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Talking Tripe: Taking care of the nasty bits

TGIFOOD

THE OFFAL TRUTH

Talking Tripe: Taking care of the nasty bits

Dobrada, Portugal’s signature tripe and bean casserole. (Photo: Andrew Newby)

World Tripe Day is on 24 October, because on that day in 1662, English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote, ‘So home and dined there with my wife upon a most excellent dish of tripes of my own directing.’

A personal note from TGIFood Editor Tony Jackman: Since writing this piece for TGIFood, Andrew Newby, very sadly, has passed away. I extend my deep and sincere condolences to his wife Heidi Newby-Rose, daughter Mila and all who loved this fine writer and seasoned journalist who also had a rich and multifaceted life in the realm of food, as is attested in the tribute by his daughter Mila, which you’ll find at the end of this story.

I once told a person that I enjoyed eating tripe and she never spoke to me again. On reflection it wasn’t a prudent move. When people are still getting to know each other, conventional wisdom dictates that food topics should centre on such items as dark chocolate, double-thick malted milkshakes or perhaps Eggs Benedict for late breakfasts served on the patio. It’s a bit much to start invoking blood-and-guts images before a conversation has barely got off the ground. For many, tripe is never an appropriate conversation subject, so why did I naively believe that it was a good starter?

That was a while back. Long before the slow food, farm-to-fork, nose-to-tail movement was anything more than an incipient synapse flash in some righteous chef’s or path-finding foodie’s brain. It was an era when fine food was synonymous with the most extravagant ingredients: the most luxurious cuts, the most exotic vegetables along with dairy products delivered from creameries on the other side of the Milky Way. The further it’d travelled, the more it cost, the scarcer it was… the more improved became the offering that landed on your restaurant table.

Many of us bought into that paradigm, so consequently this quest for the expensive, the rare and the exotic set benchmarks for kitchen excellence. Use only the best and toss the rest. Because somewhere out there was an unseen but hugely absorbent hoi polloi to take care of the unwanted discards. The nasty bits – too tough or distasteful for discerning palates, along with third-grade offcuts as well as bundles of wilting veggies that were always doomed to feature on gourmand plates.

Some of us might occasionally yearn for a return to that romantic, flamboyant, silly and impossibly wasteful era. But like it or not, we now live in different times. Pennies are dropping all around and what started as a dawning realisation that all was not sunshine and unicorns in the culinary realm is now a certain reality.

Because there are more humans around, mostly with unfulfilled consumer aspirations, guzzling more than ever thought possible. It’s become unsettlingly obvious that despite Green Revolutions and the like, there’s only so much food that this planet can produce. Malthus rules!

Heightened awareness of such issues as distributive justice remind us that a champagne and caviar diet, once perceived as the inalienable right for the privileged elite, is likely to end badly – look what happened to Marie Antoinette. I could be mistaken, though I don’t think that I’m that far off the mark, but matters culinary are gradually but surely taking on a new meaning and relevance. There appears to be a growing appreciation that food sources need to be curated and protected while age-old culinary traditions are respected. The concept of food sovereignty needs another look while food itself should be savoured and, above all, never taken for granted.

Hence the upswing in demand for offal – a resurgence with a commitment to using the entire animal and appreciating that every part is in its own way special, and if appropriately treated, is capable of providing a magnificent meal.

There was a time when offal in all of its various guises was regarded as a cheap protein option for the poor. Brain, heart, heel, hoof, liver, kidney, cheek, tripe, trotter, tongue, tail and sweetbread – they were mostly relegated to that section of the butchery patronised by those customers who’d come in for fillet, rib-eye steak or crown roast.

Do we sense a quiet revolution taking place under our eyes?

Because you may have noticed – I know I have – that offal prices have been creeping up and although most are not quite on par with more expensive and “socially acceptable” cuts, they are now actually quite close, while some have leapfrogged them. One example would be oxtail, which  commands silly prices in high-end outlets, not to mention celebrity chefs punting their virtuosity by “deconstructing” the poor old tail, thus boosting it to the giddy heights of haute cuisine. Sheep kidneys are no longer the bargains they once were and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find tripe in any section of the family butchery. The laws of supply and demand prevail.

