Brains have never really been that popular
in England, often banished to a messy tray, at least that’s when they could be
found at all. They’ve made appearances in other British cook books but they are
few and far between.
The final nail in the coffin for the brain
in British cuisine was surely the BSE or ‘Mad Cow’ crisis of the 1990s where
cows were infected by a prion which causes the disease bovine spongiform
encephalopathy (BSE). A prion is an infectious protein, and is therefore not
alive, and cannot be denatured by regular heat-treatment. It may have been
derived from the prion that causes the encephalopathy in sheep known as
scrapie, but this link is unclear.
The BSE prion infects the CNS causing the
brain to appear spongy under microscopic observation. The symptoms,
unsurprisingly, are behavioural: infected individuals become solitary,
aggressive and frenetic, they become anorexic and their milk yield drops
dramatically. Eventually they lose all coordination. BSE is all-consuming,
infecting not the just the CNS but the peripheral nervous system, bone,
intestines, placenta and tonsils. It is also found in saliva and excrement, and
can sit in the soil perfectly viable for years. I remember watching the
pictures of the wretched stumbling beasts on the television news in shock and
in horror as they were bulldozed into mass burning graves. A total of 4.4
million cattle were killed during the crisis.
The source of the outbreak was the cattle’s
feed, where ground up cadavers of sheep and cows were included in their diet.
Shockingly, this practise had been going on since the 1920s, so it was just a
matter of time before infection spread. In retrospect, it beggars belief that
it could ever have been considered a good idea to turn herbivores into not just
carnivores, but cannibals
There was of course worry that BSE could be
passed onto humans, not just in food but in bovine insulin for diabetics and in
bone meal for gardeners. Though bovine-human transmission was possible, there
was no real initial evidence to suggest it actually occurred. Nevertheless, in
1996 the EU banned the UK from exporting beef and beef products including
semen, embryos, gelatine and fat. Within the UK sales of beef plummeted, the
government blaming the media storm. Secretary of State, John Gummer, famously
said it was the British public and not the cows that had gone mad. Douglas
Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, was adamant that there was no link between
the new variant CJD (Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, the equivalent disease in
humans). In the Government’s desperation to calm the country and show just how
safe British beef was, the Right Honourable Mr Gummer fed his little daughter a
beef burger in front of TV cameras. Idiot.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation
had been collecting data, and reckoned that nv-CJD
was probably caused by the BSE prion. Hogg and Gummer had been desperately slow
to act, but now the country had to tackle the crisis swiftly.
The most important and easily implemented
regulation was the ‘over 30 months rule’, a simple ban on killing cattle for
beef older than 30 months. When it came to using any part of the CNS for food,
the cattle must be under 12 months old, with the same rule applying to sheep.
Pigs are not considered a risk.
Simple rules such as this helped deal with
the crisis swiftly. In 1992 there was 37 000 cases of BSE, in 2004 there was
just 90. By 2006 the EU beef ban was completely lifted; now the UK is back in
line with the rest of the EU
Now with all this behind us, you can get
hold of them from a good butcher. Order well in advance though, and expect to
have to buy in bulk.
First of all you need to prepare your
brains – you’ll need around 1 ½ pounds of calves’
brains, which I reckon to be 2 sets, or thereabouts. For some advice on
preparing and poaching brains, see this previous post. For this recipe, poach
them in milk, as you’ll need it to
Strain the milk into a jug and slice the
brains on a large plate. Keep them warm as you get on with the sauce, a cross between
a béchamel and a velouté.
Start by melting an ounce of butter in a saucepan, then stir in a
rounded tablespoon of flour and a
teaspoon of curry powder. Mix all
around in the butter for a couple of minutes, then add ¼ pint of hot chicken stock, adding a little at a
time to prevent lumps forming, then add the amount of the milk the brains were
poached in. Simmer the sauce gently for 20 minutes, stirring every now and
again, then add ¼ pint of double cream.
Meanwhile, get on with preparing 8 ounces of peeled grapes. To do this put them in a bowl and pour over boiling water.
Let them sit for a few seconds and then strain them. The skin should now peel
away with relative ease. When the sauce is ready, season with salt and pepper
and tip in the grapes, including any juice. The sauce is now ready, but if it
seems a little thick – it should be the thickness of double cream – add a
little more stock or milk.
Pour the sauce over the brains and tuck in triangles
of bread fried in butter and serve.
with Curry and Grape Sauce. Well I am glad I cooked the other brain recipe
first, as this monstrosity would have put me off for life! The sauce was simply
horrible; cloying in such a way, that when in the mouth, you couldn’t tell
where sauce started and brain finished. The grapes simply did not go with the
sauce. Obviously a thing of its time. I enjoyed the fried bread. 1/10.