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Stay sanguine when there’s blood on the plate

Gleeful gore.

A few years ago, while dining solo at Martin Picard’s gleefully gory Montréal restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon, I got chatting to the couple next to me at the bar – Americans sharing a pig’s head.

That looks good, one said, nodding at the boudin noir squatting fat and black on my plate. When I told him what it was, the man I’d just seen eating brain by the spoonful actually shuddered.

Blood tends to get that kind of reaction. I was ashamed to feel it myself, presented with a bowl of drisheen at Cork’s English Market. For those unfamiliar with this local delicacy, it’s a boiled pudding made from blood and salt – no spices, no meat, and definitely no cereal pollute its shiny mauve form.

It tasted, I thought, like a cut finger. Perhaps you have to be brought up on it.

Whether it’s thanks to religious prohibition – “But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat,” God tells Noah and progeny in Genesis 9 – or squeamishness (it’s the only piece of ourselves we ever taste) there’s something a bit weird about eating blood, human or not.

Yet blood’s a renewable resource not to be sniffed at – it was once quite the done thing to bleed your friendly household cow for food, as the Masai still do today. According to figures in Jennifer McLagan’s excellent book Odd Bits, you can get as much nutrition from taking four litres of blood every fortnight as from killing the animal outright, plus you’ve still got poor old Daisy at the end of it.

For something so reviled, blood doesn’t taste of much: rich and faintly metallic, it’ll blend obligingly into just about anything. Indeed, it’s particularly handy for thickening sauces, much as you’d use egg yolks in a custard: jugged hare being the classic example.

McLagan gives a recipe for a chocolate blood ice cream, based on the traditional Italian carnival treat, sanguinaccio.

“I doubt anyone will guess the secret ingredient,” she says merrily. I’ve yet to test that one on my dinner guests.

The Fins have their blood pancakes, and the Taiwanese their sticky blood snacks, but round these parts blood consumption is largely limited to black pudding, my current favourite being the Irish Clonakilty: I’d been singing its porky praises for years before

I discovered it’s made from beef. Similarly, Stornoway black pudding’s recent application for protected status allows for the genuine article to be made with “sheep or cow or pig’s blood”.

Researching this piece, I came across a medieval porpoise pudding designed for fast days. It seems one blood tastes much like another – it’s the other stuff that makes the difference.

Once upon a time, every part of Britain had its own take: Cheshire puddings were spiced with pimento, coriander and caraway, while Yorkshire folk preferred thyme, marjoram and savoury. Dorothy Hartley writes of seeing eight or nine stalls selling homemade versions from earthenware trays at a Devon market in the 1950s. These days, Lancashire seems to have cornered the English market with the Bury black pudding, velvet smooth and studded with white pearls of fat.

Like many bigger manufacturers, both Clonakilty and the Bury Black Pudding Company now use dried blood, a development that may make life easier, but is fiercely resisted by traditionalists such as Cork butcher Jack McCarthy, whose black puddings, including a chocolate, pistachio and mint number, took two golds and a bronze at last year’s meeting of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin, or Brotherhood of the Knights of the Black Pudding (yes, such a thing exists).

Devotees claim that fresh blood (which can be sourced from abattoirs, should you have the yen) yields a more intense flavour. Just the thing to set you up for the day, eh?

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion