Let’s hear it for the Big O

John Parsons with calves feet

John Parsons with calves feet

There’s been some Twittering from Sheffield foodies about eating offal after one cooked a pig’s heart for her dog. She tried a bit first and liked it. Good for her. There’s some fine eating to be had in those bits of animals we mention with a shudder.

We’ve all eaten liver, kidneys and oxtail in a stew but what about wyssen (an animal’s throatpipe), sheep’s brains, chitterling and bag (the rear end of a pig’s alimentary canal), lamb’s testicles, pig’s stomach, pancreas and thyroid glands and lamb’s lights?

I can tick off some of them but I know a man who has gone right through the list because he’s cooked them. He’s John Parsons, master of the Big O (for offal) and this area’s answer to Offal King Fergus Henderson, the London chef who made ‘nose to tail eating’ fashionable. At Food and Fine Wine on Ecclesall Road a few years back he ran occasional offal evenings for intrepid diners and repeated the idea at Fancie further along some time later.

It was quite a revelation. Wyssen, spongy in texture, was served with squares of tripe in a borlotti bean stew. I closed my eyes to eat the sheep brains, sliced and fried, which were crisp on the outside with a creamy interior.

It would be unfair to suggest that everything offal is a success. “The lambs lights – lungs – with sultanas and orange zest were particularly foul, to be honest. It’s the texture, like a big, fleshy Aero. And pig’s stomach was particularly gross,” he told me that evening.

You can’t just call in at the butcher for this type of meat so John has to make a special journey to the abattoir when he’s planning an evening and hope they’ve got what he wants. These days he’s cooking at the Druid Inn, Birchover, so check if and when he plans to get offally again on http://www.druidinnbirchover.co.uk

Years ago I used to enjoy cooked Bath Chaps, which you could buy in Sainsbury’s, and was delighted to find them recently on Sheffield Market, not known by that name but Pig’s Cheeks. Sometimes we don’t realise we’re eating offal as in haslet, a meat loaf which includes all sorts of bits and pieces.

Tastes have changed. There used to be several tripe stalls on the old Sheaf Market which dwindled down to a single tray full of morose looking bits, sold only to pensioners. I am also partial to brawn, but only very occasionally, which requires a pig’s head and trotters if made properly.

We mustn’t forget the feet. I’ve had deep-fried hen’s tootsies as dim sum. The claws go remarkably crispy. David Blunkett MP once tipped me off about a little café on Devonshire Green which made gorgeous cow heel gravy.

I had a wonderful stuffed pig’s trotter a la Pierre Koffman from Max Fischer at Baslow Hall, filled as I remember with chicken and mushroom, and always look out for trotters on menus abroad. In Catalonia a waiter refused point blank to serve me trotter “because the English don’t like it.” I had to have something else.

I returned the next night and pointedly ordered it from the same waiter. This time I was served. So was it wonderful, a truly unexpected gastronomic experience? No.

Seen below, John’s offal tempura and spleen with mash

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4 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for the Big O

  1. You’ll be glad to know that Jez appreciated the pig’s heart (and liver) as much as I did! I would like to claim that the boy has taste, but I’ve only had him a week…

    As for other bits of offal, I love sweetbreads, but the most unusual that I’ve tried has to be the carpaccio of veal testicles that I had in Paris a few years back. They were ok, nowt special.

    As for pork cheeks, I used to buy them from the market too. They were 50p each and came with half a pig’s face attached – and I’m not squeamish, but even I was a little disturbed to find that the pig’s human like teeth hadn’t been removed. Preparing the cheeks was such an effort that I’ve since chickened out and gone for the pre-butchered stuff at Morrisons. However, I’m still dream of making my own guanciale one day…

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  2. I love sweetbreads, too. They are available on the menu seasonally, when male calves are killed, at the Plough, Hathersage, only you don’t get very much. Years ago I used to buy them by the pound, blanch then fry them. I’d forgotten about the teeth in chaps, already cooked. I just cut them out so my wife didn’t see! She wouldn’t eat it anyway.

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  3. True, offal really should be enjoyed more. Two of your examples rang a bell with me. I tried stuffed trotters at the late lamented Mark Addy in Manchester, owned and run by the chef Robert Owen Brown (big mate of Fergus). Very disappointing, stuffed with what appeared to be chicken. And when we were in Barcelona in a local’s cafe for lunch trying to eat like the locals I ordered one of the set lunches and after the order was taken the waitress came back and asked if that was what I wanted. I said yes and she went away, only to return five minutes later asking the same question, and then in basic English, and with a charade involving pointing to her stomach, explained that the main meal was a tripe stew. I then explained that with the help of a Spanish dictionary I did know and had chosen it especially. It was very good !

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  4. Pingback: Sweet, Sweet Sweetbreads – Feast and Glory

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