- The entrails and internal organs of an animal used as food.
‘eating pieces of braised offal turned his stomach’
1.1 Waste Material.
‘the packing plant dumped its offal into the stream’
1.2 Decomposing animal flesh.
‘gulls pecking at piles of offal from the narwhal hunt’
Origin: Late Middle English (in the sense ‘refuse from a process’): probably suggest by Middle Dutch afval, from af ‘off’ + vallen ‘to fall’.
Not exactly appealing is it? When I was little my father told me of his childhood memories of smelling boiled tripe at a family home, most guests and visitors to me in Spain proclaim the word yuck in its guttural and un-typeable permutations when I show it, and it’s a little unfortunate that the word offal has a striking sonic resemblance to awful.
But many cultures eat offal. If you couldn’t get meat, you got the other bits. The offcuts and the organs. Africa and Asia are very keen on offal dishes and in the continent race they leave the rest behind. A close third is South America, but Europe puts on a good show. Norway has their smalahove (sheep’s head), the French their pieds paquets (little packets of tripe), and the Bavarians and Austrians have various offal stews like Beuschel. Southern Europe is a little more open to the idea. Italy have trippa, lampredotto (the fourth stomach of the cow) and pajata (calf intestines); the Portuguese have a penchant for chispe (trotters) and papas de sarrabulho (a stew of blood, flour and bits of meat). The list goes on.
In the UK we eat steak and kidney pie, haggis, black pudding and liver and onions; so we are not novices in the art of offal. Even in squeamish USA you have Rocky Mountain oysters, chitterlings, Pepper Pot soup and fried-brain sandwiches; though these are hard to find. Canada seems to be a hold out.
But what of Spain?
Tracing the history of when people started to eat bits of an animal that didn’t constitute ‘meat’ is fundamentally impossible and illogical. Cavemen were probably doing it. But we can look at documented dishes at least.
The Egyptians knew that fattening their geese up on figs led to tasty livers, the Ancient Greeks – as written in the Iliad – enjoyed roasted tripe, the Romans loved innards – Marco Gavio Apicio gives a very thorough recipe for stomach stew. The Byzantines enjoyed it, the Visigoths couldn’t get enough of it, and even the Omayyad Caliphate got involved with the occasional cooked tail.
A big shift and social revolution in gastronomy occurred in 1270 during the reign of Alfonso X ‘The Wise’, so you knew it was going to be good. He gave various towns and cities ‘Cartas Pueblas’ – municipal charters – which meant they were allowed to set up markets without feudal control from above. Food came to the people much more easily; a gastro-democratic boom.
In towns with big livestock markets, such as in Pola de Siero (one of the charter towns) and its truly vast beef economy, they couldn’t shift everything. Offal wouldn’t make the long journeys across the country, so a local gastronomy strong in everything inside-y evolved. And in a society where the majority of the population had very little to eat and very little money, one didn’t waste anything. The Spanish learned to make use of the casquería, and use it creatively. Why just boil the stomach lining? Why not add spices and sausages and potatoes? Why would you just put chunks of offal in a pan when you could throw it onto a grill with garlic, oil and parsley?
And, then as it often the case in the Mediterranean, those offal-based poverty dishes started to become the stars of the show. Madrid especially took to it and in 1599 we proudly see the first mention of the city’s signature dish: callos. A tripe stew.
Fast forward through wars, both international and civil, changing monarchies, and political unrest and casquería was always there offering a gastro-lifeline to the poorest of peoples.
Now, there are as many offal dishes as there are meat dishes, so I shall focus on the most prevalent and common.
Callos (a la madrileña) – in Madrid we stew our tripe with snout, onion, garlic, pancetta, chorizo, paprika, white wine, bay leaf, parsley and maybe some dried chilli. There’s an a la Vizcaina with addition of leek and an a la Gallega with chickpeas and lemons.
Riñones al jerez – this is one of my favourite dishes. Sweet, iron-y kidneys thrown around in a pan with garlic and onion, some parsley and a flaming slosh of sherry.
Zarajos – marinaded lamb intestines braided tightly into balls round a vine shoot that is later deep fried and sprinkled with salt and lemon juice.
Oreja a la plancha – chopped up bits of pig ear thrown onto the grill and cooked until crispy with garlic and parsley; often in Madrid they add a side gloop of bravas sauce. Good for fans of cartilage.
Morro – pig snout chunks, fried until crispy, served with salt and lemon. Beautiful; like fancy pork scracthings.
Mollejas – the sweetbreads (thymus glands from the neck of a lamb) that are, as often is the case, thrown about on a hot grill with garlic and parsley and served with lemon. Offal loves lemon.
Manitas (de cerdo) – these pigs feet are commonly served stewed in a sauce of garlic, onion, wine, paprika, meats like jamón or chorizo and tomatoes for hours.
Entresijos y gallinejas – another traditional dish loved by the madrileños and eaten en masse during the San Isidro fiestas. The entresijo is the mesentery (intestinal wall tissue), part of the gallineja, which is the small intestine. They are usually connected. Fried and served with chips (done in the same oil).
Sesos (a la romana) – lamb brains can be used in many ways. This dish sees them lightly battered and fried as if they were calamari rings. Tastes like soft iron-y pâté. Also popular in tortilla in the Sacromonte neighbourhood of Granada.
Lengua (tongue) and hígado (liver) are also cooked – I’ve had bits of tongue adding a meaty kick to my ensaladilla rusa once – but are far less prevalent. Criadillas – bull testicles – I have seen sold by casqueros in the markets but have never encountered a dish. But they are eaten. And blood, good old blood, is also used; especially in Andalucía. Chunks of solid, usually chicken, blood are fried in a saucepan with lots of onion, garlic, bay leaf and white sherry.
Where I eat it:
Madrid – Taberna Mariano (Calle Lopez de Vega, 25), Casa Toni (Calle de la Cruz, 14), Freiduría de Gallinejas (Calle de Embajadores, 84), La Tasquería (Calle Duque de Sesto, 48), Casa Ricardo (Calle de Fernando el Católico, 31), Freiduría El Chaval (Calle de la Esfinge, 76B).
Barcelona – Ca L’Isidre (Carrer de les Flors, 12).
Valencia – Askua (Carrer de Felip Maria Garín, 4).
Logroño – Bar Sebas (Calle Albornoz, 3).
San Sebastián – Borda Berri (Fermin Calbeton Kalea, 12).
What I listen to:
Electricity Is In My Soul – Steam Powered Giraffe