#411 Brains with Curry and Grape Sauce

Brains have never really been that popular in England, often banished to a messy tray, at least that’s when they could be found at all. They’ve made appearances in other British cook books but they are few and far between.

The final nail in the coffin for the brain in British cuisine was surely the BSE or ‘Mad Cow’ crisis of the 1990s where cows were infected by a prion which causes the disease bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE). A prion is an infectious protein, and is therefore not alive, and cannot be denatured by regular heat-treatment. It may have been derived from the prion that causes the encephalopathy in sheep known as scrapie, but this link is unclear.

The BSE prion infects the CNS causing the brain to appear spongy under microscopic observation. The symptoms, unsurprisingly, are behavioural: infected individuals become solitary, aggressive and frenetic, they become anorexic and their milk yield drops dramatically. Eventually they lose all coordination. BSE is all-consuming, infecting not the just the CNS but the peripheral nervous system, bone, intestines, placenta and tonsils. It is also found in saliva and excrement, and can sit in the soil perfectly viable for years. I remember watching the pictures of the wretched stumbling beasts on the television news in shock and in horror as they were bulldozed into mass burning graves. A total of 4.4 million cattle were killed during the crisis.

The source of the outbreak was the cattle’s feed, where ground up cadavers of sheep and cows were included in their diet. Shockingly, this practise had been going on since the 1920s, so it was just a matter of time before infection spread. In retrospect, it beggars belief that it could ever have been considered a good idea to turn herbivores into not just carnivores, but cannibals

There was of course worry that BSE could be passed onto humans, not just in food but in bovine insulin for diabetics and in bone meal for gardeners. Though bovine-human transmission was possible, there was no real initial evidence to suggest it actually occurred. Nevertheless, in 1996 the EU banned the UK from exporting beef and beef products including semen, embryos, gelatine and fat. Within the UK sales of beef plummeted, the government blaming the media storm. Secretary of State, John Gummer, famously said it was the British public and not the cows that had gone mad. Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, was adamant that there was no link between the new variant CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the equivalent disease in humans). In the Government’s desperation to calm the country and show just how safe British beef was, the Right Honourable Mr Gummer fed his little daughter a beef burger in front of TV cameras. Idiot.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation had been collecting data, and reckoned that nv-CJD was probably caused by the BSE prion. Hogg and Gummer had been desperately slow to act, but now the country had to tackle the crisis swiftly.

The most important and easily implemented regulation was the ‘over 30 months rule’, a simple ban on killing cattle for beef older than 30 months. When it came to using any part of the CNS for food, the cattle must be under 12 months old, with the same rule applying to sheep. Pigs are not considered a risk.

Simple rules such as this helped deal with the crisis swiftly. In 1992 there was 37 000 cases of BSE, in 2004 there was just 90. By 2006 the EU beef ban was completely lifted; now the UK is back in line with the rest of the EU

Now with all this behind us, you can get hold of them from a good butcher. Order well in advance though, and expect to have to buy in bulk.

First of all you need to prepare your brains – you’ll need around 1 ½ pounds of calves’ brains, which I reckon to be 2 sets, or thereabouts. For some advice on preparing and poaching brains, see this previous post. For this recipe, poach them in milk, as you’ll need it to make sauce.

Strain the milk into a jug and slice the brains on a large plate. Keep them warm as you get on with the sauce, a cross between a béchamel and a velouté.

Start by melting an ounce of butter in a saucepan, then stir in a rounded tablespoon of flour and a teaspoon of curry powder. Mix all around in the butter for a couple of minutes, then add ¼ pint of hot chicken stock, adding a little at a time to prevent lumps forming, then add the amount of the milk the brains were poached in. Simmer the sauce gently for 20 minutes, stirring every now and again, then add ¼ pint of double cream


Meanwhile, get on with preparing 8 ounces of peeled grapes. To do this put them in a bowl and pour over boiling water. Let them sit for a few seconds and then strain them. The skin should now peel away with relative ease. When the sauce is ready, season with salt and pepper and tip in the grapes, including any juice. The sauce is now ready, but if it seems a little thick – it should be the thickness of double cream – add a little more stock or milk.

Pour the sauce over the brains and tuck in triangles of bread fried in butter and serve.

#411 Brains with Curry and Grape Sauce. Well I am glad I cooked the other brain recipe first, as this monstrosity would have put me off for life! The sauce was simply horrible; cloying in such a way, that when in the mouth, you couldn’t tell where sauce started and brain finished. The grapes simply did not go with the sauce. Obviously a thing of its time. I enjoyed the fried bread. 1/10.

#409 Calf’s Brains with Black Butter

Many years ago when I began this blog, I winced in fear at prospect of eating brains but after scoffing sweetbreads, wood cock intestines, lamb’s head and jellied eel mousse, the prospect has become an exciting one. The only reason it’s taken me such a long time to cook the brain recipes in this book that you have to order a huge box of them – it’s how butchers buy them from their suppliers and they’re not going to be able to sell the rest of them after you have bought the one or two you need for your recipe. Of course, these days I do my pop up restaurants and so thought it’s about time they appeared on the menu. When it comes to recipe-testing, I always look to Jane first, so I cooked the two brain recipes in quite quick succession.

If you want to try and cook calves’ brains yourself, find a good butcher and ask for a box of brains. You’ll probably receive ten in all, but give him plenty of notice as it could take a couple of weeks for him to get his hands on them.

Before I go on with the recipe, a few words on the preparation of brains:

First, you need to get them ready for the pot by removing any pieces of bone and then gently peeling away the thin membranous network of blood vessels that surround the brain. To do this, you need to soak the brains in salted water for a few hours in the fridge, preferably overnight. This toughens up the membrane so that it peels without breaking so easily. This is a little fiddly to do, but you soon get the knack. You might find it easier to do it under a running tap. Large calves’ brains are difficult to hold in one hand, so cut them in half. Better have two, neat hemispheres than a dropped, destroyed whole. With a little perseverance, you should end up with a nice, milky-white very delicate brain ready for the next stage.

The prepped brains can now be very gently poached in milk for five minutes so they get nice firm (if going by Jane’s exact words, but a good court-bouillon is a good other option), then cut up appropriately.

For this recipe you’ll need 1 ½ pounds of calves’ brains (about two) that have been poached in milk and cut in slices about 1/3” thick.

Swiftly fry them in some butter over a quite high heat so that the brain browns nicely, whilst they remain nice and soft inside. Keep them warm in the oven as you make the sauce by first melting a good 3 or 4 ounces of butter. Soon it will start to sizzle and froth, but then it will go silent. This is the point at which all of the water has boiled away and the butter solids will soon start to change colour. Timing is critical now; ready yourself with 1 ½ tablespoons of white wine vinegar and wait for the pale solids to turn to a deep golden brown. As soon as they do, take the pan off the heat and pour in the vinegar, swirling the pan as you go. Add a heaped tablespoon of capers and level tablespoon of parsley and season with salt and pepper.

Jane suggests serving the sliced brains on a bed of cooked spinach with the sauce spooned over the top, surrounded by triangles of bread that have been fried in butter. 

The photographs are not really doing the process justice. I really need a better camera!

#409 Calf’s Brains with Black Butter. Well I must say this was absolutely delicious! The soft and slightly-sweet brains were contrasted excellently against the fried bread, and the piquant sauce provided the dish with plenty of oomph, which bland brains need I think. I cooked an adapted version of this for a pop up restaurant by making it into a warm salad; every single plate came back clean. What a shame they have gone out of favour these days, perhaps now that the shadow of BSE no longer looms too darkly, they will begin to sneak back into our butchers’ shops again? Get your hands on some and have a go; fun to cook with, and a true gastronomic experience! 9/10

#333 Lamb’s Head and Barley, with Brain Sauce

My-oh-my! Where do I start with this one!? It is quite possible the most infamous recipe in the whole book. I must say it didn’t seem as daunting as it did when I first spotted it after I had decided to cook the whole book.
Lamb’s head was once rather popular – in particular during the nineteenth century. According to Grigson, Queen Victoria’s chef was a fan. Why has it that in the last few decades it has just simply disappeared from our food culture? It did hang on in Northern England and Scotland and it was one of Jane Grigson’s favourite meals and she emphasises that it is not “ungenteel…or even savage food”.
Still Life with Sheep’s Head
by Francisco de Goya (c.1808-12)

Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for leek soup that requires a sheep’s head and also describes how to “dress a sheep’s head” with a very similar recipe to Jane’s, though the barley is replaced with oats (as it is in the Scottish fashion). And if lamb’s head with brain sauce makes your stomach turn, I found a recipe in Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper for lamb’s head and purtenances, which, to you and I, are the innards. Calf’s head was also very popular; it was the main ingredient in mock turtle soup, for example. So the heads of sheep, calf and, of course, wild boar have been enjoyed for centuries in pretty well-to-do houses, so they can’t be that bad, can they..?

