|“Foie”. Nouveau Larousse illustré, circa 1900|
Morning tea time. Those present are mostly retirees, volunteers. They’re almost but not quite over the weakness of the way I like my tea—still get the occasional comment on it. I could comment on their dark orange brew— Just shut up and try to blend, Katy! How the topic of offal comes up do not ask me. It's not something I'd have raised, I don’t want to stick me neck out. The word “liver” is mentioned.
“UGH!” they all go, shuddering.
What? It's not even as if they’re all members of the Anglo-Saxon majority! Oh, forget it. It's the nice middle-class syndrome. Goes with the kitchen drawer-liners.
Since Gégé showed me how to cook liver—in a past life, right—I’ve been a great fan of it. In France it was always foie de veau and I never asked if it was milk-fed, because the nice English papers were already very down on that concept—it seemed to get coupled with fox-hunting, not sure how—and I'd have had to get on my Anglo-Saxon high horse about it, if it was. He very kindly spared me the horse-meat “steaks” (paper-thin slices), however: he knew the British Commonwealth did not eat horse.
It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that liver, for centuries a British favourite, along with tripe and other sorts of offal, fell out of favour in the Antipodes. Today most people shudder if you mention it, my nice ladies are merely representative of the vast majority.
The Written Word
Trace the history of liver since the middle of the 20th century through the English-language cookery books, and it’s a real laugh. Doesn’t relate to perceived reality, at all. The writers kept on advocating it, meanwhile the public was avoiding it more and more...
I'm not talking about pâté, mind you. Since about the 1980s that’s become very nice. The slimier the better. One serves it on unspeakable crackers as God-knows-what, um, hors d’oeuvre? Stan the Man (that past life again) used to call them “horses’ doovers,” and he wasn't far wrong. It also features at really foul parties where you don’t get to sit down. I’d call them cocktail parties only I don’t think the expression ever reached the Tropic of Capricorn—the drinks certainly didn’t. Red or white wine, possibly not technically Château Cardboard, but that level.
You don’t believe pâté’s still very nice in the 21st century? Then get a load of “Grilled Brioche with Pâté and Caramelised Fig” (Donna Hay Magazine, Issue 42, Dec. 2008-Jan. 2009). What you do, see, you slice up a brioche, toast it in a pan, having brushed it with butter, bung the pâté on, type unspecified, so it’s bought slime from a plastic carton for sure, slice up some fresh figs and caramelise them in a bit of sugar and pop them on the top. Very nayce indeed. Especially the brioche, wot has to be translated for youse yobs: “Brioche is a slightly sweet bread made with eggs and butter. You can buy loaves of brioche from supermarkets and bakeries.” (Not in my local Foodland you can't, but these days you can’t even buy bread there unless you belt in at 9 in the morning. Dunno who they think they’re serving, but it ain’t the public.)
I'm not exaggerating—though, true, this is one of the nuttier canapé recipes in this mag. God knows what was the inspiration. As if to prove brioches aren’t that available, the accompanying pic has used what looks very like sliced white bread: the substance is much, much closer-textured than cooked brioche dough should be. This is a glowing example of an extremely la-de-da vision of modern Australian middle-class life. Yuck!
Please don't rush out and buy an up-market brand of potted pâté just to prove me wrong about the slime thing. I tried some just the other day—my online grocery sent some freebies with my last order, desperate to get rid of the stuff, one can only presume. The thing was so-called duck with orange. The pâté itself was very, very, very smooth (slime, right), highly scented (best bet, juniper berries with some thyme) and extremely—extremely—sweet. Where the orange came in was not discernible to the taste buds, though the half-centimetre of stiff jelly it was covered in was certainly a fruity dark orange colour. You couldn’t taste the liver, though maybe that was the object of the exercise. Yeah, thanks for that, posh lady that gave your name to it.
No, I’m talking about liver qua liver. In large blobby damp lumps, very raw.
In the Far-Distant Past...
