It’s not controversial to say that the food industry has a waste problem.
The refined tastes and aesthetic preferences of modern consumers mean that while certain cuts of meat are desirable, others are unloved. Let’s face it — most carnivorous customers are going to choose rump steak over offal stew any day of the week.
As you might expect, most of the unused parts of a carcass are simply thrown away. This contributes to a wider problem. Every year, 250,000 tonnes of edible food in the UK never gets eaten, which is enough for around 650 million meals. And with high consumer demand for certain cuts of meat, more animals need to be reared — meaning more food is needed to feed them and more land to is required to contain them.
Though ravenous diners will still expect the perfect white-flesh chicken breast, as chefs, we know there’s more we can do to prevent such unnecessary waste. In doing so, restaurants can call upon a thrifty British tradition of making delicious foods from animal parts that might initially sound difficult to stomach
By buying from an ethical source, using the whole animal and incorporating unloved cuts into a menu, chefs and consumers can help make the food industry more sustainable. As the old saying goes: waste not, want not.
What is nose-to-tail cooking?
Nose-to-tail is a cooking method that ensures no edible parts of an animal are wasted — quite literally from the nose to the tail.
The term “nose-to-tail” was coined by culinary pioneer Fergus Henderson, whose London restaurant St John has blazed a trail for whole-animal cooking since its opening in 1995. In his 2004 book, The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating, Henderson outlines ways to utilise all parts of a pig in cooking, spawning an explosion of like-minded chefs looking to find a better way to put meat on the plate. (The late, great Anthony Bourdain even wrote the book’s foreword).
Far from just being a method of cooking, nose-to-tail has morphed into a fully-fledged movement that considers how the way we consume our food can impact the environment around us.
Whether it’s cow’s head or pig’s trotters, chefs are increasingly looking at ways to fully utilise the meat they source — boosting efficiency, cutting costs and supporting local farmers in the process. As Henderson famously said, "if you're going to kill the animal, it seems only polite to use the whole thing." Makes perfect sense.
Using the full carcass is, of course, far from a new idea. Cultures all over the world have long utilised, preserved and eaten all parts of the animals that they rear or hunt.
The prudent approach of Native American tribes — who used all parts of the bison for food, clothing and materials for shelter — springs to mind, as do the frugal cooking methods that were synonymous with rural British food in the past. But why has the long tradition of serving up chicken giblets to the grandchildren died out?
In an age of mass consumption and instant gratification, many consumers have become complacent in their approach to food, especially when it comes to meat. Much of the meat we see in the supermarket aisle is pristinely packaged in the form of an easy-to-cook chop — a far cry from the abattoir the meat came from.
Some say chefs are partly to blame, too. Even though a full carcass can offer an abundance of high-quality meat, most of the unpalatable parts of the animal are chucked in the bin simply because of cultural preferences about food. Perfectly edible meat is going to waste, and it’s all down to perception.
Take sausages, for example. Though made from the innards of animals, they remain one of the most popular meat products on supermarket shelves and restaurant plates. However, it’s likely that most consumers would baulk if they saw the same animal body parts on a plate in their original form. This irony is not lost on those promoting nose-to-tail cooking.
How to use every part of an animal
Of course, the meat of one animal is different from that of another. Every carcass requires different methods of preparation and cooking. For the sake of simplicity, let’s look at how to use all parts of one of the most popular sources of meat: a pig.
First up, make sure you source your pig from a sustainable local supplier that rears animals in an ethical way. Aside from helping the local food industry, you’ll also ensure the meat is of a higher quality.
When you collect your pig from the butcher, the carcass will produce around 60kg of meat (yes, that’s a lot of meat). The butcher will separate the pig into individual cuts, including shoulders, knuckles, ribs, hocks, loins, belly strips and chops. Importantly, you’ll also receive the undesirable cuts: the head, ears, heart, kidneys, liver, trotters, and tail.
Once you’ve got the pork in your kitchen, what to do with the offal offcuts is completely up to you. Here are some inventive -- and delicious -- ways you can bring home the bacon by using the commonly discarded cuts of meat.
Pig’s head may sound unappetising to many, but it offers generous portions of quality meat cuts -- from crunchy skin to succulent pork cheeks. For roasting, a pig’s head should be cut into two down the middle and thoroughly cleaned. Though the butcher will remove the hair, some excess hairs may remain. If this is the case, use a blowtorch to remove. Here’s a tasty rolled pig’s head recipe from the two-star Michelin chef Michel Roux Jr.
