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The offal project: tongues wagging

Categories: Expert guidance

Food writer and regular Borough blogger Ed Smith looks in depth at the offal available in the Market. This month: tongue

Words and image: Ed Smith

This is the final post in the Offal project series. To date we’ve covered hearts, brains and kidneys; animal liver; fish offal; jowls and cheeks; the normally unmentionable privates and glands; plus heads and trotters. What more is there to look at, you ask?

Well, there are a few particularly visceral things we’ve not really touched—like tripe and lungs—but the final thing I wanted to mention in detail is one of the meatiest items, and the one that makes me bite my lips and sink back a little: the tongue.

Everyone can identify with tongue: we’re all conscious of our own throughout the day, from the first sip of hot coffee through to teeth brushing before bed. This, I think, makes tongue a different piece of meat to, say, kidneys or hearts, which we all have but don’t see. Or breast, shoulder or leg meat, for that matter.

Moreover, almost every animal’s tongue looks pretty much just like our own—just a bigger or smaller version. Which hardly makes it something you want to bite into. But, in fact, if you spend a little time on preparing tongue for a meal (and close your eyes), it can be a real treat.

What does tongue taste like?
There are, I suppose, a few elements to consider when talking about what it’s like to eat tongue.The texture of tongue is pretty gross—all firm and rubbery and bouncy, at least until it has been fully cooked.

When an animal’s tongue is slowly braised, simmered or steamed, the collagen in it turns to gelatine and the protein fibres relax, leaving it soft, juicy, and extremely compliant, much like brisket that’s had the low and slow treatment, or perhaps akin to pork or lamb belly, cooked with similar patience.

Taste-wise tongue has much in common with the meat of the animal it has come from. Lamb tongue is lamby, cow’s tongue is beefy and so on. But it’s a much subtler flavour, with perhaps a hint of iron as a back-note, just to remind you of its place in the offal catalogue.

I suspect some experienced eaters would suggest I’m being rather generous when I write ‘subtle’. Tongue stands accused of being a pretty bland piece of meat, which is why the tongue of large mammals in particular prefer to spend a few days in salt or a well-flavoured brine before they’re cooked (more on cooking below).

Will any tongue do? And for who?
The tongues of most animals and fish are edible, and indeed are eaten. In the UK, ox tongue is the type you’re most likely to see on the menu. Salted or brined then boiled, pressed and sliced thinly like ham, ‘pressed ox tongue’ is surely a dish redolent of post-WW2 Britain if ever there was one.

Lamb’s tongue is also a relatively well acknowledged meat. Perhaps not so much in Britain—though chefs like Tom Kitchin in Scotland and Fergus Henderson in London have tried their best to popularise it—but definitely in Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe and the Caucuses.

As it happens, I personally think lamb’s is the best tongue to eat—it’s less ferrous than others, and doesn’t have quite the grimace factor of a massive ox tongue, or tongue from a bird or a fish.

Ox tongue is common in Chinese cuisine too, and pig tongues are relatively standard fare as well. Tongue takes on strong flavours well, so is suited to Chinese cooking—whether soy or Sichuanese chilli—and of course the textural qualities of tongue are loved in the east. A quick internet search will provide a plethora of ideas and recipes.

The internet will also show that there are myriad recipes for Chinese dishes which make the most of duck’s tongues. Yes: duck! Not everyone’s cup of tea, I suspect. But these tongues are tasty little morsels. There’s a little bone running through the middle but otherwise everything is edible, and they can be boiled, braised, steamed or stir fried (they’re a little bouncy when in the latter style).

Don’t forget fish, either. Cod’s tongues are highly prized in places like Norway, Canada (the major cod fisheries) and Spain and Portugal (historically the major cod consumers). I’m told the texture and taste is somewhere between a scallop and cod or monkfish cheek.

If you’re wondering how big a fish needs to be before there’s enough tongue to eat, technically cod’s tongue includes the bottom of the chin, too. There’s a quite fascinating technique involved in the removal of this delicacy and it’s usually the children of the fisherman who are required to do the cutting. This video shows the process (it’s in Norwegian, but you’ll get the idea).

How do you cook tongue?
Smaller tongues from the likes of cod and duck can be stir-fried, but anything bigger needs to be braised or lightly simmered, gently and patiently, so that the texture of the tongue develops an enjoyable consistency.

As mentioned, large tongues (cow, in particular) should be salted or sat in brine for five to seven days before cooking. This helps to ensure that the texture will be enjoyable when eating and also that the tongue will be well-seasoned and flavoursome.

Those larger tongues also need to be peeled before being eaten. Look at the picture at the beginning of this piece: the surface of animal tongues are rough and hard—no doubt muscles like these have evolved to reflect the fact that their owners spend all day foraging among thistles, weeds or even gravel for food. The peeling process happens after the tongue is cooked—the ease in which the outer membrane comes off is usually a good sign that the meat has been fully cooked.

After that, cow, lamb and pig tongue can be sliced thinly like ham. Alternatively, tongue does well when sliced thicker and fried, so that the edges of the meat brown and caramelize, like twice cooked pork or lamb belly.

The offal project
The Market presented a number of different options when I walked round in search of tongue.Rhug Farm had a big bag of lamb’s tongues on display. These were tempting, not least because lamb’s tongue had been involved in one of the best dishes I ate last year (at Fäviken in Sweden—braised for hours and served simply in its own stock with local vegetables). But in the end I thought something bigger was in order.

Over at Wild Beef, Lizzie Vines talked with me about her wonderful cattle, farmed on Dartmoor. Lizzie and her husband Richard have been bringing their organic, virtually wild reared beef to Borough Market since the very beginning of the modern era of trading at Borough. Given their ethos has always been based on bringing a whole carcass (or at least a half) up to London, it should be no surprise that you’ll find their stall is a fine source of offal; hearts and kidneys. 

In fact, there was an ox tongue looking at me the whole time we were speaking, so of course I had to take it. (There was a veal tongue too, from a dairy farm run by a friend of the Vines, but by the time I saw it I had ox on the mind).

Once I’d lugged the tongue back home, I made a sweet-spiced brine (anise, cinnamon, cardamom, bay and so on), and left the tongue in that for five days to allow the salt to do its tenderising work, and for the spices to add flavour. Obviously my wife was pleased at seeing this in the fridge every morning when she picked out her yoghurt and fruit for breakfast.

Some recipes require the tongue to sit in an extremely salty and lengthy bath—sometimes up to 30 per cent salt for seven days. They’ll then instruct you to soak the tongue in clear water for another 24 hours to remove some of that saltiness. Seems bonkers to me, so my brine was just seven per cent salt, and I felt five days probably enough to lightly cure the meat and impart enough flavour.

After three to four hours of very gentle simmering and a quick peel of the outer membrane, I sliced the tongue into two-centimetre thick pieces and seared them using a heavy-bottomed cast iron pan placed over a high heat. This provided a flavoursome crust. I then sliced each ‘steak’ in half to just one-centimetre deep, revealing juicy, soft, yielding meat.

The brine had worked—it was well seasoned, slightly sweet and I served the tongue with a roast onion, orange and lentil salad, and a generous blob of ‘zhug’, a kind of coriander and parsley paste originating from Yemen. Helpfully, I recorded the recipe for posterity.

Give it a go—get those tongues wagging.