A Midland chef is keen to prove he has both brains and brawn. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre restaurant Mary Griffin tucks into brain fritters and Bedfordshire Clangers, and finds out that offal is back in fashion.
This is not the first time I’ve been brave – or daft – enough to put something’s brain in my mouth. I popped my brain-eating cherry at London’s St John restaurant in swanky Smithfield, famed for its nose-to-tail menu.
It was my brother’s birthday and 15 of us shared a whole suckling pig, which, in disgraceful fashion, we insisted on being pictured with in various poses before tucking in and filling our bellies.
Why I went for the brain is anyone’s guess, but having spent the evening gleefully sampling pig’s ear, trotter and cheek I suppose I thought I might as well go the whole hog.
Under the glare of my wide-eyed brother, I reached in with my knife and scooped from the skull. It wasn’t so much the taste of this little piggy’s noggin that put me off – it was the consistency.
It left a strange filmy membrane across my teeth and tongue that continued to linger long after a spirited swill of sauvignon blanc.
Since the suckling pig foray, I’ve enjoyed a number of adventures with offal – a friend serving up pigs’ hearts stuffed with parsley and sage; breadcrumbed sweetbreads at a French restaurant; and my own laborious attempt at turning sheep’s lungs, heart and liver into haggis.
And whether it’s stuffing, coating or mincing, I now appreciate that offal deserves special treatment, so when I heard that brain fritters had made it on to the new menu at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s rooftop restaurant, I prepared to revisit brain, with an open mind.
Head chef Nick Funnell has been causing a stir at the restaurant since it opened 18 months ago.
Eager to rediscover old recipes and add new twists, Nick’s previous menus have featured English shark, a pig’s ear version of pork scratchings and, most recently, a revival of a centuries-old sweet pastry recipe for Coventry Godcakes.
This time, he is resurrecting brawn – a traditional terrine made from braised pig’s head that may once have been eaten by the Bard himself – as well as jugged rabbit, and brain fritters.
And on the menu of bar snacks there’s a Bedfordshire Clanger – a homemade sausage roll that’s savoury at one end (with ham hocks, sausage meat and sage) and sweet at the other (with apples, apricots and cumin).
Holding out a tray of the little pink brains, he says: “I put the brains on the menu for a bit of fun – and to see if we can sell it.
“They do look quite gross and you have to take your mind off what you’re eating, but when they’re cooked it turns out almost like a sweetbread.”
The brains are marinated overnight in a high-density vinegar with bay leaves and
garlic, before getting a light coating of lager batter.
Serving up, Nick looks like an artist painting streaks of pea purée on a plate, scattering sticky button onions and pancetta pieces, and finally adding the golden nuggets encasing the marinated brain.
“It really soaks up the vinegar flavour,” he says, as I skewer a chunk with my fork, “and the batter helps to protect it so it’s like cotton wool and almost melts on your tongue.”
He’s not wrong. The sharpness of the vinegar doesn’t overpower the creamy, buttery filling and it’s perfectly complemented with the sweet onions and fresh peas.
Mouth full, eyes lighting up, I give Nick an approving nod – and he’s visibly relieved.
On the menu’s first day, not one of the 150 diners was brave enough to order the brain fritter starter, but Nick isn’t giving up.
“If we sell 25 portions I’ll be happy,” he says, as his sous chef walks by with half a pig’s head.