I enjoy a good meal. I always have. I think it stems from being a skinny kid growing up with a metabolism faster than Usain Bolt on a hundred metre straight. For some reason I seemed to think that compensating for my bony torso by gulping down dinner for two would allow people to accept that it wasn’t my fault if I was a skinny-minny, it was the genes. Instead though it probably just made me look like I was mistreated at home and had to eat as much as possible whenever I could or risk going home deprived like a Yorkshire Child Called It. But you live and learn, and I learned to love food and to not always awkwardly ask for third helpings at the homes of friends.
The thing about my love for food is that I will eat anything. Whether it’s a fine piece of venison or a greasy salmonella laced kebab from a side-street wagon, I will attack it with gusto and relish. Always with relish if you have that option, it’s all about adding layers to the taste. I’m not in any way a food snob, I’m a food fantasist and fanatic. If it’s edible, it’s fantastic and it’s this philosophy that brought me to recently attempt to eat tripe for the very first time. A dish that has broken as many men as it has created patrons, if not more.
I sat mesmerised as this saint of nose to tail eating gushed about the joys of well prepared offal
Tripe, in case you’re not aware is essentially offal. Or as you’d commonly know it, stomach lining, intestines and other nastiness that should really be kept for late night Channel Four programmes. Certain types swear by the stuff, others see it as a challenge, the majority see it as fucking disgusting. I’d have probably sat on a small fence between mild, morbidly fascinated disgust and challenge – a stance that was mostly formed from an interview I once did with Fergus Henderson. We were supposed to be talking about burgers, instead we talked about tripe for half an hour. I sat mesmerised as this saint of nose to tail eating gushed about the joys of well prepared offal , garnished with onions and neatly piled onto perfect sour dough. He made the entire thing sound less like a bush tucker trial and more like man’s god given right and I was intrigued. I admired his enthusiasm and I wanted it, I wanted to be able to walk around shouting from the rooftops about how delicious intestine was and how you’re all missing out you big losers. But I put the thought to bed, knowing probably quite rightly, that my social circles and most of society would frown upon such a secret fantasy. Until recently.
My venue of choice was Arbutus on Frith Street, London. A cosmopolitan faux-formal establishment with urinals that are too low down and staff that tell you too much. I arrived with my date for the evening with no idea of what laid ahead. We took our seats, exchanged small talk with the overly flirty French waiter and scanned the menus. My retinas flicking across the usual guff that such places drop on their menus, with mains of sea bass, veal and mouth watering beef, I could have eaten it all. It was like a culinary wet dream and then my eyes fell upon Pieds et paquets - lambs' tripe parcels and trotters, Marseille style.
It’s very strong tasting and I must warn you.. it smells terrible
My chance had arrived, my face lit up and suddenly as if Fergus Henderson had staged some kind of Swayzee/Goldberg style possession I found myself ordering it.
“Do you know what it is?” Enquired the waiter with only a certain amount of smugness.
“Yes, yes I do.”
“But you’ve never had it before, Sir?” He casually asked, licking his lips at the thought.
“No I haven’t. Apparently it’s delicious...” I shot back, trying to sound cavalier but really sounding unsettled.
“It’s an acquired taste, Sir. It’s very strong tasting and I must warn you.. it smells terrible.” Came his uneasy reply as he shot my dining partner an awkward glance.
And then it was done. I had ordered tripe and not only had I convinced myself that it was a great idea, I had convinced my dinner date it was too. To back down now would be humiliating and throwing myself to the dogs. Although let’s face it they’d probably prefer the tripe.
When the main’s arrived, placed before me were three separate dishes. That’s right three dishes. Apparently, one bowl of sheep guts is not enough for the discerning diner. You need to have it several times over, and what’s that? There would also be a fourth dish arriving later, fantastic. This is the point where my enthusiasm began to fade.
It looked like a two week old Pret a Manger wrap that had been dropped in a puddle
The dishes were as follows, a side plate piled high with crispy, almost pork scratching-esque pieces of offal, a bowl of, “mostly tripe with the occasional kidney bean, topped with breadcrumbs,” and another bowl containing two packets of ground lamb and tripe wrapped carefully in (as the waiter enthusiastically told me) stomach lining. It looked like a two week old Pret a Manger wrap that had been dropped in a puddle. The fourth dish had yet to arrive but would be a grisly trotter and tripe based dish spread onto toasted bread like a serial killer's bruschetta.
Starting with the pork scratching I grabbing a few of the least scab like and went to work. They had a slightly fatty taste to them and in all honesty there was so little of them that you hardly even noticed them. So far so inoffensive. Next up the zombie Pret wrap.
Cutting through the dull coloured stomach lining and trying to avoid staring at the mucus strings breaking away from the filling I got a good mouthful, getting a nice balance of lining and innard. It tasted like old rotten lamb meat that had been blended together with liver and kidneys and the taste was so strong that it tainted both the wine and water we’d ordered for the table. But it was doable I thought as the first beads of sweat formed on my brow, not enjoyable but doable. Gallantly I ploughed on, finishing with a silent stinky little belch as I ate the dish clean to victory. Easy I thought, glancing over to the menacing black bowl of pure tripe up next.
This time the taste was much stronger, it consumed my entire mouth and hung around my nostrils and throat
This was the real stuff. Breaking through the breadcrumbs the smell hit me first. If you were to imagine the scene in Jaws where they cut open the shark to see if it’s eating people and involuntarily gag, well, it smelled a little bit like how Roy Schieder's face looked in that scene. Only with a little bit more death and a hint of Pedigree Chum. The corners of my mouth turned down so much I could have caught my bottom lip on my shoe laces. But I was here and it was costing me eighteen quid so one way or another it was going inside me.
This time the taste was much stronger, it consumed my entire mouth and hung around my nostrils and throat. The texture was chewy, slippery and gristly. It’s colour was a dark brown and you could feel which bits were probably the most anatomically important as it slipped down your throat. I gagged. Wrestling down several more mouthfuls I called it quits and awaited the trotters, at least I was vaguely familiar with this body part.
On appearances they weren't actually half bad. Sort of pinky and grey meat, like a peri peri coleslaw spread on toasted bread. Again I delicately placed a mouthful on my tongue. In hindsight I think I would have rather fucked myself with a cactus. It was disgusting, my date tried it and said it was the worst thing she had ever put in her mouth. Something that in light of things I'd like to take as a compliment (nudge, nudge, huh, am I right fellas?!?).
Overall verdict? Next time I'm going to KFC. If something sounds horrific, the chances are it probably is. Especially if it's the innards of a sheep. In the words of my wonderful date, "What a load of tripe."
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