“The greatest of all ‘umbles is the sweetbread……There’s something about the combination of rich, spongy flesh and a delicate offal flavour that makes it the most sensuous of innards. And they formed part of the greatest meal of my life… at Le Grand Vefour restaurant in Paris, the sort of high-church gastronomic shrine that probably served proper coq au vin to Napolean and Winston Churchill. The sweetbreads arraive in a gleaming copper pan, studded with black truffles ….. The scent hit the nose first…. We ate these beauties in awed silence….Just a little crisped on the outside, they were simply sublime, an awesome mixture of texture, taste and exquisite poise. Nothing will ever match this dish…”
-Tom Parker Bowles, E is for Eating
What really are sweetbreads?
Sweetbreads (aka ris) are the thymus gland and the larger pancreas. The best are lambs’ sweetbreads, but you can also get calf and beef sweetbreads, and pigs’ sweetbreads which are known as fries.
In the butcher the other day I saw, for the first time, some sweetbreads. I’ve always only ever had them in restaurants before (I always choose them when I see them), but I thought I would try cooking them myself. I was encouraged to discover that they are quite robust and it’s hard to overcook them. I can’t claim to rival Tom Parker Bowles’ experience at Le Grand Vefour….. but I thought they were excellent, well within the capabilities of a normal mortal.
What weight of sweetbreads do you need per person?
About 200g/7 oz will do easily for one person for a main course.
- Preparation is key – get the butcher to trim off all he can of gristle and membrane.Then you have to do your bit.
- Soak the sweetbreads for about an hour in milk.
- Then blanch them in boiling water.
- Then cover them in ice. This firms them up.
- At this stage take off as much of the thin membrane as you reasonably can – don’t spend longer than 30 seconds on each sweetbread – and cut away any gristle. You may need to pull a sweetbread apart into two to do this. The process, in any case, isn’t difficult.
- Drain the prepared sweetbreads, and coat with seasoned flour.
- Add a generous knob or so of butter to a frying pan, don’t let it burn, but allow it to become a little nutty.
- Add the sweetbreads and fry, turning a couple of times, for about ten minutes. Add a squeeze of lemon juice.
What to eat with sweetbreads
Sweetbreads are soft, mild, creamy and incredibly rich. They go well with sharp or acidic tastes such as capers, fennel and lemon – or something even a little bitter, such as rucola. They also go well with the slighty musty, earthy taste of truffles, ceps, and Indonesian long pepper. They pair well with the sweetness and bubbliness of peas. I have invented a warm salad incorporating all of these things which, though I say it myself, goes perfectly.
On the BBC website there is a recipe by Jason Atherton for wild garlic, roasted sweetbread and morel risotto. I haven’t tried it, but I should think it would be excellent and very filling.
I usually only find sweetbreads on a restaurant menu once every couple of years, but on a recent foray to The Netherlands I was amazed to find them offered at two different restaurants within 24 hours. One was the excellent Rijks, where the sweetbreads were served with runner beans, squares of fried rice and Malaysian peanut sauce. These were wonderful, in fact food at this restaurant was all excellent. The second restaurant to serve them was De Neder Landen, also in The Netherlands, where they served the sweetbreads crispy, with fillet of veal, chips, chicory and zoervleisj (I’m not sure what that is).