Matter of Taste: On the eating of hearts

While out of fashion in western diets, the hearts of almost every animal are perfectly edible

Matter of Taste: On the eating of hearts

Emilia Clarke becomes Khaleesi after eating a horse's heart in HBO's 'Game of Thrones' [HBO]

It seems appropriate as this week, during which lovers across the world indulge processions of showiness, draws to an end to talk about the heart. Neither in a romantic nor physiological sense, rather just the culinary one.

The consumption of the powerhouse of the circulatory system of various beasts has fallen very out of fashion in the modern world, despite the massive increases in the amount of meat we all are eating. On a pragmatic sense, this is rather wasteful given the fact that in almost every instance, the heart is a perfectly edible part of any slaughtered beast, falling under the category of meats referred to as offal.

The fall off in offal

Offal, itself a catchall term, refers to any part meat that wasn’t attached to an animal’s skeleton, literally the ‘off fall’ parts which tumble onto the abattoir floor while he or she goes about the slaughterhouse. While it originally meant entrails and viscera, it now applies to pretty much anything we’d turn our noses up at when shopping in a supermarket, but lavishly lap up when served in seasoned and humble portions in restaurants bearing Michelin stars. You have to admire the pluck of those chefs, who take the cheap offcuts of unwanted livers and lungs, tails, feet, and tongues, and serve them up with price tags so inflated they can undercut personal distaste.

Sliced beef hearts served with rice and parsley [Pixabay]

The problem with offal, however, is how poorly it keeps, in a figurative and literal sense; it is said that the age at which the animal is slaughtered has a massive impact on taste, with calves prized above all others for providing butchers bulging bits and bobs with the best flavour and texture. Before the revolution of refrigeration, abstemious consumers would use all by 5-10% of every animal killed for its meat, meaning that offal was offered to all social classes on their dinner plates.

The heart of the matter

While certainly offal, hearts differentiate themselves from almost every other piece in that family by consisting entirely of muscle. This is a double-edged sword for those eating it, as, once trimmed of fat and “pipes,” it sounds perfectly palatable to eat muscle, as that is what steak is made of, after all. That said, the difference between chomping down on chuck or tenderloin and heart is that the muscles of the heart were in constant use from before birth right up until the moment of death, resulting in a tough meat that needs to be transformed in the kitchen.

Chicken hearts on skewers [Flicker/Jen Chan]

In The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson recommends stewing them, the low heat and long cooking time rendering the chewy flesh sufficiently tender. In Peru, small oxhearts are marinated in vinegar to break down the muscle tissue, then skewered and barbequed over charcoals, finished with a smattering of hot sauce and annatto, a slightly peppery spice with a hint of nutmeg. Otherwise, like most offal, hearts are best used as a meaty addition to any number of dishes, from haggis to dinuguan, in which pork lungs, kidneys, intestines, ears, and snout bubble in a dark, rich blood gravy. Mabuting gana, as they say in Manila.

A brief note on cannibalism

On eating human hearts, there really is no serving suggestion imaginable worthy of the ensuing prison sentence and decades of prison food, though the concept was a common trope in medieval epic poetry. Perhaps best told in Konrad von Würzburg’s 13th century poem Das Herzmäre, there are dozens of different versions that ultimately follow the same plot: a noblewoman, in love with a knight, gets fed his heart when her husband intercepts it on its way back from the Crusades, where the knight himself died of heartbreak.

Instead of the recommended marinades or stewing, the roasted muscle if fed to the woman, who, upon traced it from field to fork, dies herself. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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