Some foods tend to polarise opinion and tripe would certainly make that list. You have a niche group that love it, the naysayers who have terrible memories of it and those who have never even tasted it but the suggestion alone causes ugly facial contortion. It is clearly a divisive food. Tripe and onions was once a very acceptable and commonplace dish in Ireland, but it became unfashionable and achieved a rather unfavourable reputation. I believe there are many factors in its fall from grace. I happen to like tripe, but it does have a particular texture, especially honeycomb tripe, that may cause an instant dislike before we even get to the taste elements. Tripe is quite nutritious and it isn’t very expensive and so that would also have gone against it for a time. Surprisingly in a recently past era we believed that eating inexpensive food was unnecessary and a reflection of our personal status; how ridiculous a viewpoint, but one that endured for years in this country. Secondly incorrect or poor cooking of this particular dish also fed into its demise. Being white in colour, if overcooked in lumpy unappetising, onion sauce, tripe can take on a greyish hue. The pale yellow onion combined with thick white gravy and a grey leathery tissue is indeed wholly unpalatable. I once had the awful experience of badly cooked tripe and I can only liken it to eating a tepid, thick rubber glove covered with an old bath sponge that tasted of nothing nice at all
Even when we cooked it well we were very unadventurous with tripe. We tended to stick to our white onion sauce as the Holy Grail of Tripe-dom, when in fact our European neighbours were embracing tripe and trying different things with it. Tripe soup, tripe with chorizo, tripe with other offal cuts, tripe with tomatoes; oh yes our French and Italian counterparts were not afraid to try different things and so tripe is still a popular dish in those countries to this day. We are seeing a small renaissance here. Our current fascination with vintage (you could also substitute ‘value for money’ here, but vintage sounds so much nicer) is leading us down the path of these old dishes once more. The problem is that this generation doesn’t know what to do with them. Tripe has much to offer, particularly in texture, but get it wrong and its current moment in the spotlight will end abruptly.
So what is tripe? It is the stomach lining of animals and the common variety sold in most butchers is beef tripe. In its raw state, fresh from the animal, the lining is indeed unappetising. As a butcher we prepare or ‘dress’ the tripe for sale. This means washing it, trimming it of all fat and partially cooking it before it reaches the customer. (So if you are diet conscious you are right in assuming this is a low fat, highly nutritious food!). While the general population may be unaware of what to do with tripe, sadly the same could be said of some younger butchers. Thankfully that will change as there is currently a push on the idea of nose to tail eating and creating less waste from animals.
One question I get asked about tripe quite frequently is why it doesn’t always look the same. There is a simple explanation. A beef stomach is divided into two parts and yields three different textures of tripe. You have plain tripe, honeycomb tripe and packet tripe – all from the same stomach, just different in appearance. Generally they taste the same but I personally think that honeycomb tripe is the most flavourful. This comes from the second stomach chamber. I suppose I should really qualify the idea of using the words ‘flavour’ and ‘tripe’ in the same sentence. Tripe tastes like……..well…..tripe, which is relatively bland but easily flavoured by the sauce around it. The actual tripe brings the texture or ‘meatiness’ to the dish. I love tripe cooked simply and traditionally in a lovely, hot white onion sauce where there is a tender bite in the tripe and a subtle harmony of herbs, peppercorns and onions in rich smooth gravy. I love it served with warm, almost toasted, crusty bread spread with melting butter that can be used to mop up any leftover sauce at the end. The warm buttered bread certainly ups the calorie count, but it’s worth it. Some people add carrots for colour and flavour but I tend not to. In Darina Allen’s marvellous book, Forgotten Skills, I found a lovely recipe for Tripe and Trotters with Chorizo. If you don’t like tripe then you might not like pigs’ trotters or crubeens, but this is a Spanish influenced dish that is hearty and rustic to the core: definitely a recipe worth finding.
So how do you cook traditional tripe? In most butchers you will buy tripe pre cut into bite size pieces. Even though it has been dressed and prepared for sale, it’s good to wash it again, drain it, rub it all over with salt and leave it to sit for at least 30 minutes. When you are ready to cook it, rinse it again of the salt. Put the tripe in a pot with a chopped onion, a bay leaf and plenty of salt and pepper. If I have some left over white wine to hand I will often put this in too. You can also add a carrot or other herbs to the pot at this stage. I then cover it with water and leave it to simmer for about 90 minutes to two hours. Cook it slowly and gently and you should avoid an undesirable rubbery finish. Once cooked, drain the tripe and put it aside and strain the cooking liquid, reserving a few tablespoons for the onion sauce. Cook your onion sauce separately. We all have favourite onion sauce recipes and there are many different takes on this classic. Some people use only milk, others prefer a mix of cream and milk and so I leave that up to you. Using a few tablespoons of the tripe cooking liquid can lighten the sauce a little if you desire. (You can also cook your onion sauce ahead of time as it will keep in the fridge.) Once the sauce is made add the warm tripe and allow it all to heat through. Plate it up, scatter with fresh parsley and serve with warm bread or toast. For me tripe cooked this way has always been a breakfast dish but there are no rules, so why not be European and have tripe whenever you feel like it. One final thought only buy tripe in a reliable and reputable butcher shop and eat it as fresh as possible.
This post was written by me, Pat Whelan, owner of James Whelan Butchers and a passionate advocate of local artisan food. My family have been producing quality Irish Angus beef for generations using a traditional dry aging process. This tradition is one that I continue to practice at our abattoir on our family farm in Garrentemple, Clonmel. These posts aim to impart some of the wisdom to readers and help them get the best out of the meat they eat! Our meat is available online here! I welcome your feedback to Pat@jwb.ie