There’s a problem with the brains. Due to bad weather across the English Channel, chef Henry Harris tells me, they may not arrive in time from France. In all honesty, this comes as a slight relief. Maybe I won’t have to eat any brains. Maybe I won’t have to take a soft, sinewy bit of flesh that once encased the thoughts, perceptions, and consciousness of a calf and put it into my mouth. Maybe I can just have some chips instead.
“They’ve arrived!” I’m told over email that afternoon. Great.
The next day I arrive at The Coach in Clerkenwell, the newest restaurant venture from Harris and James McCulloch, ready (not ready) to try a menu favourite: fried calf brains with brown butter and capers. As a vegetarian and someone in possession of a pathetically weak stomach, I am unsure how this one’s going to go, but it’s sunny, the pub is bright and busy, and I’m determined not to vom all over a professional kitchen.
Before I’m taken downstairs to the dungeon of doom, or, if you will, the pub kitchen where the brains are cooked, we sit down in the brightly lit dining room so I can work out why Harris, as chef director, is opening pubs with brains on the menu. The Coach, which opened last month, is the pair’s second so far and feels like the kind of high-end gastro pub you might find at the end of a nice country walk around Lewis, with big windows and at least three chocolate labradors in front of an open fire. It’s well designed and, as Harris explains, part of a move to reinvigorate the concept of “pubs with dining rooms” in London’s rapidly shrinking pub scene.
“The Coach had been bought by a developer who planning permission to turn it into flats, which anyone with half a brain would then do and sell on,” Harris tells me above the pub chatter, “but we bought it to turn it back into a pub.”
For Harris, it’s also about making The Coach a dining experience, rather than just somewhere to have a drink.
"Pubs with dining rooms to me are to me what good bistros are in Paris,” he explains. “It's democratic, anyone can come and go, you can have as much of a meal as you want or as little as you want.”
Or brains, I think. Fried brains.
For those unfamiliar with old school French cooking or part of the growing vegetarian and vegan community in the UK, fried brains might seem weird, but the dish has been part of Harris' repertoire for years. Brains were a menu staple at his first restaurant, Racine, which opened in Knightsbridge in 2002. “Apart from during the BSC [Mad Cow Disease] crisis, I did them for 13 years,” he says.
Following Racine’s closure in 2015, Harris is bringing the calf’s organ back to the willing diners of London. But why? Why put the brain of a conscious creature into a pan full of butter when there are just objectively tastier cuts to eat?
"I like using everything, and they are a real joy to eat,” Harris says, carefully choosing his words. “They have a softness to them. A creamy delicateness to them.”
Uncertain, I wonder how best to actually serve the brains of a dead animal.
“There are three ways I would do them,” Harris explains. “Dusted with flour and pan-fried with capers red wine vinegar and parsley, cut into chunks, covered in breadcrumbs and deep-fried,” or “served cold with a nice mustard cream dressing.”
I look sceptical.
“I've never had anyone spit them out,” he assures me. “Everyone tastes them and thinks, actually, I could eat that.”
But how exactly would he describe the texture of brains? “Imagine a set and savoury crème fraîche or slightly creamy tofu, with a slight, delicate sweet richness,” says Harris. “You're reminded you're eating an animal but it's slightly beguiling.”
But beyond the mysterious texture (more on that later), Harris explains that there is also an ethical argument for consuming brains. “It's part of an animal that could end up in the bin, but shouldn't,” he says.
Well, OK, but I don’t eat meat so surely *I* don’t have an obligation to eat the brains?
“You can't not eat veal and then sit down with a glass of milk,” Harris points out. “It's veal, but if we didn't eat veal, we couldn’t get milk.”
Industrialised milk production sees female cows repeatedly impregnated so that they produce a regular supply of milk. Any male cows born are usually slaughtered because they are of no use for either milk production or beef. Rather than allow these animals to be wasted, Harris argues that we should use their meat by eating it as veal—and indeed, their brains.
