The Scary Stuff

I’m a good eater. I’ll try all kinds of things and don’t like to think of myself as fussy or picky. I consider it a handicap – if you won’t try new things then you’re missing out on so much.  About ten years ago I got tired of being that person, the one who picked olives off pizza and nachos, so I forced myself to like them. “Eat seven”, was my mother’s advice. “It takes seven olives in a row to love them”, she told me, and by golly she was right.  I am now a great olive connoisseur and can’t imagine a world without them.

Some things are a bit tougher to like. Offal for me has always been difficult. While I do enjoy all kinds of pate and mousse and other things that are made with offal (my mother swears as a child I used to like calves liver with lots of ketchup), these days I’m not so much a fan of a kidney sitting on a plate and looking at me, no matter how much Madeira cream sauce or bacon (or ketchup for that matter) you put on top. For me it’s not what animal part it is, or even what it tastes like, but the texture that turns me off.  Plus it’s a bit scary, even for a relatively open-minded eater.

My husband Nick is a whole different story. He is a food adventure seeker. If it’s weird or scary and no one else wants to eat it, he’ll order it. And thanks to his adventurousness I have tried, and come to like, things like faggots & peas, anchovies, pork crackling, and a personal favourite, roasted bone marrow.  I first had bone marrow on our honeymoon in New York City with our food adventurer friends.  Prune is a small restaurant on the lower east side that serves a bistro-style menu that includes a lot of offal, and I’ll never forget the first moment I experienced the bliss that is roasted bone marrow spread on toast and sprinkled with coarse sea salt and flat leaf parsley. Chef Gabrielle Hamilton was inspired by the food of Fergus Henderson and his St John Restaurant in London. Our cookbook collection now includes copies of Hamilton’s autobiography/cookbook and both of Henderson’s books – needless to say, we have some offally interesting recipes!

While planning a trip to Italy two years ago, I made special note of the many delicious things we had to eat while we were there. Florence is a city where I love to eat, and a city whose famous food I thought I knew everything about. But in planning for this trip, we discovered a Florentine specialty we had not previously been aware of.

I was quite happy sticking to my handmade pasta with shaved white truffles, a glass of Chianti, and my favourite Tuscan dish, bistecca alla Fiorentina, a beautifully cooked steak served with rocket and curls of aged parmesan cheese. Divine. These were the stops on my Florentine eating itinerary. Nick, aka ‘Indiana Jones Who Eats Everything’, discovered in our travel guide that trippa alla Fiorentina was a very traditional dish, and still served from a few food trucks in Florence, one of them being conveniently located in front of Mercato Centrale, the city’s main covered market.

As we stood in line one sunny afternoon, wedged between the food market and endless stalls of beautiful leather goods, we found this tripe-lover’s gathering point. The queue wasn’t too long, but we were definitely surrounded by enthusiasts from many parts of the world – everyone seemed very excited. The signs on the truck were largely in Italian, with a few in Spanish and Korean, and the staff didn’t speak much English.  Thankfully we have mastered the art of sign language when eating in foreign lands, and Nick was able to place his order for slow braised tripe in spicy tomato sauce on a squishy white bread roll with a bit of extra hot sauce. The lady nodded encouragingly toward me, as if she knew I wasn’t as willing a participant in this adventure as Nick was.  We found a small space to stand and I watched Nick dive in.

Well what can I say? I had a couple of bites and was pleasantly surprised. The tripe was cut into small strips and was the texture of tender squid.  The tripe didn’t have a strong flavour as I had expected, and the spicy tomato sauce provided some needed zing. For me, it wasn’t bad at all.  Nick of course thought it was fantastic, and happily polished it off. Another satisfied customer it would seem! On our return to Florence this year, we agreed to make another pilgrimage to visit the tripe stall. And while Nick devoured his new favourite regional specialty, I poured over the gorgeous leather goods and picked out a new handbag. In the streets of Florence, there’s something for everyone!

This autumn we went on another jaunt to Italy and spent five days in Turin and Piedmont, taking in the specialties of the region including the wines, the cheeses and the very famous white truffles of Alba. Following the advice of our New York food adventurer friends, we stopped in a family restaurant called Battaglino in a town called Bra, just outside Turin. Bra is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement, and is a place where things that are eaten are taken VERY seriously. We knew we were in for a delicious experience. “Try the tripe”, says our friend. And course Nick did.  Delicious and tender, it was buttery and melted in the mouth.  Once again I was very pleasantly surprised.

When we arrived that same afternoon to our B&B in the town of Barolo, we were shocked that a big festival was planned for that Sunday and that it wasn’t to celebrate the world-renowned Barolo wine that we had come all this way for.  A banner reading ‘A Tutta Trippa’ greeted us as we drove down the main cobblestone road of this village.  Everything tripe.  Oh boy.  We watched as the local men gathered in the main square and debated (argued) about how to erect two enormous cauldrons over large gas and wood-fuelled burners, while others fashioned a roof over the cauldron area using scaffolding and topped with massive metal sheets.  Nothing was going to stop this celebration, not even the impending rain.  Tripe is serious stuff in these parts.

On Sunday morning we had an early start, leaving Barolo to begin our drive back to Turin to catch a train to Paris later that morning.  As we walked through the village towards our car, a wonderful warm smell came clouding over us.  As we waded through the fog and steam we came to the two cauldrons being stirred by townspeople using giant-sized paddles.  They looked so excited, and Nick looked so disappointed that we would be missing such a celebration.As we drove away I realised that I might have been wrong about the humble tripe.  Perhaps next year we will mark ‘A Tutta Trippa’ on our calendar and try to return to the beautiful Barolo – I’m sure it would be a delicious experience and a true insight into a very traditional, overlooked, and sort of scary ingredient.