If we choose to be carnivores (perhaps omnivores would be a more accurate term) and we accept the need to respect the animal that we’re about to consume, then the nose-to-tail movement currently doing the rounds finds traction. It’s nothing new though – it’s an ancient approach to sustenance, more embedded than actually articulated in the culinary traditions of peasant societies across Eurasia. Italian villagers for instance, ensure that they use every scrap of the pigs which they slaughter annually – the ears, snout and tail find their ways on to the family menu as delicacies. Even blood is stuffed into intestinal casings to make sausages.

“Waste not, want not,” my Scottish grandmother used to say. Although she was a lady of comfortable means and could well afford to cherry-pick her way through Thrupps grocery store in post-war Oxford Road, there was little that left her kitchen that had not been cunningly purchased, securely preserved, splendidly prepared and if need be, ingeniously reconstituted. On occasion the German Shepherd might have been lucky enough to receive a bone that hadn’t made the cut for the stock pot, but not often. When it came to offal and cold cuts she was in a class of her own. Immaculately turned out glistening brawns; haggis resplendent with neeps and tatties that brought tears to my grandfather’s eyes; casseroles of Lancashire-style tripe and onions; devilled kidneys in a piquant sherry sauce; delicately thin slices of sautéed lamb’s liver served up with grilled bacon and fried onion on a bed of mash… I could go on. But yes, the old lady knew how to take care of the so-called nasty bits.

As a youngster with an inquisitive palate and distinct leanings towards the nearest kitchen, I must confess that in my early years I had a deep suspicion of tripe. It was prepared quite frequently in our household – my father’s parents had emigrated from Yorkshire and I suspect that it was his northern English DNA that induced him to implore my mother for tripe and onions. It was the smell of the tripe’s first boiling that put me off. This was before my mother threw off the water and combined the cooked honeycomb strips with onions, milk, some white pepper, salt, a bay leaf or two and a sparse pinch of nutmeg. That was when the magic took place. It was only after my father unwittingly put into place an epiphanic moment that changed everything.

“Try this,” he said, passing across his cut-glass decanter filled with dry sherry infused with masses of peri-peri chillies that he’d brought from (in those days) Lourenço Marques. I knew that this devilish condiment was right off the capsaicin scale when it came to hot. But I didn’t care because in my early pubescent mind anything to do with sherry was good. I have to add that I was also beginning to appreciate the allure of hot and spicy food.

Hot and spicy the tripe and onions were certainly not. They were bland and comforting in a way that I would later come to appreciate as resonating with a deep and primal appreciation of reassuring taste sensations. To say that the dish touched a visceral chord might be a little over the top as evocative imagery goes – but it was definitely somewhere up there in taste and texture. Other dishes that could fall into the same category for me might be Irish stew or poached haddock dressed with a delicate béchamel sauce. The tripe and onions were also exceptionally moreish.

The epiphany revealed itself when I added a few drops of peri-peri sherry to my plate. Immediately I was teleported into another taste dimension. The dry Monis sherry and fiery little chillies combined to become a perfect foil against the pleasant blandness of the tripe and its comforting, white onion-rich sauce. Somehow the nutmeg and sharp sherry added a hitherto subtle but exotic note of spice and excitement. It was a yin-yang sensation and from that moment on, I was hooked on tripe and all of its possibilities.

Okay, so now we know how I became a tripeophile (and I don’t know if there’s really such a word), but what is tripe and why has it got such a bad reputation?

Tripe refers to the stomach muscle tissue of the multi-stomached ruminant herbivores which include cattle, sheep, goats and antelope. A pig is not a ruminant but in some cuisines, such as Spanish regional, it falls into the same category. In this piece I am referring mostly to cow’s tripe but must add that I do also recommend sheep tripe, although it requires shorter cooking times.

“Dressed tripe” is also called “washed tripe”. “Dirty tripe” is not necessarily as foul as it may sound, it just means that it hasn’t been through the cleaning and bleaching process – but is still acceptable in some societies’ cuisine. I suggest that we stick with clean tripe from cattle for the purposes of this article because that’s the tripe most commonly available at the moment.

To dress tripe, the stomachs are cleaned and the fat trimmed. It is then boiled and bleached, giving it the colour it appears in butcher’s shops. It’s interesting to note that in earlier times, before the ascent of The Age of Affluence, professional “tripe dressers” were to be found in almost every town or village in England. Their sole task was to meet the demand for clean tripe. When tripe began to get its bad rep and crept into the lexicon of the English language as a negative (like “you’re talking a heap of tripe”), the role of the specialist tripe dresser became redundant and ordinary butchers had to fill in where necessary.