If you are thinking of cooking this receipt, first of all you need to find somewhere that’ll sell you a lamb’s head. I managed to get hold of one opportunistically at Global Foods in St Louis. There they were, just piled up in the freezer aisle. It is very important that you find an organic or halal butcher, then you can be sure that the animal was fed only what lambs should. The prion that causes scrapie is a concern with lamb that comes from the high-intensive farms, or at least it was. You also need to find some guests willing to eat it. Three brave souls – Anna, Vincent and Michelle – came to certainly the most unusual Sunday dinner I’ve ever had…

“Ask the butcher to clean and split the head…” starts Jane with this one. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a butcher on hand so I had to do this myself with a meat cleaver and a hammer. It took a fair few whacks and cracks before it split, but I got there in the end. I felt a little like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Carefully remove the brain and keep it one side, whilst you soak the head in salted water for an hour before rinsing it and placing it in a pot.
Pour enough water to cover and bring to the boil slowly, skimming any grey scum that rises as you go. Now add the following: a bouquet garni that includes a good sprig of winter savory (which was the most difficult ingredient to find!); an onion studded with 3 cloves; 2 carrots and a parsnip, both peeled and halved, a small peeled turnip, a trimmed and cleaned leek, 8 ounces of pearl barley and a good seasoning of salt and pepper – at least a tablespoon of salt is required I would say. Let the broth tick away slowly on a bare simmer for 1 ½ hours.

Whilst the broth bubbles, prepare the brain ready for the sauce. Begin by carefully removing the loose membranous net of blood vessels and placing the brain in salted water for 30 minutes. Remove it from its brine onto a square of muslin and tie it up. Place the brain in with the head and let it poach for 10 minutes. The brain will now be cooked and become firm, unwrap it and chop the brain.
It is quite homogenous with no gristly bits, so don’t worry. Now make a simple béchamel sauce by melting an ounce of butter in a saucepan. When it bubbles, stir in an ounce of flour and cook for two minutes before gradually whisking in ¼ pint of milk. Thin the sauce to an appropriate consistency with some lamb stock from the pot and let it simmer for at least 10 minutes, adding more stock if it gets too thick. Stir in the chopped brain and some parsley if you wish. Season and add a squeeze of lemon juice.

When the head is cooked, remove it from the pot and start having a good rummage around to find the meaty bits. I couldn’t find very much to be honest. There were two cheeks containing some good moist meat and the tongue of course. Apart from that, it was slim pickings. I thought perhaps there might be some edible palate as I knew ox palate was popular in the eighteenth century. The only other place I found some was at the base where head meets neck. Anyway, serve up what meat you can extract on a plate or bowl and surround with some of the barley along with some rolled grilled rashers of bacon and some lemon quarters and pour the sauce into a sauceboat.

The stock makes “a marvellous soup”. If you want to be in the true peasant style, serve it as the starter. Jane recommends saving it for another meal; “[l]amb soup, then lamb’s head, is too much of a good thing.” I have five tubs of it in my freezer…

#333 Lamb’s Head and Barley, with Brain Sauce. Making this is in no way as macabre as you might expect, except for the part with the cleaver and hammer that is. There was very little meat, but what there was tasted delicious and was very tender and the barley broth was hearty. The brain sauce was also good – the brain itself was tender with a certain firmness that was quite appealing and had a very mild kidney or liver flavour. I think it could have done with a touch of Cayenne pepper. So overall, not bad at all, though the amount of meat was disappointing. The soup left over is delicious but needs a touch of sugar, as lamb and mutton broths often do… 6.5/10.

#214 Meat Souffle

A quickie. I knew that we would have plenty of leftover Bradenham ham from Christmas so I knocked this one up. Follow the recipe for the cheese soufflé but use half the amount of cheese and fold about 8 ounces of chopped ham into it. Alternatively, soften a couple of ounces of onions in butter and add 8 ounces of blanched, minced sweetbreads or cooked brains if you like your offal. You might not wish to include cheese though. Make sure you add some herbs too.


#214 Meat Soufflé. The best way to use up some leftover ham, I reckon. The cheese- ham combo is a classic. The salty-sweet ham and cheese and the creamy egg were perfect. If you’ve never made a soufflé before have a go, they are not as scary as people make out. 8.5/10.

#128 Woodcock

Here’s something I wasn’t sure I’d ever actually get to cook! The woodcock is Britain’s smallest game bird – it’s very well camouflaged and hides away in scrub and hedgerows, and is quite uncommon. All this adds up to a meat you don’t see everyday. However, I was the Frost the Butcher in Chorlton buying some mutton for a pie, when I saw a huge standing freezer full of game saw the typical stuff – venison, rabbit, pigeon and there – tucked away on the bottom shelf – a brace of woodcock. Obviously I snapped them up, only to find they were 15 quid each! I bought just the one, natch.


