I finally tracked down some sweetbreads, located between "fries" and "lights"
The world divides into two camps when it comes to offal, according to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall: those with a "yuk, never in a million years" attitude versus those who consider it to be the "food of the gods". I am not sure that I fall squarely into either camp. I like some varieties of offal, but find others pretty hard to stomach. I baulk at tripe, and am not overly partial to anything intestinal. A friend once cooked lamb's testicles for me, but I did not find the experience enjoyable. On the other hand, I love calf's liver (it's the only liver worth bothering with) and I am fairly fond of oxtongue.
Without question, however, my two favourite offal varieties are brains and sweetbreads. I have a distant memory from my childhood of tucking into a dish of fried brains, adorned only with a squeeze of lemon (we were somewhere in France, I think). I remember the shock of those meltingly creamy interiors, so different from what I'd expected them to be. It is appropriate that my view of brains should be tinged with nostalgia, because in this country, nowadays, it is virtually impossible to eat them. Following BSE, it became illegal to sell the heads of either calves or lambs. The legislation has recently been changed, and it is now once more legal to sell lamb's heads. But I have yet to see lamb's brains for sale in shops or on any restaurant menus.
That leaves sweetbreads (which, to be anatomically exact, are either the pancreas or the thymus gland: they taste pretty much the same). Happily, sweetbreads are not wholly unlike brains: there's a similarity of texture (creamy) and flavour (mild and slightly sweet). Getting hold of them can be quite a challenge, though. Supermarkets don't stock them (obviously) and butchers decreasingly do (there's not the demand, many say).
When in need of an unusual animal part, I usually head up to Haringey, in north-east London. The area has a large Turkish community, and besides the excellent mangal (upmarket kebab) shops there are several halal butchers. Last weekend, I tracked down some sweetbreads in one of these, located between packets of testicles and lungs (or, as they were labelled, "fries" and "lights": offal butchers are masters of euphemism).
Before being cooked, sweetbreads need to be soaked for a few hours, and then boiled for five minutes in acidulated water. Once I'd done this, I fried some onions, added the sweetbreads and some chicken stock, and braised the dish for half an hour, adding chopped garlic, peas and sour cream towards the end. Sweetbreads are often fried, but I like the slow-cooking method: the dish that results has a pleasing softness, the velvety sauce complementing the texture of the meat. Serve this with rice and a salad. I cannot think of a more delicious light supper.