However, it remained a popular dish in many parts of continental Europe such as Spain, France and Italy. In France, tripes à la mode de Caen and in Spain callos a la madrileña served as tapas stayed in fashion through the decades. And what would latter-day Romans say if Trippa alla Romana fell away from their everyday menus? We’ll get on to what the Portuguese do in the tripe department shortly.

Beef tripe is made from the muscle wall (the interior mucosal lining is removed) of a cow’s stomach chambers: the rumen, which yields blanket or smooth tripe; the reticulum, which gives us honeycomb and pocket tripe; the omasum gives leaf tripe; and the abomasum is where reed tripe can be found. The latter is not popular because of its glandular tissue content.

I would recommend you asking your butcher for clean honeycomb or blanket tripe if you’re a newcomer to the fascinating underworld of offal.

Now let’s see what the Portuguese do with their tripe. I must disclose that I’ve always held a special place in my heart for Portuguese cuisine; not only because it’s simple and invariably delicious, but because it never really subscribed to The Age of Affluence. My exposure to the restaurants of Portugal informed me that they are often family-run affairs offering the best of what the locals eat. Closer examination confirms that really good Portuguese food is fundamentally superbly prepared peasant food. Dobrada, Portugal’s signature tripe and bean casserole or stew, is exactly that.

This offal epic was sparked by another Daily Maverick story written by Cape Town journalist Herman Lategan. He recently wrote of his enduring relationship with that institution of a Portuguese restaurant, the Vasco da Gama Tavern in Green Point, which turns 50 this year. For those familiar with “The Portuguese Embassy” as it’s been fondly known over the decades, Lategan’s piece is an engrossing journey down memory lane. He writes of the food served over the bar; “messy Prego Rolls, Tripe and Beans, Peri-Peri chicken, Portuguese Sardines and Beef Trinchado”. 

He mentions the food aromas: “garlic, onions, fish, steak, chicken, spices” and I was immediately teleported back to the early 80s when as a Durban resident visiting Cape Town I was taken to Vasco’s for the first time  by my Capetonian brother. The place looked almost exactly the same as the scene portrayed in Lategan’s story. Lining the long bar on high stools sat a collection of middle-aged Portuguese men, all solemn, most of them eating tripe and beans. After emptying his bowl, each would take a final swig of beer and quietly exit the tavern – presumably on his way back to work.

“Women are not allowed here,” my brother informed me. “This is the Portuguese Embassy.”

Years later when I moved to Cape Town (I believe that it’s commonly understood that people move to Cape Town to “find themselves”), I too frequented Vasco’s. The No Women ban was eventually lifted but as Lategan reports, the place retained its special atmosphere… with Tripe and Beans remaining one of the top items on the menu on Fridays.

The ingredients for dobrada. (Photo: Andrew Newby)

Now there are as many, if not more versions of Dobrada in the Portuguese Diaspora than there are boerewors recipes in South Africa. Some people advocate the addition of white wine; others say red wine and many don’t require any wine at all. Some require carrots, but a few leave carrots out. Likewise tomatoes. But there are a handful of essential ingredients that must go in if it’s to have any chance of being recognised as a true Dobrada. These would be: tripe, chouriço sausage, butter or lima beans (smaller cannellini beans are also suitable), garlic, onion, olive oil and bay leaves.

What follows is not the Vasco da Gama Tavern Tripe and Beans recipe – I doubt whether the cooks in that bustling, aroma-filled kitchen would simply hand it over to me. It’s my recipe and, like I said, Dobrada is an infinitely flexible dish so if you even remotely know your way around a kitchen, you should be able to customise your own version according to your tastes.

Remember to ask your butcher for well-cleaned tripe; honeycomb or blanket being the best. Observe it critically during its first boiling because you probably won’t know how much it has already been cooked in the cleaning and blanching process. Tripe usually needs to boil for a long time but it is possible (I know because I’ve done it) to overcook it so that the final result is too soft and mushy.

