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hoof soup

February 2, 2014

spring%20vegetable%20soup.jpg A large banner outside the local Intermarché declares a ‘pigs’ hearts promotion’.

Inside, between the soft drinks and the pet food aisle, a large fridge is bursting with them: dark, bloody and quivering, like they’ve just been plucked from a porcine chest cavity.

For a vegetarian, which fortunately I’m not, the pre-packed meat section of my local French supermarket is a veritable cornucopia of horrors.

Displayed in the chill cabinets you can find everything from whole cow tongues – disturbingly enormous coils of flesh – to lambs’ kidneys, pigs’ trotters and assorted brains, feet and cheeks.

Even the unashamedly carnivorous might find themselves having to avert their eyes and march quickly past the piles of coiled organs.

There are items in a French supermarket that you won’t find in Walmart or Waitrose.

While UK supermarkets offer a carefully edited selection of chicken breasts, steaks and other prime cuts of carcass meat, here in France it is organs-a-go-go – every bit of a beast from its cheeks to its feet.

Recently, I stood behind a woman in the checkout queue, who was buying a pair of cow hooves, pre-packed on a polystyrene tray.

When I asked what she was planning to do with them, she replied, tout simplement, ‘Make soup’.

Offal may have fallen out of favour in the western diet but in rural France, it is still very much on the menu.

After an unexpected encounter with tete de veau (veal’s head) shortly after my arrival in France – it was the only dish available in the rural restaurant that I’d been taken to by a local mayor – there are few things on a French menu that can shock me.

Since that memorable day – ‘Eat it before it goes cold and the brain turns to jelly,’ warned my friend – I’ve encountered such delicacies as a bovine thyroid, an ox tail, pig trotters, cheeks and ears on restaurant menus.

The French even have a saying: tout est bon dans le cochon, or ‘everything is good in the pig’.

Even the lard is sold off in big chunks in the supermarket. Nothing, apart from the nails, goes to waste.

Offal, as my French neighbours know, is not only an economical source of protein, it also contains more nutritional bounty than prime cuts of carcass meat.

While researching 18th-century cuisine for my latest book, based on the eating habits of Marie Antoinette, I discovered that in 18th-century France, organ meat was highly prized.

The bits of the animal that are now thrown away meanwhile, where considered delicacies. Calves’ hooves with whipped cream. Stuffed lamb’s testicles. Gratin of stuffed cow eyeballs. I could go on, but I won’t, in case you are reading this over breakfast.

But it’s one thing to eat offal in a restaurant; a whole new rung on the ladder of French rustification to take livers, kidneys or hearts home and cook them yourself.

Unpacking a tub of chicken livers recently to make my own chicken liver paté, I realized that I’d really gone native as far as the cuisine is concerned.

Boiling up bones for several hours to make my own stock or bouillon – something I would no more have attempted when I lived in London than open heart surgery – is another habit that I’ve picked up since moving to France, where no part of the animal goes to waste.

It’s all so eighteenth-century.

But this it seems is very of-the-moment.

A recent edition of US Vogue ran a three-page feature on the art of making the perfect bouillon. The writer even went to Las Vegas to consult the French chef Alain Ducasse in his new(ish) restaurant there, on the precise ingredients that go into the perfect stock.

It is a sign that the old culinary ways are suddenly fashionable again.

It helps if you have a lot of time on your hands, but if you live in the French countryside, you probably do.

But there seems to be a growing recognition in the wider world, that when it comes to cuisine, the old French ways are the best – that old-fashioned, slow-cooked food is better for your health and your hips than the fast, microwaved, additive-packed kind.

I haven't tried hoof soup, but the spring vegetable soup photographed above features chicken bone stock as its base. Pepped up with mint and basil, it is one of many delicious soup recipes in my new book, The Marie Antoinette Diet: Eat Cake and Still Lose Weight.

comments (5)

1. Posted by Chris on March 29, 2014 5:29 PM

I loved reading your article in the Telegraph of June 2012 with your healthy sceptical view of French Cuisine. Even a French friend who owns a restaurant thought it was funny and sadly true as is the reflection on food available in French Supermarkets.

My Great Great Grandfather, not sure how many Greats, was the first to supply The Barnsley Chop to local hotels and being the son of a butcher I don't think there are any of the delights above that I have not tasted as a child and since.

I regularly make Oxtail Soup, both cold pressed and hot Tongue, how do you make Steak and Kidney Pie without Kidney, Pork Pie without the jelly from Pigs Trotters and brains and hearts are to die for. Must try the cow's eyes if I can get hold of them.

The only offal I have declined to use is Tripe which is not only offal its awful. However I was at a French friend's house recently and he had made a main dish of tripe in tomatoes and cheese and it was delicious.

Perhaps it was my mother's tripe and onions in milk that put me off.

Keep up the good work.


2. Posted by magali on August 17, 2014 9:28 PM

I would like to knowWHERE ON EARTH you saw cows eyes for sale. Certainly not in France. That is pure invention. I don't believe the Poitou would e the exception. I have double checked with butchers in my area, they looked at me as if I should be locked up.

3. Posted by Mad Dog on November 17, 2014 10:01 PM

The Catalans go one better, they use the head and feet to make an unctuous dish called cap i pota, but they are also quite adept at cannelloni, which reminds me of lunch at Cosmo's in Swiss Cottage - sadly long gone.

4. Posted by Peter Mardle on April 7, 2016 10:28 AM

Out of curiosity I have just read Tout Soul, The Pursuit of Happiness in Rural France which my wife has purchased and left on the coffee table, and as a man who aggressively played all types of contact sports I admit to being very much moved by its contents, in particular the chapters concerning The Lion. I recently wrote a book which was published last year entitled From Castanets to Conscription which featured two people with whom I stayed in Triana, the gypsy quarter of Seville, two people who had a great influence in my life who I loved deeply but have since died, leaving me devastated even now, and your personal comments on overcoming grief in your book has given me a great source of comfort, thank you. I too shop regularly at Darts Farm as I live on the outskirts of Newton Abbot and you are right, brilliant..Thanks once again.

5. Posted by jackie on April 19, 2016 8:56 AM

Offal eating has become unfashionable in the U.K. only recently. When I was a child all manner of things were served up regularly. Stuffed heart was a favourite! I remember regularly making excellent chicken liver pate (an Israeli recipe). I think it's coming into fashion again but very slowly. My husband has developed a liking for calves liver after trying it in a restaurant recently......shame, as I am a vegetarian nowadays!

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