The RSPCA seems to agree. Over email, a spokesperson for the animal charity tells me: “A large number of bull calves are shot shortly after birth on dairy farms (more than 118,000 in 2015) as they cannot be used in the dairy industry. What happens to male dairy calves is an ethical issue for anyone who drinks or consumes milk.”
They did qualify by adding, “If you choose to eat veal and dairy products, you can help improve calf and dairy cow welfare by choosing RSPCA Assured labelled milk and higher welfare rose veal—including veal burgers, mince, and chops. Higher welfare veal means that the animals are free to move around, have fibre in their diet, and must be supplied with dry bedding, which is something that is often missing in foreign reared veal.”
It does cross my mind to suggest veganism to Harris as a better method of not wasting animals by, essentially, not killing them, but I reckon this probably isn’t the time. Later I do, however, speak to animal rights charity PETA, to get their take on whether eating calf brains can be considered ethical.
Elisa Allen, director of PETA UK, tells me that because some male calves “are shot dead hours after birth because they're of no use for milk production, while others are confined to cramped enclosures” until slaughter, a better move would be to ditch dairy products altogether. She continues: “By switching to one of the many milk alternatives on the market, they spare these calves—the unfortunate ‘by-products’ of the dairy industry—a cruel fate.”
Back at The Coach, and thinking guiltily of the milky flat white I just finished, I follow Harris downstairs to the kitchen where he will prepare the brains for me. Sitting in some water in a Tupperware container, I spot several grey organs, ready to be served to the bold customers upstairs. However, these aren’t even the rawest version of the brain. Luckily for me, Harris has saved a fresher version, in order to show me the full process of preparing the brain, which begins with removing the membrane. Staring at the sticky, bloody organ, and feeling a little bit nauseous, I ask Harris how often people order the dish.
“Last week we sold 40 portions in a week, maybe closer to 50, and we sold out,” Harris tells me. “It's not just chefs and the food obsessed. Most people tend to have had them, or chose them out of interest. There's always going to be someone who's first but we've never had anyone come down and say no they can't do it.”
Maybe I’ll be their first.
After an emotionally trying 15 minutes of watching Harris pull the bloody gunk off the brain, it’s time to blanche it. He takes the clean offal, places it in a pan of water and vinegar, and brings to a boil. Once the brain is cooked, it is added to a pan with butter, red wine vinegar, and capers, until browned and crispy and almost appealing.
Faced with the completed dish, the ethical arguments, and the testing eyes of Harris, I cautiously pick up a fork. The thought of throwing up here in the kitchen crosses my mind as I slide a piece of the brain into my mouth. Here we go. Here we fucking go.
You know what, it’s not that disgusting. It’s extremely gooey and soft, like silken tofu, which could certainly send you over the edge if you thought about it too much, but the crispy, buttery outside is ... fine? There isn’t much of a taste but it’s not nearly as bad as other offal iterations like Andouillette—a tripe sausage also on the menu and described by Harris as having a “barnyard pungency to it.” I do, however, feel a little bit shook at the concept of eating an organ that contained thoughts, like I’ve imbibed the consciousness of an animal and in a few weeks will manifest peculiar cow-like behaviours or start eating human flesh.
I repress these thoughts, and before leaving, ask Harris if there are any other really out-there dishes he'd like to try and cook. He’s done brains for years, and even a sausage made out of a pig’s rectum, so what could be next?
“The thing that I'd like to get hold of that's tricky, time-consuming, and expensive to cook?” Harris muses, “Lamprey, a freshwater eel-like fish that's almost prehistoric. They have no spine, they're more cartilage, and they attach themselves to other fish and live off them. There's a dish Lamproie à la Bordelaise. You hang the eel up, and drain all its blood while it's still alive.”
“Huh,” I say, slowly feeling that chunk of brain in my throat.
“Get the blood out,” Harris continues, “add brandy to it to stop it coagulating, and then you make it like a boeuf bourguignon.”
“It's just like making custard!” he finishes.
Well, guess that’s one way to make brains sound appealing.