Friday is tripe day at Vasco da Gama taverna in Cape Town. (Photo: Supplied)

Dobrada / Portuguese Tripe

(Feeds 6)

Ingredients

1 kg honeycomb or blanket beef tripe, cleaned and cut into bite-size pieces

1 kg white butter beans, cooked (2 tins of butter beans can be substituted if there’s no time to prepare dry beans)

250 g chopped bacon, salt pork or ham off-cuts

100 g Portuguese chouriço sausage sliced into small rounds

4 bay leaves

2 medium-size onions, chopped

3 medium-size well-ripened tomatoes, chopped

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

Pepper and salt to taste

150 ml olive oil

1 tsp mixed herbs

Parsley or fresh coriander leaves to garnish

Water or stock

Method

Soak the beans in cold water overnight. Boil until just soft. I give them 35 minutes in a pressure cooker. Set aside.

Wash the tripe well and pre-boil it for up to an hour or even more. I give it 30 minutes on the highest setting in a pressure cooker. When the tripe is soft and able to be fairly easily pierced with a sharp knife, discard the water, drain and set aside. When cool, cut into bite-size pieces or small strips.

In a large oven-proof pot, place the olive oil, chopped onion, bay leaves, chopped garlic, chopped tomato, herbs and sauté on top of the stove until the onions are translucent and the tomatoes have merged with the rest of the mix. Stir and take care not to allow the contents to catch and burn. Add a cup of water if this looks like it will happen.

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180℃.

Add the chopped bacon, salt pork or ham off-cuts as well as the sliced chouriço, a teaspoon or two of salt and pepper and simmer for a further 10 minutes. Add water or stock if necessary.

Add the cut-up tripe and gently stir into the contents of the pot, slowly bringing it up to a simmer.

Add the beans and carefully stir in until all the contents are well mixed and distributed. Taste test for more salt and pepper.

Add sufficient liquid for the tripe and onions to be just covered. When the contents are simmering, take the pot off the stove and place it in a 180℃ oven with its top on. Cook for 1 hour.

Garnish and serve with rice, Portuguese bread or rolls, a green salad and a sharpish condiment.

And if any family member turns up his or her nose because of the smell or general uckiness associated with ingesting cow’s stomach, send that person outside onto the lawn to eat worms. Because you and the others are about to enjoy a pukka offal meal. DM/TGIFood

Tribute by Mila Newby

Andrew Newby died on 3 March 2022 from an anaphylactic reaction to the iodine-containing contrast medium during a CT scan. His daughter Mila Newby penned the following in tribute:

Several stories have been consulted – all written to create what was to become Andrew Newby’s unfinished memoir of a life well-lived – to sketch out an incomplete portrait of Andrew Newby and his relationship with food, as well as its preparation.

I will start at what most consider the most logical point: the beginning. Before Andrew ever learnt to hold a knife, his grandmother taught a man named Jim to make the perfect pork belly. She was a severely disciplined woman of Scottish descent and accent. Her view was if something had to be done, it should be done well and right. This translated to teaching Jim, a man whose origin is somewhere near Dalton in KwaZulu-Natal and whose diet did not include pork products, to cook a pork belly to the complete satisfaction of her Durban dinner party guests. 

This approach to food – of preparing it well and properly, regardless of who you are or who is going to eat it – can be seen long after her death, in Andrew’s attitude to food and how it is made. He despised nouvelle cuisine. Food, to him, was as close to religion as he got. “Food is holy, Skaap,” has been said to me in varying tones of voice more times than I can count. Food waste, clumsy experimentation and general disrespect for the process of cooking were downright blasphemous in his eyes. 

He cooked for many people in his life. As a young boy he proudly presented a cake for one of his mother’s dinner parties. As a young man, he lived in a Durban hippie commune and was notoriously good at whipping together quick, delicious meals that fit the budget of a group of young men starting out in the world. He trained as a chef de partie at Rawdon’s Hotel & Brewery in Nottingham Road and trained his own cooks under contract for the KZN-National Parks board in St Lucia and Tugela Mouth in turn. He ran at least 2 restaurants (that I am aware of, I can imagine there may be more). 

Throughout this extensive life of cooking, he maintained his attitude: you don’t muck around with food. You don’t waste it; you don’t make it into more than it is. Food is what keeps us going and it is what has bound human beings together for longer than our collective memories are able to comprehend. You respect food, in Andrew’s book. You enjoy it and you try to make it as delicious as you can with what you have because for every bite that someone takes, a sacrifice was made somewhere. Someone had to work outside to pick the vegetables in your salad. Someone had to risk minor extremities to offer you the pork chop on your plate. Someone had to get up earlier than the rest of society, to care for the animals that provide the milk and the meat that people love to consume. He was intimately familiar with how food lands on our shelves and on our plates. – Mila Newby

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