Tongue-tied

Food - Bee Wilson is unnerved by a new fad

All of a sudden the most unlikely parts of animals have become fashionable. Pigs' tails, for example, and tripe; trotters and gizzards and brains. The cheapest scraggy offcuts are now classy London dining.

This is thanks, in large part, to Fergus Henderson, celebrated author of Nose to Tail Eating (Macmillan, £20) and chef at St John in London's Clerkenwell. "Nose to tail eating," Henderson says, "means it would be disingenuous to the animal not to make the most of the whole beast; there is a set of delights, textural and flavoursome, which lie beyond the fillet."

To which my rational self says, "Yes - what an admirable philosophy." There is indeed a sort of hypocrisy in eating ready-filleted chicken breasts as if they grew on chicken trees while avoiding the liver, heart and feet that were once attached to them. My squeamish self, however, is not so sure. I've read Henderson's recipe for warm pig's head several times now but still can't wrap my head around pulling the cheeks away from the skull. Rolled pig's spleen troubles me. As for crispy pig's ear . . .

I decide instead to try Henderson's recipe for boiled ox tongue, a dish to which, in theory, I am partial. My butcher, though, whose shelves are full of lamb chops and filleted chicken, is reluctant to get me this cut of meat. "Tongue isn't cheap like it used to be," he warns me. But after I plead, he sells me a whole three-pound brute a week later for only £4.08.

The first task is salting the tongue in brine (two litres water, 300g sea salt, 200g sugar, juniper berries, cloves, peppercorns, bay leaves, boiled together and strained). When I remove it from the butcher's plastic, I almost gag. It resembles a bumpy sea monster, with a great bloody underskirt and wrinkled sides. It curves in a horrible way. My husband and I stare at it for a while, afeared. We imagine that huge organ tasting us, flicking its blood in our faces, the ox repaying us for its death. I check Henderson again. It has to rest in brine for seven whole days. But for as long as it remains in our house, we won't sleep. So I steel myself and take the rinsed tongue out into the garden in a large china salad bowl, covered first in brine, then with an upturned saucepan lid and, finally, with the heaviest stone slab I can find.

During the seven days' brining, I am haunted by the creature in the garden. It's a strange relief when it's time to remove it from its salty bath and face it again. At least it hasn't sprouted eyes and teeth, as it does in my dreams. It just looks brown and dour. Now to rinse it and gently simmer it in a pan with carrots, celery, leeks, onions, peppercorns and herbs for 3f hours (too long, I think).

The vegetables fortunately cover the beast as it cooks, but when it is time to remove it, the horror returns. The tongue has whitened and shrunk in the water and now looks like a Chinese slipper filled with a decaying foot. "Peel while still warm, as this is much easier," advises Henderson. Easy for him to say. My fingers slither over the pale bumpy skin and the dark flesh within.

I serve it in mottled slices, with boiled potatoes, carrots and horseradish. It tastes very savoury, but the texture is ghastly - the texture of tongue. We ought to feel like "nose to tail" sophisticates, but my husband is looking pale. We eat nervously. Only when the last slice is thrown out do we feel completely safe. I'd rather be a fillet-eating hypocrite than ever have to go through that again.

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?

1999-09-06