It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single foodstuff in possession of good batter can be rendered not just palatable, but delicious through the simple action of deep-frying.
So said Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.
I think. Or something along those lines anyway.
But it is a fair argument. Golden batter can hide a multitude of sins, provide a satisfying crunch to an otherwise flabby ingredient and even impart its own magical flavours.
It’s a culinary sleight of hand used the world over from the feather-light tempura of Japan to the more, ahem, heavyweight Scottish offerings (deep-fried kebab meat pizza, anyone? And is it wrong that I find that slightly alluring?).
My old boss once told me of a dinner he enjoyed after a long day’s trek through a mountainous region of the States. In the mood for seafood, he ordered a large plate of Rocky Mountain Oysters.
They arrived not on the half shell as expected, but a steaming mound of golden brown delights, fresh from the deep fat fryer, just the right size to pop into the mouth.
It was only after eating half the portion that his colleague informed him they were not the salty molluscs he thought, but rather the inevitable leftovers of the messy business of cattle castration.
‘Quite tasty,’ he relayed to me, almost romantically.
It was this approach I thought best when contemplating the prospect of eating, for the first time, brain.
The menu tete de porc is gradually taking shape. It needs some work, some gentle refining before it is unleashed upon intrepid diners but it is mostly good.
One course, however, will not make it onto the final bill of fayre.
Removing the brain from the head of a pig is a chore of such magnitude that the final result would have to be rapturously delicious and close to orgasmic in order to make the task worthwhile. It is far from being either of these things. About as far away as it is possible to be.
After stripping the head of the cheeks, ears and snout you are left with something that resembles a science project. What then follows is an hour of finely tuned sawing, cleaving, chipping and brute force in order to remove its contents.
Which are surprisingly small. A disappointing fact at first sight but one that I grew grateful of very quickly when eating time came around.
A pig’s brain is about the size of a large duck egg. Before eating it must be soaked in water for at least 24 hours and then gently poached for about ten minutes. You can use plain old water with a splash of vinegar but we used chicken stock.
What emerges is something that looks like, well, it looks like a brain. There is no getting away from that fact: those familiar little lobes with the swirling labyrinthine pattern twisting across their pale surface.
Each hemisphere was sliced into three, dipped into batter (made with plain flour and ginger beer seasoned with salt, pepper and cayenne) and then deep fried in sunflower oil and suet for about two minutes.
They looked great. Appetising little nibbles whose true origins had been thoroughly and carefully disguised.
My dining partner on this occasion was a chef, also in possession of an adventurous and willing palate. ‘Batter looks good,’ he mused in an attempt to distract us both from its contents.
The small portion was taken outside along with some homemade mayonnaise, plenty of water and a pinch of bravado.
Sitting opposite each other in unintentional gladiatorial style, we each picked up a piece of battered brain and took a bite.
It is not necessary for something to taste actively bad in order to be unpleasant. Texture plays a major role in how we enjoy food. Few westerners enjoy the sticky, glutinous quality of many Asian delicacies such as Natto, made from fermented soybeans.
In that respect brain is unpleasant. Deeply so. What little flavour there is, is not nice. Faintly eggy but not strong enough in of itself to warrant being labelled disgusting.
But the texture of brain is what made us wince. Hard to pin down we tried to find a foodstuff with which to compare it to. The uncooked top of an inadequately fried egg. The slight ickiness of a cloying curdled milk product. Yoghurt that has gone flying far, far beyond its best before date.
It’s somewhere ethereal beyond liquid but stopping short of being solid and it disappeared in the mouth in an alarming fashion, almost flooding the palate with its bizarre nature. The brief respite of the batter only accentuated the downright unpleasantness of what was inside.
We ate another, with slightly more mayonnaise and slightly less gusto in order to galvanise our findings hoping that having removed the shock and awe factor, our second taste wouldn’t be clouded with prejudice. But prejudice merely gave way to knowledge and expectation. I’m not sure if it was better or worse. There was certainly no pride.
The remaining two nuggets were dissected and picked apart in order to pin down what the texture was like but we were still left without an adequate comparison.
A truth universally acknowledged? There is an exception that proves every rule and brain is the one.
Verdict? Brain has made the list. The. List. The list of foods I will happily go a lifetime without tasting again. It has happy company along with tinned tuna and hundred year egg. Don’t try this at home.