Not sweet or very bready, but don't let that stop you...
I once wrote in an article for Time Out Buenos Aires on ‘the ubiquitous chimmicurri, an oily chilli and spicy sauce that is one of the highlights of any Argentinian asado barbecue. Molleja, however, is one of the highlights of life.
The molleja in question are sweetbreads – the thymus from the throat or around the heart. And it’s no hyperbole, sweetbreads are a highlight of life, of this I have no doubt. In fact, and I have never admitted this to anyone but the Sabotage Times, it would genuinely account for around 60% of the reason I returned to Argentina with my new wife to live (calf sweetbreads are banned in the UK). Yes, I dragged my wife to live in a country she’d never really shown too much interest in for a bovine organ that boosts the cows immune system. (The other 40% of the reason I returned is made up variously of malbec, friends, sex hotels, boredom of England and bloody amazing football games).
Within four hours of landing in Buenos Aires I had sweetbreads in my mouth. They are part of the offal fest that appears before the main meat course along with chinchulines (which look exactly like what they are, namely the small intestine), kidney (riñon) and liver (higado) offered to fill up on before the main course. But the sweetbreads are often the most expensive cut of meat. In Argentina they are a delicacy. Here they throw them away. Admittedly, they are banned (something to do with what Argentines call ‘la vaca loca – the mad cow), but even lamb sweetbreads that are available if you persevere, cost next to nothing.
So what is it about it? The best I can describe are having the texture of a scallop with a vaguely foie gras taste, although not quite as delicate, with a hint of that offally taste. They need to be soft on the inside, and crunchy on the outside. Squirt a bit of lemon. Oh my.
It’s been a couple of years since I returned back to the UK and my endless hunt for sweetbreads continues. As I mentioned, calf sweetbreads are banned in the UK, so only lamb sweetbreads are available – pork sweetbreads are also eaten, although I haven’t been able to find them. Lamb sweetbreads are still pretty tricky to come by, but I have an understanding butcher (Village Butcher in Meads, Eastbourne) who orders them for me, and calls me on my mobile when a consignment comes in (some came in today, cummon). I buy everything he has (yes, my dear, that is two kilos of thymus gland between the Ben & Jerrys and breast milk) and incredibly cheap they are too, around £3.50 a kilo.
So how to cook them? There are several methods, the French, like the French always do, usually slather them in some creamy sauce or, God forbid, in a casserole. I prefer them with only the intervention of heat, and perhaps a little lemon and salt. As you can see from the pic (I helpfully suggest where they would come from had I been a cannibal), they look, frankly, disgusting. I recommend not showing guests the before cooking; they smell a bit ripe too.
I had never cooked them before, but I would be barbecuing them Argentinian style of course. I started off following Julia Child’s recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (she’s the one who was immortalised in recent Julie & Julia film). She says, ‘Sweetbreads and brains have much the same texture and flavour, but brains are more delicate.’ Then she mentions something about authorities and how you need to at least soak them for several hours ‘to soften the filament, dissolve their bloody patches, and to whiten them’.
And if the French advise that, I’d pay attention. It then advised to blanch them in salt water, or milk. I chose watery milk and blanched them for about eight minutes. I then cut off anything that looked a bit dodgy or hard, and threw them on a barbecue for about five minutes until they were a golden brown colour (I have also pan fried them – only in butter, never olive oil – and on a smoking griddle which works just as well). Easy. Crunch a bit of coarse salt on them, and squeeze a lot of lemon and grab them hot. Oh, oh, oh. I implore you. Call your butcher now.
Alternative recipes, and one I stole from St John in Smithfield which occasionally have them, is to blanch them in the same way and serve with a little bit of cream and peas as a starter.
And now, you too, can experience one of life’s highlights. Really. I’m being utterly honest. Can you tell?