Finding the woodcock was exciting, as I am now officially a food geek – however I was feeling a little trepidation; this is definitely the first really extreme thing I’ve made from the cook book. Woodcock is considered a delicacy not just because it’s so hard to get hold of, but also because pretty much the whole thing is eaten. Essentially, the bird is roasted rare, whole and completely intact (except the eyes are removed and it is plucked) and trussed with its own beak. The trail of the bird (i.e. the guts, liver etc) is spread on fried bread and the head is split in two so that you can use the beak of one half to prize out the brain from the other.

Woodcock trussed with its own beak

Here’s what to do if you happen upon this little birdie:

Preheat your oven to 220°C. Start off by trussing the bird with it’s beak by spearing the thighs to keep them closed up together. Season the breasts and cover liberally with butter so it doesn’t dry out. Place on a small roasting tin and cook for 18-20 minutes. Whilst that is happening, fry one slice of white bread per bird gently in butter, placing it under the woodcock(s) for the final 5 minutes of cooking. When the time is up, remove the bread and place on a warmed plate and allow the bird to rest for 5 or 10 minutes in the pan. Next, using a knife and/or spoon scoop out the trail (everything except the gizzard – which is actually hard to get to, so it’s unlikely you’ll accidently scoop it out). Spread the trail on the toast. Cut off the head and cut it in half lengthways so that you can use the beak to remove the brain from the halves. You can serve the bird whole or remove the breasts if you like.

The final dish

#128 Woodcock. How on Earth am I going to score this one!? Eating the innards of a bird wasn’t something I was going to relish – but I did relish the idea of eating something very traditional but very out-of-favour. From that point of view – an excitement rating – 10/10. Flavour-wise, the breast meat was very gamey indeed – the smaller the bird, the stronger the flavour – it was so rich that it would have been more than enough for one person. The thigh meat was horrible though – just tasted of dead animal. Bizarrely, the best bit was the trail on toast. The intestines were very soft and there was nothing chewy, though it took some courage to make the first bite. Turns out it tastes a bit like Marmite. Very nice. The brain didn’t really taste as strong as the trail, but was soft and slightly greasy in texture; it appealed to my sudden manly bloodlust though. So overall, it is a high scorer, but not too high – I don’t want to give it loads of marks because of the novelty, so on flavour alone, I reckon it’s worthy of 6/10.

Can’t Cook…Won’t Cook…

There are several ingredients in English Food that I have assumed that I won’t be able to cook, at least not in England. But watching television last night, it seems I can.

The Supersizers Go… Is a series showing off the eating habits of the English through the ages and last night they went Victorian. The presenters are a bit self-indulgent but it’s good mindless TV. Giles Coren and Sue Perkins tucked into giant game pies, calf’s ears, jellies, plum duffs, bad curries, croquettes, offal, offal and offal. It seems that English really food comes into its own here – many of Jane Grigson’s recipes are very similar to the dishes cooked then; in fact it was her daughter, Sophie that did the cooking. The main ingredients were butter and brandy, it seems, but it was all very restrained and frugal. Unless your very rich, or it was Christmas.

FYI: The Christmas as we know it now was invented in the Victorian era, courtesy of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and Charles Dickens

One of things that really surprised me was the amount of game that our presenters were allowed to eat. One of the dishes contained snipe – I assumed that there are too rare to shoot these days, but obviously not. Searching on the web, I find that all the game birds that Jane Grigson lists in the game section of the tome are still legal game, including ptarmigan and wigeon. The other big surprise was that one meal’s centrepiece was a boiled calf’s head with the brain served in a garlic butter sauce. I thought that due to the BSE crisis, bovine brains couldn’t be eaten any more. It seems that I am wrong. It also seems that they taste vile. It also seems that I will be able to do the calf brain recipes. Damn.

On Channel 4 later that evening was Gordon Ramsay’s effort, The F-Word. I’m never sure whether I like the programme, yet I seem to watch it every week. This week he was fishing for elvers – baby eels – in Somerset. There is one recipe that uses elves in English Food, and I thought, as I have studied eels and elvers in the past that because elves numbers had dropped by 98 percent it would no longer be legal to fish for them, that they would be protected or something. Well, you have to have a special licence, but you can fish for them. If you want to buy them, they’ll set you back up to £525 a kilo. It took him 4 hours to collect enough for three measly portions. I know that the reason for the drop in numbers is not known, but surely fishing the remaining few is not going to help. I know I won’t be a part of it.

So it seems that there isn’t anything I can’t cook, but some things I won’t.