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William Verrall’s Sweetbreads With Asparagus (1759)

Offal is a sorely neglected source of protein in this country. One of my all-time favourites dishes is steak and kidney pudding. My mother still makes the best steak and kidney pudding I have ever eaten. As a child I would eagerly search my portion to find the pieces of kidney amongst the gravy drenched suet crust. I even offered to exchange bits of steak for more kidney with my younger brother.

It’s a shame we don’t eat more offal. I believe that if an animal needs to die to feed us then we should do it the courtesy of eating as much of it is possible, something our forefathers had no problem in doing. Generally speaking, offal contains more vitamin A and B-Complex vitamins than other types of meat. Some of it does contain relatively high levels of cholesterol but so long as you don’t gorge yourself on it on a daily basis there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be included in your diet. In the past there have been health scares surrounding offal but the horrors of BSE and the like are long behind us now. Plus it’s cheap.

Sweetbreads (the thymus or pancreatic gland of a lamb or calf) are rarely seen outside of swanky restaurant menus. Rich and creamy they are probably one of the mildest types of offal in terms of flavour. They are quite hard to source unless you know a good butcher and can be a little bit fiddly to prepare but well worth the trouble (the fiddly bit can be done in advance).

Like many chefs of the 18th century (and long before) William Verrall doesn’t shy away from using the bits of the animal we discard today. Verrall was the landlord and chef at the White Hart in Lewes (which still stands on Lewes High Street). His Complete System of Cookery is a succinct collection of recipes which reflects his reverence of French cuisine. Some are very much of the time but others, like the one below, are surprisingly modern. I have changed very little from the original.

Asparagus & sweetbreads

Ingredients (Serves 2 as a light lunch)

2 -3 lambs sweetbreads ideally soaked in cold water for a few hours beforehand

½ small onion stuck with 1 clove

1 bayleaf

4-6 thin slices of pancetta

25g unsalted butter

1 shallot, finely chopped

250g bunch asparagus, woody ends trimmed

Good squeeze of lemon juice plus salt and pepper to season

Splash of white wine (optional)

1 tbsp each chopped fresh chives and parsley

  1. Place the sweetbreads in a small saucepan with the onion, clove and bayleaf. Cover with water and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 5 minutes before removing from the poaching liquid then allowing to cool.

  2. Once the sweetbreads are cool remove the external membrane and any gristle. The membrane is what holds the sweetbread together so as you remove this the offal will naturally separate into pieces. You should end up with 8-12 pieces in total.

  3. Cut the slices of pancetta in half then wrap each piece of sweetbread in a strip of pancetta. Stages 1 – 3 can be done in advance but remember to refrigerate your sweetbreads until you are ready to cook them.

  4. Melt the butter in a large frying pan then gently sweat the shallot until it begins to soften. Meanwhile blanch the asparagus spears for 2-3 minutes (depending on the thickness of the spears).

  5. Increase the heat of the pan containing the shallot then brown the pancetta wrapped sweetbread pieces (the shallot will also take on some colour at this point). Remove the sweetbreads from the pan leaving as much of the fat in the pan as possible and keep warm.

  6. Add the blanched asparagus to the pan. Toss the spears in the fat to warm them through then season well with lemon juice, pepper and salt (bearing in mind that the pancetta itself is very salty). A splash of white wine if you have it to hand is a welcome addition but the dish is perfectly good without it. Finally scatter in the fresh herbs before tipping the spears onto a serving plate. Top with the sweetbreads and serve immediately.

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