I have a thing for offal. Not a thing thing but just a thing. It is partly out of principle, a little bit out of bravado, something to do with price, a lot to do with taste and texture. I have eaten lungs in a bun, spleen with cheese, stacks of roasted marrow bones as well as the fourth stomach of a cow (lampredotto) and a part of the first to third stomachs (tripe).
Offal is divisive and never dull. There are only two camps: the horrified or the fascinated. There are many reasons why I choose to grapple with wobbling kidneys, slippery livers and sinuous hearts. One is an unshakeable belief that if we kill an animal we should be eating all of it. As offal advocate Fergus Henderson says: “Nose to Tail Eating means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights beyond the fillet.”
While tripe is available in supermarkets (Morrisons) it has fallen off the British culinary radar, even in a time of ‘austerity’ and the new-found passion for traditional British dishes. The food critic and writer Jay Rayner describes a tripe stew made for him by Simon Hopkinson as having a, “hint of the farmyard” and an, “echo of death.”
Rayner goes on to quantify that this is actually, “a good thing, some of the greatest foods are like that.” Ripe stinking cheese for example, can push us to the very edge of our oral and olfactory comfort zones, even into repulsion for what is in effect a putrefying mass of rotting curds from the teats of an artifically lactating mammal. I have eaten cheese for which there can be no other descriptor than manure, yet it appeals, fascinates, burns the taste buds and takes my mouth somewhere else.
So does food always have to be just pleasurable? Or can we learn from a new taste experience? For me, it is the latter. I go to the cinema to be pushed, cry, feel uncomfortable, rarely do I need my world reaffirmed. And it is the same with offal and stinking cheese.
In Italy, the Florentines are at ease with the apparently repulsive: in a city built on beauty and art and the genitals of David, some of the best dressed, most cultured Europeans embrace the modern incongruity of tripe. They sandwich it between bread, douse it in salsa verde and serve it from tripe carts, or a trippaio with a big smile, so that it becomes an art form in itself.
Lampredotto, or the fourth stomach, is so-called because of its apparent resemblance to the inside of a lamprey’s mouth, eels which once filled the waters of the Arno. The meat is boiled in water with onions, tomatoes, parsley and celery, and served in a crusty bun which is dipped into the cooking liquid.
While the traditional white tripe taken from the cow’s first to third stomachs was blander and had less texture even with chilli, the lampredotto was the best – a darker, meatier version, fantastic with salsa verde. It is as good as any pulled pork or roast beef, but with that added je ne sais quoi (or non lo so in Italian) of farmyard and a certain frisson of an alien texture wobbling between the buns.
It is of course, like other offal dishes and Italian food, originally a peasant dish, but one which has experienced its own Renaissance and can now be considered a forerunner of the current fad for gourmet fast food.
A tripe sandwich makes our posh burgers and sausages look like mere playthings, dabbling on the safe side of repulsive and socially acceptable. Tripe looks and tastes like stomach and it is gourmet fast food at its best, most historical and most traditional.
The best place to get yours is outside the Mercato Nuovo in Florence, or, follow this recipe and make your own! (if you’re brave enough).