, ground mace and fennel.
Pour in fresh liquid blood until required texture is achieved (a pink runny porridge is the best reference). Add cumin and paprika, then season to taste.
Use funnel to carefully fill hog runners. Tie off and leave at leave 10% of filled sausage skin empty, to allow for expansion.
Poach very gently for 30-45 minutes in a water bath or pan, weighing the puddings down. Prick with a needle to check if the contents have cooked through.
One of our four massive sausages did split during the poaching, so we lost some contents (though I liberated this for breakfast with a poached duck egg the next day).
Carefully remove from the water, and leave to cool, before placing in the fridge. The puddings will firm up, and can then be prepared and cooked to serve. Use within five days (although if it tastes as good as ours did, that won’t be an issue).