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Tripe and onions

As has been noted on previous occasions, there are few parts of an animal that I am not prepared to eat. I have bought into the notion, popularised by the likes of Fergus Henderson and Hugh Flippin’-Whatsisname, that if you’re going to eat meat (and, let’s face it, the day I turn vegetarian will be the day Satan has to wear snow-shoes), you should make use of the whole animal.

Liver, that most divisive of cuts (you really do either love it or hate it, it seems) is a particular favourite of mine, especially when served up with bacon and onion gravy. I rather enjoy kidneys too, and when we went to that 24-hour restaurant in the Les Halles district of Paris called Au Pied de Cochon, I had to have the pied de cochon (pig’s foot, served in this particular instance with BĂ©arnaise sauce and pommes frites). The subject of today’s post, though, is tripe.

It may be a delicacy in some parts of the world (especially Italy; if you’re in Florence, do try the trippa alla Fiorentina, the tripe sandwich obtainable from the food-trucks outside the Mercato Centrale) but this meat product made from the stomachs of various animals is poorly regarded in Britain these days. It used to be a popular dish, especially in Lancashire although its appeal, rather like that of jellied eels in London, does appear to have been limited to the working classes. Rather like liver, it was nutritious but fell out of favour in the increasing affluence of postwar Britain. Apparently, in Lancashire they liked their tripe cold (not uncooked; rather like ham, it always had to be cooked – boiled, to be precise, which is what gave it its white colour – first) and served with vinegar. Malt vinegar, presumably – and that turns me right off; my food adventurousness only goes so far! I’m no fan of vinegar (I’ve never even liked it on chips) and the only reason why we have a bottle of (distilled) malt vinegar in the house is because it’s great for tasks like unblocking the sink (when combined with bicarbonate of soda) and de-scaling the kettle.

But I digress.

A couple of months ago, we were shopping in Morrisons when I spotted some tripe in the pre-packed meat section. Naturally, I had to buy it. Even after it was made very clear that this would be something that I would be cooking at a time when Allison would be away.

Given tripe’s associations with the Red Rose County, I was intrigued to note that the brand of tripe I was buying was called Real Lancashire Tripe, made (if that is the right term for a product described on the label as “100% ox tripe”) by the Real Lancashire Black Pudding Company – which has a black pudding recipe that dates back to 1879 and has featured on Rick Stein’s Food Heroes. The tripe, so the label tells me, was ready-cooked, just like it was back in the day. I could even eat it cold and straight out of the packet should I so desire.

I wanted to do something with it, though, and so I searched our recipe books. My recipe of choice can from an unlikely source, Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book – a Sixties period piece which apparently introduced men to the world of gourmet cooking. I bought the book second-hand for myself for a laugh (would his recipes be as unnecessarily complex as the plots of his novels, I wondered?), but it turns out that when he published a cook-book, Deighton wasn’t having a laugh.

He’d trained as a pastry-chef and was a cookery columnist for the Observer while he was also writing spy thrillers; his columns usually consisted of illustrations with short instructions that he had initially developed so he could avoid getting his expensive cook-books dirty in the kitchen. His two worlds collided when one of his books, The Ipcress File, was made into a film in 1965 and the anonymous protagonist of the novel became Harry Palmer, the spy played by Michael Caine in one of his first major roles; being a Sixties spy film, the movie was obviously inspired by the Bond movies but this showed a more downbeat British spook; unlike Bond, Palmer is a Cockney who lives in Notting Hill (at a time when that part of London was decidedly unfashionable) and constantly has to deal with red tape while badgering his boss for a raise. Like Bond, though, he has a taste for gourmet food and in a memorable scene he cooks a meal in order to impress a female colleague who he’s brought back to his flat. What I hadn’t realised before was that Deighton himself was on hand to provide cookery training for Caine, and in the cooking scene the recipes tacked to the wall of Palmer’s flat are from Deighton’s cookery columns, while Deighton’s own hands were used in a close-up.

This is credited with having encouraged men to get into the kitchen (as Tom Parker-Bowles has pointed out, “If hard-bitten Palmer could be a chef, then so too could any average British male”), and to coincide with the film the afore-mentioned cookbook, complete with the author’s own illustrations, was published. Recently, The Ipcress File was referenced on the superb TV show Back in Time for Dinner – in the Sixties episode, it’s the impetus for the dad to go into the kitchen and cook his first meal of the show while the mum goes out and gets her hair done.

The point I’m getting to is that among other very interesting recipes, Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book has a recipe for tripe and onions, and it’s the one I used. 

The tripe was cut into strips and simmered in milk for about an hour (surely, though, it’s the milk that’s simmering – wouldn’t the tripe be getting stewed or poached?). While this was going on, I needed to fry an onion in butter and use some more butter – well, the recipe is from the Sixties – to make a roux. What with preparing a green vegetable to go with it, I had four pots and pans on the go on the stove. 

I don’t recall seeing Michael Caine doing any washing up after cooking that meal in The Ipcress File, and having cooked one of Deighton’s recipes and cleared up afterwards I must say that I’m a little surprised that he doesn’t devote a page or two to washing-up techniques; I’m sure that if he had, he’d’ve recommended a good brand of washing-up liquid (after all, he famously recommends having a dozen bottle of Pomerol in a “basic” wine cellar; either it was much cheaper back then, or this was the bit where he was having a laugh). 

Anyway, the milk that was used to simmer the tripe ended up being added to the roux, and the tripe (very tender after being simmered in the milk) and the onion were added to this. Deighton recommended garnishing the result with parsley or paprika (I chose the latter), presumably to add a bit of colour to a very white dish. I liked it – buttery, gelatinous (tripe is, after all, rich in gelatine) and very filling. 

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