Monday 7 December 2015

The best bits

Offal, also called variety meats or organ meats, refers to the internal organs and entrails of a butchered animal. The word does not refer to a particular list of edible organs, which varies by culture and region, but includes most internal organs excluding muscle and bone.

The word shares its etymology with several Germanic words: Frisian ôffal, German Abfall (offall in some Western German dialects), afval in Dutch and Afrikaans, avfall in Norwegian and Swedish, and affald in Danish. These Germanic words all mean "garbage", or —literally— "off-fall", referring to that which has fallen off during butchering. However, these words are not often used to refer to food with the exception of Afrikaans in the agglutination afvalvleis (lit. "off-fall-meat") which does indeed mean offal. For instance, the German word for offal is Innereien meaning innards. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word entered Middle English from Middle Dutch in the form afval, derived from af (off) and vallen (fall).

When I was a kid in Serbia, when an animal was slaughtered, there was really no part which was not eaten.

Chicken was slaughtered maybe once every week and the whole animal except for the head and the intestines was eaten including all the internal organs. If the chicken was slaughtered for a feast, then the whole chicken was roasted, but normally it was cut into pieces which were roasted of fried or used in stews. Neck, feet, wings and internal organs were boiled for a stock (soup). Sometimes if you were lucky, you could find a boiled yet unlaid egg in your soup plate. Boiled bones were broken and the bone marrow was sucked out...

Pigs were only slaughtered once a year at the beginning of the winter. Lambs and sheep were only slaughtered for St Georges day. Calves and bulls were only slaughtered for really special occasions and communal feasts. Milk cows were basically never slaughtered unless they got too old.

Anyway if any of these large animals was slaughtered for a feast, then it was cleaned off the innards and roasted on spit whole. Otherwise, large cuts of meet (hams, shoulders, back, neck) were mostly dried and smoked. Smaller fatty cuts were cut into small bits, or minced and stuffed into sausages and salamis which were also dried and smoked. Belly fat in pigs was also dried and smoked and turned into speck and pancheta. This was the meat that was left for the winter. Internal organs, including intestines were the parts of the animal eaten first as they can't keep, and they were eaten fried, grilled or stewed. Heads were boiled and the meat including ears, snout, tong and skin was stripped off the bone. All of these bits were then added back to the water in which the head was boiled, and the whole lot was turned into a jelly using natural gelatin from the scull. The brains were a delicacy and were eaten boiled, fried or roasted. Scrotum and testicles were also eaten grilled or fried. Trotters (feet) were eaten stewed. Fat was also melted and used in cooking as geese. Blood was used for making blood sausages. Bone marrow was also eaten out of the cooked bones.

So basically nothing was wasted. 

When I was a kid, one of my duties during the lamb slaughter was to clean small intestine. You were given a thin stick and intestines in a bucket of water. You had to turn them inside out by using the stick and wash the insides.

The clean intestines were then cooked (grilled, boiled or stewed) and eaten. I remember once my grandmother passed by and said: "Don't wash it too well. Its the stuff that is inside the intestines, that is the best bit. It gives the intestines the good taste..."

I always thought that this was a very strange thing to say indeed. Eating the content of the intestines? Phew. I, like probably most people reading this article, regard the content of the stomach and the small intestine as horrible, dirty, smelly future poo. In doing so we are completely forgetting that the content of the stomach and the small intestine is actually the mix of food that was eaten and the enzymes secreted by the digestive tract and the bacteria living in it. The content of the stomach and the small intestine is the true "elixir of life". And it even has a name: chyme, pronounced "kaɪm". It comes from Greek χυμός pronounced "khymos",  meaning juice.

And it seems that our ancestors didn't let the chyme go to waste either.

Just what Neandertals ate has been more of a puzzle than paleo dieters might have you believe. Isotope analyses of fossilized bones and teeth suggest Neandertals ate very high on the food chain, with high-protein diets akin to those of wolves or hyenas. But wear marks on their teeth suggest the Neandertal diet consisted of more animals in colder high-latitude areas, and more of a mix of plants and animals in warmer areas. Tartar analyses support the idea that Neandertals ate their veggies, and have also suggested the presence of plants considered inedible, or at least unpalatable and non-nutritious. These include some plants like yarrow and chamomile with medicinal value, so one team suggested Neandertals self-medicated.

