There are times when I really feel my 20th-century Australianness, and not always in a good way. Often it is when I am thinking about, or cooking, offal. Sure, I remember staying at friends’ farms and watching a sheep being slaughtered in the yards and the liver being quickly brought in to “the mum” on an enamel plate as a ritualistic offering. But with my suburban Anglo-Saxon upbringing, I was not brought up with even a notion of nose-to-tail eating.
That changed quite quickly once I started my cooking apprenticeship. All of a sudden I was expected to have a working knowledge of things I had previously had absolutely no exposure to. The list was quite long. I already knew about liver and kidney, but tripe, sweetbreads, brains, caul, lights, trotters, tails and ears were all very new to me.
In the ensuing years I have developed a great fondness for the place the “offaly bits” hold in everybody else’s culture, and have tried to embrace them as part of my own. As with so many traditional offal dishes, it always seems to come down to finding ways to use absolutely everything from an animal after it has given its life. Two of my favourites – faggots and fricandeau – share those lovely cross-channel similarities that so many historical dishes do. Traditionally both dishes are almost identical. A forcemeat is made from seasoned offcuts of the pig, mixed with the liver and some fat, and then the lot is wrapped in caul fat –the fatty membrane that lines a pig’s stomach. It’s then cooked in the oven and can be preserved in jars long after the pig is dead.
But most of these ingredients are a little tough to find in a basic Australian butcher. There are of course exceptions. With farmers’ markets and specialty butchers, every so often you come across something special, like my friend Lauren Mathers’ fricandeaus made from her Berkshire pigs.
Here we have another very delicious wintry version of a faggot, made from oxtail. It’s a cut rich in flavour and gelatinous fibres that break down when cooked slowly to create a thick, gravy-like sauce. The meat is shredded from the bones and mixed with the vegetables it has been braised with, then formed into balls, wrapped in caul fat and returned to the oven in the braising juices, where they become even more sticky and delicious with a second heating. It’s best served jauntily atop a celeriac and potato puree. You will need to ask your butcher to order you in some caul. If it proves impossible, there are other things you can do with this recipe. Simply serve the braised oxtail with all the sauce and trimmings on some mash with some finger bowls on the side, or shred the meat off the bones and add it back to the vegetables and sauce to enjoy as a less hands-on dish.
– 1.5kg oxtail, cut into 4cm sections
– 1 bottle (750ml) red wine
– 1 litre beef stock
– 100g plain flour
– salt and pepper
– 2 carrots peeled and chopped into 1cm dice
– 2 onions peeled and chopped into 1cm dice
– 4 sticks of celery chopped into 1cm dice
– 1 head of garlic, peeled
– 1 small spice bag containing 2 to 3 whole cloves, 1 tsp allspice, zest of one orange, 1 tsp black peppercorns
– 1 small bundle of herbs (thyme, rosemary and bay)
– 100g tomato paste or puree
– 250g caul fat, soaked in cold water
Cover the oxtail with the wine and refrigerate overnight, or as long as possible.
Preheat the oven to 160ºC.
Remove the oxtail and pat dry, put the wine into an oven-safe pan or casserole dish and reduce by half on the stove. Add the stock to the wine and bring to a gentle simmer.
Heat a heavy-bottomed frying pan. Combine the flour and some salt and pepper in a bowl and coat the oxtail. Add some oil to the pan and fry the oxtail in batches, so as not to crowd the pan, until browned all over. Add the oxtail to the simmering stock.
Fry the vegetables and garlic, adding some more oil if necessary, until golden. Add the vegetables and tomato puree to the stock.
Add the spice bag and bundle of herbs. Cover the pan with a tight-fitting lid or foil and place in the preheated oven for three hours, or until the meat is soft. Remove from oven, drain the stock into another vessel and leave the oxtail to cool.
Pick the meat from the bones and mix the vegetables roughly with your fingers. Check the seasoning. Divide the meat mix into eight and form into balls, then wrap in the caul fat.
Try to remove as much fat as possible from the reserved cooking liquid. Turn up the oven to 180ºC, place the parcels in a baking dish, pour over the reserved braising stock and return to the oven for 15 minutes, or until the parcels are golden brown on top and the sauce rich, viscous and bubbling. Serve on top of potato mash or similar.
2015 David Reynaud Les Bruyères Crozes-Hermitage Georges Reynaud, Bordeaux, France ($55) – Peter Watt, du Fermier sommelier.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 28, 2018 as "An offaly big adventure". Subscribe here.