Of course Isabella Beeton is going to tackle liver, she tackled everything, bless her. She has several recipes for pork liver, including “PIG'S LIVER (a Savoury and Economical Dish)” which bakes the liver and “lights” (lungs) with some bacon, onion, parsley and sage. Most of her liver recipes, however, are in the section on veal. This one is definitely the most appealing:
CALF'S LIVER AUX FINES HERBES & SAUCE PIQUANTE.
880. INGREDIENTS.—A calf's liver, flour, a bunch of savoury herbs, including parsley; when liked, 2 minced shalots; 1 teaspoonful of flour, 1 tablespoonful of vinegar, 1 tablespoonful of lemon-juice, pepper and salt to taste, 1/4 pint water.
Mode.—Procure a calf's liver as white as possible, and cut it into slices of a good and equal shape. Dip them in flour, and fry them of a good colour in a little butter. When they are done, put them on a dish, which keep hot before the fire. Mince the herbs very fine, put them in the frying-pan with a little more butter; add the remaining ingredients, simmer gently until the herbs are done, and pour over the liver.
Time.—According to the thickness of the slices, from 5 to 10 minutes. Average cost, 10d. per lb. Sufficient for 7 or 8 persons. Seasonable from March to October.
Boot-Liver in the Antipodes
At the end of the 19th century the Antipodean cook wasn't afraid of liver, though perhaps she should have been. Here’s Mrs Wicken’s take on it (The Art of Living in Australia, 1894):
Fricassee of Liver
Half a Calf's Liver; 1 1/2 oz. Butter; 1 Carrot; Lemon Juice; 1 Onion; 1 oz. Flour; 1 pint of Gravy; Parsley; Pepper and Salt
Total Cost—6d. Time—One Hour
Wash and slice up the liver, and dip in the flour; fry very lightly and quickly in the butter and lay in a saucepan. Slice up the carrot and fry in the same butter. Stir in the gravy, boil up, and pour over the liver; simmer very gently for one hour, then dish carefully. Season the gravy with salt, pepper, and lemon juice; boil up and pour over it. Serve hot.
Gégé would have had a fit at the idea of simmering liver for an hour! If you want little bits of greyish boot-leather, this is the way to go. Sorry, Mrs W., you bombed here.
Liver à la Bourgogne à l’Américaine
The American book, 365 Foreign Dishes: A Foreign Dish for Every Day in the Year (Philadelphia, 1908) has three recipes for liver, including this one:
Liver à la Bourgogne
Season a calf's liver with salt and pepper; put a few slices of bacon in a saucepan; let get very hot. Add the liver, 1 onion, 1 carrot, 2 bay-leaves and 2 sprigs of thyme minced fine; cover and let brown a few minutes. Then add 1 glass of sherry wine, salt and pepper and sprinkle with flour. Let simmer ten minutes.
It doesn't cook the vegetables long enough, obviously. And sherry is Spanish, nothing to do with Burgundy. Oh, well. Not a bad try. But slice and dry the liver first!
This book’s other two recipes are “German Liver Dumplings” and what would be a pâté en croûte, “Egyptian Meat-Pie,” if only it was to be eaten cold, not hot! No, I can’t see what's Egyptian about it, but apparently “liver” meant Egyptian in traditional cordon bleu-inspired English-language cookery books right up into the 1960s! The Larder Chef, by M.J. Leto and W.K.H. Bode (London, Heinemann, 1969) offers a gem of an Egyptian salad with chicken livers:
Meanwhile, Back in the Home Kitchen
The books of course represent the literate end of the spectrum. Liver and onions, or liver and bacon, simply fried, were standards in the British home cookery tradition for years.