But now anthropologists Laura Buck and Chris Stringer of London’s Natural History Museum suggest in Quaternary Science Reviews that instead, Neandertals may have picked up some of these plants by eating the stomach (and small intestine) contents of their prey. That would explain the presence of plants with no obvious nutritional value to hominids.

It was not only the Neanderthals that ate chyme. Other (so called Modern) humans ate it too. We know this because the custom of eating chyme was preserved until today in some cultures.

I already said that, judging by my grandmother's comment, it could have been once a custom in the Balkans.

The consumption of stomach contents is ascribed a ritual or spiritual value in several cultures. For the Kuria people from the Kenya - Tanzania border, eating the chyme is eating the life of the animal. It transfers to the taker the vital force of the slaughtered animal

The chyme is eaten because of its medicinal properties. The Damara people from Namibia consume the stomach contents (and dung, which may also preserve plant fragments) of ostrich and kori bustard in the treatment of various ailments, including dehydration, malaria, and burns. These birds are perceived to have medicinal power drawn from their size and eating habits.

Similarly, porcupine stomach is prized for its potency among  Khoisan of Southern Africa because of the animal’s diet of medicinal plants.

Lakota indians ate the guts of the buffalo because the buffalo guts were full of half-fermented, half-digested grass and herbs specifically because of their medicinal value.

Another potentially crucial reason for the consumption of herbivore stomach contents is that it is a rich source of carbohydrates. Reindeer stomach is the best source of carbohydrates (with the exception of berries, which are equally rich in carbohydrates, but more seasonal) in the Greenland Inuit diet.

Greenland Inuit also ate ringed seal pup stomach with its content as a delicasy. They compared this chyme to cream cheese, and today when they want to eat something similar they eat Philadelphia cheese. 

Now don't think that it is only the "primitive" people who had such disgusting food habits. Chyme is the defining ingredient of pajata, a traditional Roman recipe.

Rigatoni con la Pajata (in Italian: Rigatoni con la Pagliata [riɡaˈtoːni kon la paʎˈʎaːta]) is a classic dish of the Roman Cuisine. The dish can be found in some traditional trattorias in Rome. Pajata is the term for the intestines of an "un-weaned" calf, i.e., only fed on its mother's milk. The intestines are cleaned and skinned, but the chyme is left inside. Then the intestine is cut in pieces 20 – 25 cm long, which are bound together with white thread, forming rings. When cooked, the combination of heat and the enzyme rennet in the intestines coagulates the chyme and creates a sort of thick, creamy, cheese-like sauce. These rings can be served simply seasoned and grilled (pajata arrosto) or in the traditional Roman dish in which pajata is stewed in a typical tomato sauce and served with rigatoni.

Now this is very very interesting. Why? Because how people got the idea to make cheese from milk is still a mystery, and maybe the answer to this mystery is chyme.

There is no conclusive evidence indicating where cheese-making originated. The earliest secure evidence of cheese making dates back to 5,500 BCE in Kujawy, Poland. Milk extracts have been identified on 34 perforated pottery vessels or "cheese-strainers", which date back 7,500 years that have been excavated in Poland. It is unambiguous evidence for cheese-making in northern Europe during Neolithic times, scientists believe, and the findings have been published in the scientific journal Nature. Dairying seemingly existed around 4,000 BCE in the grasslands of the Sahara.

But how did people discover or invent cheese? If we want to answer that question, we first need to know what cheese is and how it is made from milk.

Cheese is a food derived from milk that is produced by coagulation (curdling) of the milk protein casein. It comprises proteins and fat from milk, usually the milk of cows, buffalo, goats, or sheep. During production, the milk is usually acidified, and adding the enzyme rennet causes coagulation. The solids are separated and pressed into final form. Some cheeses have molds on the rind or throughout.

So to get the milk to turn to cheese we need rennet. What is rennet?

Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminant mammals. Ruminants are mammals that are able to acquire nutrients from plant-based food by fermenting it in a specialized stomach prior to digestion, principally through microbial actions. The process typically requires the fermented plant food (known as cud) to be regurgitated and chewed again. The process of rechewing the cud to further break down plant matter and stimulate digestion is called rumination. The word "ruminant" comes from the Latin ruminare, which means "to chew over again". There are roughly 150 species of ruminants which include both domestic and wild species. Ruminating mammals include cattle, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, antelope, and some macropods.

