My first exposure to the glories of lamb offal was entirely accidental. "Abbacchio con funghi," read the chef's recommendations at one of Rome's oldest restaurants, La Campana, and a succulent lamb chop or tender braised shank did seem like a perfect fall supper in the Eternal City. Moreover, because of my almost non-existent knowledge of Italian at the time, I was tickled about having understood the Roman dialect word for lamb.
"Pride goes before a fall," they say, and I was about to learn my lesson.
The full name of the dish is actually "animelle di abbacchio con funghi." I naively ignored that first word, dismissing it as nothing more than a minor detail. This is Rome, however, a city that prides itself on its culinary artistry with the "quinto quarto," or "fifth quarter" of the animal, the collection of snouts, guts, brains, and tails that have been staples of the city's working class cuisine for millenia.
When my meal finally arrived, I couldn't help but notice the extensive network of ridges and crenelations running through my piece of lamb. "Rachel," I muttered, "I think I've ordered brain." Not quite, it turns out, but nestled within my pool of rich brown gravy and mushrooms lay a tender, plump lamb sweetbread. I had a decision to make: suck it up, try it, and then reach an informed opinion, or take a mulligan and order something new. My decision: eat first, ask questions later. So I screwed up my courage and took a bite. Not bad, really. The texture was smooth and rich, pillowy like a dumpling, and the meat gravy superb.
Having finally eaten a sizable portion of my meal, I tried to ask our waiter what I was eating by tapping my temple while asking, "Dove?" -- the Italian word for "where" -- hoping he would understand the implication, which he did. "Si," he confirmed.
I continued to eat more, though I didn't attack supper with my usual gusto. Yes, even I -- gobbler of rabbit ears and glutton for horse fat -- get culinary cold feet. I'd like to rationalize my anxiety by claiming fear of mad cow disease, but no lamb has ever been diagnosed with BSE and no case of Creutzfeld-Jacob disease, the human equivalent, has ever been linked back to sheep. No, my fears about eating lamb brains aren't about what's in the lamb's head. It's about what's in mine.
Brain presents a big culinary problem for most of us. It's squishy; when cooked, it's grey. Both factors are a huge turn off. But the bigger issue with brain, I think, stems from the unmistakable resemblance of an animal's brain to our own, and from the immense symbolic weight we place on that organ as the locus of thought and as the seat of the soul. We rather easily disassociate ourselves from animal flesh, but we've all taken enough high school science classes or watched enough sci-fi and monster movies to recognize that a lamb's brain looks almost exactly like a miniaturized version of our own. We recognize a little too much of ourselves in a brain.
I first tasted actual lamb's brains a few years ago at Babbo, Mario Batali's flagship New York restaurant. Batali actively promotes cooking with offal, and his menus reflect his passion. At Babbo, our server urged us to try the lamb brains francobolli -- postage stamps of fresh pasta stuffed with a mixture of poached brain, ricotta, sauteed onions, and a little seasoning, dressed with gently heated butter, some fresh sage, and a sprinkling of parmesan -- so I took the plunge. I'm glad I did. The brain's contribution is more texture -- a slightly creamy lusciousness -- then flavour, but the dish really does taste marvelous.
Of course, Batali does his best to make "the nasty bits" palatable to his patrons. As others have already pointed out, he usually mixes offal into his dishes in small quantities, and it's probably no coincidence that the lamb's brains are hidden within a pasta envelope. As they say: out of sight, out of mind.
It's an entirely different story when you're both diner and chef. Any illusions are forgotten the instant you hold a chilled, slick brain in the palm of your hand. No easy task given how difficult it is to find naturally raised lamb in Toronto. The most pleasant surprise I received when preparing lamb brains is price -- they were free. According to my butcher at Cumbrae's, no market exists for the product in Canada. The next step, cleaning the brains, can hardly be described as pleasant. For one, there were a few small chunks of skull wedged into the brains -- a by-product, no doubt, of extracting the brains from the skull using a saw -- and, for two, there's the pain-in-the-ass task of removing the outer membrane and blotches of congealed blood.
After soaking the brains overnight in a couple of changes of water to drain any remaining blood, the recipe, which I adapted from an identical recipe for calf's brains in The Babbo Cookbook, is entirely straightforward. Rather than fuss over the pasta envelope, I prepared basic, square ravioli, not postage stamps with fancy edges. The homemade dish, though less artfully presented, is every bit as good as the restaurant version. The richness of the filling marries artfully with butter, flavours complemented by the sharp herbal note of sage and the zing of lemon zest. We even found one friend eager to taste the dish, and he enjoyed it too.
Having come this far, we must now decide if we want to explore brains further. Where Batali uses brains as just one note in a broader harmony, Fergus Henderson features them front and centre. The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating includes a small section of lamb brains recipes, everything from deep fried brains to a terrine. There's even a recipe for cold lamb's brains on toast, "for those who particularly enjoy the texture of brain." Hmmm. I'm not sure we're there yet, Fergus.