Sweetbreads

We understand Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth likes a fruit bowl. We also wonder what was passing through her head last June 17, when Heston Blumenthal, chef at England’s Fat Duck, served her a “fruit” bowl of sweetbreads, brains and testicles.

Odd bodkins! The Queen with a mouthful of testicles? One is reluctant to offend the royal gut and has been since Henry VIII, who, finding a dinner disagreeable, had the hapless chef boiled alive before a cheering audience. The French, who still insist the Brits boil everything—and would have boiled, not burned, Joan of Arc—must have rolled in the aisles.

Having sweetbreads and testicles roving her palate, Her Majesty was sure to discern they weren’t the same thing, as many suppose. Sweetbreads, although one might have a ball consuming them, are not—not—testicles. They’re the thymus gland or sometimes pancreas of a calf, lamb or pig.

George Washington could have told her that. Sweetbreads were the first American president’s favourite pie.

The sublime gland stormed the White House kitchen again with the FDRs. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was so fond of sweetbreads, Franklin D once complained he’d eaten them six times in one week.

Sweetbreads are strictly supporting players in Hollywood, recently as Sweetbreads à la Gusteau with white fungus and a chili-licorice sauce in Ratatouille. And in 2002’s Red Dragon, the fussily carnivorous Hannibal Lector serves a sweetbread ragout to dinner guests—human sweetbreads, of course.

Canadians have scant past with organ foods, but this could change with the current surge in animal flesh. Charcuterie is the rage in Vancouver. Hot young chefs are rediscovering offal across the land. Lamb shanks, pork belly and beef cheeks are giving way to a more radical tier of brains, ears, snouts, kidneys reeking of aged urine and tripe, reeking of something worse.

With a silken consistency and mild flavour, sweetbreads are the mildest and most agreeable gut of the lot. They partner with the grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with foie gras, truffles and wild mushrooms. They can be deep-fried, pan-seared, poached, baked, braised or barbecued. I’ve just been reading about sweetbreads confit, the delicate lobes cooked in duck fat. And at Vancouver’s Judas Goat Taberna, a sweetbreads saltimbocca is wrapped in prosciutto and sauced in sage beurre noir. Oh, dear.

In realms where puritanism trumps pleasure, the inhabitants don’t know what to make of sweetbreads. Some years ago, after praising sweetbreads in the Globe and Mail, I received a reprimand from the Toronto Vegetarian Association. “If you are an average meat eater,” it finger-wagged, “you’ll consume precisely 12 cows, 29 hogs, 2 sheep, 37 turkeys, 984 chickens and 408 kilograms of fish (and a partridge in a pear tree?) in your lifetime.” The quote was sufficiently loony to merit a place in John Robert Columbo’s Famous Lasting Words, Great Canadian Quotations.

Even without the harangue from true believers, sweetbreads have met up with much abuse, mostly from uncomprehending hacks whose kitchens turn them into nuggets of particleboard. Their fragility is such, only a loving hand can make them sing on the plate.

We’re up for loving hands. You’ll never see sweetbreads in a market, but our Thrifty Food’s butcher can get them for me, no problem. When you buy sweetbreads, they should be pale, pink, plump, soft and moist. Settle for nothing less.

Don’t be put off by sweetbreads in the raw. For sure, they won’t be winning any beauty contests. My preferred punishment for B.C. politicians would be a whack in the chops with an armload of untrimmed sweetbreads.

Nobody does sweetbreads like the French, so we subscribe to classic methods of prep. We soak, wash, blanch, cool, hand-trim and press until they’re white and firm. Then slice them into half-inch-thick medallions. Taste as you go to avoid undercooking and overcooking.

We can turn them into a satiny terrine, serve them as a warm salad, stuff them into vol-au-vent, pan-fry them and sauce them every which way. But, I want them the way I had them the first time, when they left me aglow with discovery at the long-gone Toronto bistro La Chaumiere. I know you can’t go back, not really, but I’m still on my knees, banging on the door.

I want golden-brown, bite-size morsels with a dizzying fragrance of butter and Madeira sauce. I want them crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. I won’t give up. And with a little luck and a heap of time, our ugly duckling will emerge a gastro swan.

Written By:

...

Comments are closed.