So ruminant mammals produce rennet in their stomachs. But rennet is not produced by the ruminant mammals throughout their lives. It is only produced by suckling young animals before they start eating grass. Chymosin, the key component of rennet, is a protease enzyme that curdles the casein in milk. In this way it helps the young mammals digest their mothers' milk. 

This is the interesting bit. This means that cheese exists in nature and didn't need to be "invented". Cheese is the chyme found in stomachs and small intestine of the suckling young of the ruminant mammals. Now knowing that our hunter gatherer ancestors ate chyme of killed animals, they must have very quickly realized that chyme from different animals tastes different and some taste way better than others. And being good hunter gatherers who know the habits of their pray, they probably soon realized that the chyme of baby sheep, goats, cows is the milk that they sucked, and which was somehow, magically turned into this tasty goo inside their stomachs and small intestines? All that was left to do then was to try to reproduce what naturally happens in the stomachs of the suckling young ruminant mammals. If this milk chyme was a delicacy, a sought after delicacy, which was only available during the suckling season, then there was a big incentive for people to try to make more of it and at the time when there are no suckling young ruminant mammals that can be killed for their chyme. So why not get the stomach out of a lamb, tie it on one end, pour milk into it, tie it on the other end, leave it and see what happens...and bingo...We have milk chyme or as we like to call it today milk curds. 

The currently accepted theory that tries to explain the invention of cheese is this. Since animal skins and inflated internal organs have provided storage vessels since ancient times for a range of foodstuffs, it is probable that the process of cheese making was discovered accidentally by storing milk in a container made from the stomach of a ruminant, resulting in the milk being turned to curd and whey by the rennet remaining in the stomach. 

But maybe these storage vessels made from stomachs of ruminant mammals are the result of the original attempts to make chyme. 

You can make water bottles (aka waterskin) from the stomachs of larger animals. Thoroughly flush the stomach out with water, then tie off the bottom leaving the top open. 

Boil a pot of water.  Take the water off the heat and place the stomach in it.  Allow it to sit for 2 hours. 
Empty the water, boil another batch of water, and place the stomach in it again to soak for 2 hours.  Continue this until the water is clear after soaking.
Turn the stomach inside out and scrape away the lining with a dull knife while holding the stomach under warm water.  When the water becomes cloudy, replace it with fresh warm water.  Continue until the inner lining of the stomach is clean.  Be careful to not puncture the stomach.
Boil a pot of water.  Take the water off the heat and place the stomach in it.  Soak for 30 minutes.
Sew one end of the stomach to close it.  Roll the end over the seam and sew it again.

You can see that the above process will remove the stomach lining which contains all the rennet and it would be hard for the container made in such way to turn milk into cheese.  It is of course possible that badly cleaned stomach would have enough rennet left to indeed turn milk into cheese. 

I believe that the bags made from cleaned but not scraped or boiled baby animal stomachs were deliberately used to produce milk chyme, which we today call cheese. Like this dry sheep stomach bag, that is used for cheese fermenting process on a farm in Darguziai village in Lithuania. One stomach bag can be used for cheese production for the whole year.

Now we actually have the proof that this is exactly how the original cheese was made. The proof is the ancient Sardinian cheese called ‘Cazu de Crabittu’  (literally 'rennet of baby goat') . It is produced in Sardinia and dates back probably to Neolithic times. It is made directly in the fourth and final stomach, or abomasum, of a suckling goat, because it contains many enzymes responsible for the digestion – or in this case the coagulation – of milk.

Traditionally, just before killing a goat kid, the shepherd leaves it to suckle its mother milk. He then separates the abomasum from the other parts of the intestines, which are used for other purposes.

The abomasum is emptied, and the milk is filtered with a simple net then returned to the stomach. The stomach is rubbed on the outside with salt and hung to dry (in a cellar, for example) for some months. After the maturation, we slice open the stomach and spread small amounts of the cheese onto ‘pane carasau’, a traditional flat bread which is very thin. In pastoralist circles, the cheese is even referred to as ‘Sardinian viagra’, or ‘faede arrettae’ in Sardo. The taste of the cheese is different every time, because the milk is raw and because the goats live freely eating many wild plant species. The result is a super tasty and strong creamy cheese with different nuances, spicy, sweet, sour, and bitter all combined with a persistent wild animal aroma. When you taste ‘Su Cazu de Crabittu’ you will never forget the taste.