In fact, these dishes were such everyday fare that it’s a surprise to find Australian cooks being offered an actual recipe in the Green and Gold Cookery Book around 1949. It’s listed as a breakfast recipe. We didn't have fried food at home, the occasional fritter was as fried as it got, but throughout the 1950s and well into the 1960s liver and onions or liver with bacon remained standard fare to such cooks as Mrs D. down the road, but not for breakfast, for tea (“dinner” these days, in refined circles). It is not easy to cook liver well and this recipe for “Liver and Bacon,” in common with most recipes of its time, assumes that you have a lot of background knowledge:
Liver and Bacon
One lamb's fry 1/2 lb. bacon
1 oz. flour 1 teaspoon salt
quarter teaspoon pepper parsley
Soak the fry in cold salted water for half an hour. Cut in pieces one inch thick, wash well and dry thoroughly. Coat with seasoned flour. Remove rind from bacon and scald if necessary. Heat fryingpan and cook bacon in its own fat. [Remove.] If necessary add more fat and cook liver 10 to 12 minutes. Place liver in centre of dish, bacon round edge. Pour over gravy and garnish with chopped parsley.
To Make Gravy: Carefully drain off fat, stir in the remainder of seasoned flour, and brown well. Add gradually half pint stock or water and boil for three minutes. -A.L.S.
If you forget to remove the bacon you end up with bits of salty cardboard. And “A.L.S.” doesn't specify how hot the pan should be: I’d say medium heat. When she talks about seasoned flour she means mix the salt and pepper with the ounce of flour. NB, if you add this amount of salt the dish will be far too salty—not that the modern Australian diet isn't.
Robin McDouall’s Cookery Book for the Greedy, 1965, a reprint of his 1955 Collins Pocket Guide to Good Cooking, was a vain attempt to reintroduce the post-War cooks of the Commonwealth to really good food. A small minority would have read it and adored it—the same people who were reading Elizabeth David, and could actually afford, not to say find, the ingredients. The rest never knew it existed.
It shows its origins in the traditional chefly, vaguely cordon bleu, Escoffier-inspired approach of the much older cookery books in English written by men, but as well many of the recipes are either traditional British food (to be reprised by Jane Grigson some years later in her English Food) or the cream, so to speak, of the European cuisines. Thus “Gaspacho” and “Avgolemono” jostle “Cocky-Leeky Soup,” and “Cèpes à la bordelaise” neighbours “Cauliflower Cheese.” For pudding we can choose “Pets de nonnes,” “Zabaglione (Sabayon),” “Prune Mould,” “Flower Fritters” or “Rice Pudding”! Many of the recipes are simple, others are quite complex, and there are lots of instructions for the basic preparation of various foodstuffs.
Here’s his very simple recipe for calves’ liver. It suffers from the English parsley syndrome, but otherwise it’s not bad. Try doing it as Gégé often did, with a little dried thyme added to the pan. (Well, French thyme: it comes in tiny dry bushes, and you strip the leaves off the twigs straight into the pan.) Again, the pan shouldn’t be too hot or the liver will burn on the outside and not cook through. It should be still moist and just pinkish in the middle.
Calves’ Liver (Foie de veau)
Cut a pound of calves’ liver into slices about a quarter of an inch thick. Wash them and dry them; season and dip them in flour. Fry them on both sides in butter or bacon fat. Take them out and drain them. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve with them, if you like, rashers of bacon, cut very thin, fried in a very little fat or grilled until they are crisp, and then drained of all grease.
Robin McDouall also has a recipe for “Foie de veau au vin rouge”, but as it makes a sauce and then simmers raw bits of liver in it I don’t recommend it. Maybe he could bring it off but I doubt that anyone else could.
And More So: Not Cookery, Cuisine
By the 1970s the kweezine syndrome had begun to rear its ugly head: to be good, food had to be fancy. Josceline Dimbleby’s “Calves' Liver with Gooseberry Sauce” (A Taste of Dreams, 1976) fries the liver, adds gently fried onions and tomatoes—not bad so far—and then souses the lot in a sauce made with tinned gooseberries, sherry, mint and, as if your taste buds weren’t already shrieking in pain, capers! A dream? More like a nightmare.
Ya see, to be up-market, it’s gotta be mucky. The up-market cooks of the 21st century would learn that lesson off their up-market mums and grandmas.