Though popular in a range of Asian cuisines, this one’s not for the squeamish either. Once you get over the initial shock, however, you’ll realise pig’s ears are packed with flavour. As with other parts of the animal, you’ll need to cut out and discard the inner sections and wash thoroughly before use. This quick-and-easy recipe from Club Gascon’s Pascal Aussignac is a great savoury snack to nibble on.
The heart is a muscle, so pig’s heart tastes similar to other muscular pork cuts such as the loins. Before, cooking, rinse the heart in cool water to remove any dirt or blemishes. Then, trim off any membranes and as much fat as possible from the inside and outside. Once you’ve done that, you’re good to go. Here’s a Vietnamese-inspired boiled and stirfried pork heart recipe.
High in protein and low in calories, pork liver is one of the healthiest cuts of meat -- and it’s super versatile, too. First up, you’ll have to remove the membrane and ventricles. Once you’ve completed this grisly task, you can turn the liver into pâté or mince, or simply cook the slices in a traditional way. Here’s a great pork liver with onions recipe.
Pork kidney is stronger tasting than lamb kidney or veal kidney, but not as strong as beef kidney. In any case, it’s a great source of protein, vitamin C and vitamin B12. Make sure you remove the white, tough inner core. Once that’s done, you can cook to your heart’s content. Here’s a delicious pork kidneys with mustard cream sauce recipe from Delia Smith.
Though not the most appealing part of an animal, these lower extremities can be used in stocks or sauces to add flavour to a meal. They can also be braised, stuffed or roasted to form the centrepiece of a dish in their own right. If you’re still not convinced, check out this appetising braised pig’s trotter croutons recipe from Martin Wishart.
This final piece of the animal may cause you to wince, but pork tail can be smoked, fried or roasted to add some swagger to a range of meals. In Caribbean cuisine, pig’s tail is commonly used to flavour stews or soups. Here’s a simple pig’s tail soup recipe that can add some home comfort to your restaurant.
Why is nose-to-tail eating important?
Though the idea may nauseate vegetarian or vegan readers (and even some meat eaters), using the whole hog is the most sustainable way for meat eaters to cut down on food waste. Yes, chomping on trotters may require a leap of faith, but it’s incumbent on the restaurant industry to help influence the tastes of diners.
Let’s face the facts. In the UK, one in every six meals ends up in the bin. Meanwhile, 30% of all hospitality waste comes from the plates of customers. Of all the food that’s grown, processed and transported in the UK, a staggering 10 million tonnes is thrown away each year. Given that 8.4 million people are struggling to afford to eat (equivalent to the population of London), this is clearly a problem that needs tackling head-on.
To meet current consumer demand, one billion — yes, one billion — animals are reared for food in the UK. Chicken are killed for their breasts, cows are killed for their fillets and rumps, and pigs are killed for their legs and loins. So much of the meat goes to waste.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take a lot to change eating habits, as the food trends of 2019 show. Many foods that were once discarded are now part of the everyday palette, including pork belly and lamb shank.
Thanks in part to the efforts of Henderson and farm-to-fork advocates like TV’s Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, these meats now feature in bestselling cookbooks and restaurants up and down the country.
St John may have led the charge, but other restaurants are raising the steaks. London hotspots that practice the principles of the nose-to-tail philosophy include Brixton’s Smoke & Salt, Westbourne Grove’s Farmacy and Covent Garden’s Native.
If you’ve never experimented with a pig’s innards or a sheep’s tongue, you’ll be surprised at how delicious they can be if cooked and prepared properly. Besides, what better way to show respect to the animal than to use and eat all parts of it?
If our summary of nose-to-tail cooking hasn’t won you over, here a few reasons why it’s time to tackle the offcuts and offal:
- Unpopular cuts of meat are very affordable, helping your restaurant save money.
- Buying from local artisanal butchers and sourcing your meat from local farms not only allows you to get better produce — it helps support the local food industry.
- By experimenting with new flavours and textures, you’ll be expanding your culinary repertoire.
- Serving the food on your restaurant’s menu gives consumers a sustainable meat option — and supports the local community.
Got the meat sweats? Stay tuned to the Blue Arrow catering blog for more on the weird and wonderful world of food.
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