Now making cheese in lamb stomachs is great, but look at the size of it. If you want to make large amounts of cheese you really need to be able to use bigger containers. To do so rennet needed to be obtained from baby animal stomachs. 

Production of natural rennet

Rennet is extracted from the inner mucosa of the fourth stomach chamber (the abomasum) of young, unweaned ruminant mammals. If rennet is extracted from older animals (grass-fed or grain-fed), the rennet contains less or no chymosin, but a high level of pepsin and can only be used for special types of milk and cheeses. As each ruminant produces a special kind of rennet to digest the milk of its own species, milk-specific rennets are available, such as kid goat rennet for goat's milk and lamb rennet for sheep's milk.

Traditional method

Dried and cleaned stomachs of young unweaned ruminant mammals are sliced into small pieces and then put into salt water or whey, together with some vinegar or wine to lower the pH of the solution. After some time (overnight or several days), the solution is filtered. The crude rennet that remains in the filtered solution can then be used to coagulate milk. About 1 g of this solution can normally coagulate 2 to 4 L of milk.

Once you have rennet you can use it to curdle milk in containers which were not made from stomachs, like earthen pots, or wooden barrels or sheep skins. Cheese is still made in sheep skin bags in Montenegro:

So once you had the whole rennet thing figured out, the only other thing really that needed to be invented was how to turn milk chyme, milk curd, into hard cheese which can be preserved, transported and stored. To do that you need to add salt to the curds, press them and dry them. Any idea how this happened?

But the fact that cheese occurs naturally as the chyme from the stomachs and small intestine of the young unweaned ruminant mammals opens another interesting possibility. Our hunter gatherer ancestors could have eaten cheese millenniums before the first of these ruminant mammals were domesticated. Hunters which lived off the large herds of migrating ruminant mammals would have eaten whole animals including stomach content and stomach itself. This means that they would have been ingesting not only milk solids found in stomachs of baby animals, but also stomach cells and bacteria and enzymes and all the other chemicals linked with milk digestion. Is it possible that it is the long term ingestion of this combination of things rather than just milk, that eventually resulted in the change of human stomachs and small intestines and allowed these hunters to eventually start digesting milk itself?  

Anyway I think that this is an interesting story. What do you think?


  1. That was excellent. Very well written. I live in Southeast Alabama, USA and have been introducing my friends to your blog.

  2. That was very interesting. I enjoy all your articles tremendously and this one was well written.
    I have read many articles on anthropology where the subject of lactose tolerance was mentioned, however the vehicle or method by which human beings obtained lactose tolerance has never been explored beyond the simple explanation of they began drinking milk upon the domestication of livestock. The foundations of the ability may have been laid millenia ahead of time with neanderthal and homo sapien hunter gatherers as you suggest. After all, could neanderthal have not developed blue eyes well ahead of homo sapiens in their northern occupation of Europe and Asia? These attributes take time and the ability to digest milk products and make various milk products takes a long time.

  3. That's really fascinating! I had no idea that stomachs could be used for cheesemaking.

    Here in my part of the US, there are lots of Mexicans. They too are very resourceful about eating all the edible parts of the cattle. The head is boiled to take off the meat and so is the tongue, which is then shredded and eaten in stew or tacos. Also, they have a special stew made from the intestines ("menudo"), and it's quite popular this time of year here.

  4. Here in the Ivory Coast people eat the faeces of the agouti in a sauce.

  5. Thank you very much guys for your kind comments. I am glad that other people are finding these things interesting too. To me it is these "small" often overlooked things that are the most interesting. As they say the devil is in the detail. And I believe that this is one very important bit that was overlooked, when it comes to understanding the development of the milk tolerance in humans. And not just milk tolerance. Immune system as well. But that is another story for another time :)

  6. Well done! Can't wait for the story about immune system! Pozdrav iz Beograda! :)

  7. awful/abfall.
    chime=khumos(Gk)=comos=co(s)mos(Gk)=comoni(N)=start the breakfast fire drill,
    good stuff, tks.

  8. Nice!Same eating cultures!We have the same eating habits in Baltistan,the North of Pakistan.

  9. hi more than two years trying to find the recipe for a cheese called awshari or beza its look like what I sow in your page(peneri pesiti) from north of Iraq it was very expensive but never test like it any where may be

    you can find what herbs they adds and how it made thankyou