Of course, foreign cuisine was also up-market. Claudia Roden’s A Book of Middle Eastern Food was first published in 1968 (London, Nelson), republished in paperback in 1970 and reprinted in the middle of the 1970s, by which time it had become the English-language authority on the cuisine of the Middle East. She's got several recipes for liver, including two which use vinegar in the sauce (one Sephardic, one Lebanese), and one for fried liver which marinates the liver pieces first in an oil and vinegar mixture which is a dead ringer for a vinaigrette. Don’t ask me why vinegar is associated with liver—Mrs Beeton does it, too. I’ve had this book for years but I've never been game to try liver with vinegar, thanks all the same, Claudia. Her Albanian recipe is better: small pieces tossed in flour and paprika before frying, then extra paprika in the hot oil drizzled on the result.
Judging by the cookbooks which followed, none of these efforts to reintroduce liver in a fancy frame had any result.
Back to Basics?
Huey’s “Lamb’s Fry & Bacon” (on Huey’s Kitchen, http://www.hueyskitchen.com.au, 2011) is a classic English-style version of liver and bacon. This is an exception to the desperate modern attempts to make liver up-market. “Huey” frequently offers old-fashioned standard recipes like this, alongside his much trendier, more up-market ones. He is a New Zealander, though based in Australia, and his recipes often reflect his heritage. The so-called “lambs' fry” was always available in New Zealand butchers' shops when I was a kid, because hogget and mutton were standard fare.
By the time Huey was calling liver “lamb’s fry” the usage had entered into the vernacular. But don’t be misled by Mrs Beeton’s recipe for “lamb’s fry”: this is “fry” in the intensely mealy-mouthed sense given in the OED, “the product of lamb castration”—balls, Inspector. The method of cooking them is very similar to the standard method for brains, which is to boil lightly first, then you can fry them, with or without seasoned flour or breadcrumbs.
How the phrase came to be used solely for lamb’s liver in Antipodean butcheries, I cannot tell, but I do remember our butcher having liver under this name when I was a kid. Ruder parts of the animal had disappeared entirely by the middle of the 20th century: the recipe above from the Green and Gold Cookery Book is already using “Lamb’s Fry” to mean liver in about 1949.
Going, Going... Gone. Totally Up-Market
Today offal is typically revived only in very up-market recipes with lots of fancy ingredients, like this shocker: “Seared Calves Liver with Persillade and Parsnip Mash.” What? Yep, this appears in The Australian Women's Weekly's 680-odd-page, 2006 compendium Cook: the one recipe they can dredge up for liver (p. 242). (Don't buy this book! It's dreadful.)
Where do I start? Well, for one thing, parsnip and asparagus? The two tastes swear at each other! But calves’ liver? Pull the other one. It's almost impossible to get calves’ liver in Australia. It’s nearly always ox liver, not properly cleaned and trimmed, with giant veins left in it. No wonder most people are put off for life.
From the Ridiculous to the Sublime
How do I eat liver? (When I can get it, yeah.) Well, the method I got off Gégé in Paris is still the best: fry the slices quickly in oil on a medium-high heat, adding a little thyme or garlic if available. Then remove the liver from the pan, add an excellent tinned vegetable, well drained—petits pois or salsifis were his favourites—rapidly heat through and serve together. Or you could lightly boil or steam some young green beans and add them. But for variety, try this:
Hot Liver with Sweet Peppers
250 to 300 g beef or pork liver
1 sweet red pickled pepper (capsicum) (or 1/2 big one)*
1 chopped onion 2 cloves garlic
1/2-3/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce (e.g. Tabasco)
2-3 tablespoons oil salt & pepper
1. If using Australian liver it will be very poorly butchered. Clean it of all veins, thick skin and stringy bits. Chop into pieces about 2 by 4 cm.
2. Warm the oil in a frying pan or electric frypan on a moderate heat, add the chopped onion and sauté gently till transparent.
3. Add the chopped garlic and mix well.
4. Add the liver and stir until all sides are coloured and lose their raw look. Keep pan on medium-low heat, cook about 10 mins or until liver is cooked but still softish inside.
5. Add sliced pepper, Tabasco, salt and pepper, stir in well to warm through.
* You could use a fresh capsicum, grilled, with the skin removed. The effect is different but nice.