‘Nose to tail eating means it would be
disingenuous to the animal not to
make the most of the whole beast’

Fergus Henderson

Whole beasts and birds

Whole beasts and birds

Bone broths, heart tartare, tripe stew, pig skin pasta, faggots, confit duck tongue, lard spreads, calf’s brains, the list is long. A growing number of progressive chefs are reviving forgotten delicacies that make use of the whole animal, as well as creating tasty innovations of their own.

Why is this reawakening happening? ‘Prime’ cuts – loins, breasts, chops – have become clichéd and boring. They offer little opportunity for interpretation and are not challenging to cook, yet they continue to soar in price.

On the other hand, cooking with the rest of the animal is inexpensive, and procuring the whole carcass even more so. These forgotten parts, once prestigious, can also be used and interpreted in so many ways, offering more invigorating and innovative fare.

However, this revival isn’t just about gourmet dining; it’s about farming too. As more chefs extend their craft beyond the stove and collaborate with family farmers, they are coming to recognise that nose-to-tail eating is also necessary to support family-scale husbandry and healthy farm ecologies.

So let us take inspiration from our alimentary past and rediscover our animals, one at a time and wholly. Using imagination, creativity and craft, chefs have the power to elevate every part of the beast and bird into everyday cuisine and inspire new ethics of eating.

Food wastage, ecological footprint

For too long modern cuisine have been elevating the wrong cuts to centre stage. Industrial livestock production has fuelled the expectation of ‘choice’ cuts or cherry-picking certain parts of the animal, but at what cost?

Today’s narrow obsession with just one or two pieces of an animal means a massive number must be produced, with consequences to our health, environment and our ability to farm in the future.

To serve only the breast of a chicken, or the loin of a steer, or the chops of a pig, and to do so for months on end, results not only in banal and predictable fare but also a great deal of food wastage in the livestock industry.

Further, such eating habits are dependent on industrial practices that involve animal suffering, loss of genetic diversity in livestock, an increase in infectious diseases, environmental pollution, and sprawling crop monocultures devoid of natural and human communities.

Whole animal, whole farm

As support grows for farmers who practice ethical animal husbandry and regenerative land stewardship, greater attention is being placed on redefining the way we prepare and eat our food.

Celebrating the whole beast and bird, one at a time, is a good example of such practicality. To be sustainable, family farmers need to sell the whole animal. In order to raise livestock at natural growth rates and in balance with the ecological health of the landscape, much smaller scale of production and less frequent processing is required.

As well, good husbandry on family farms requires considerable knowledge and is labour intensive, as it encompasses improving all the life on the land. This includes maintaining soil fertility, growing grass diversity, managing grazing rotations, recycling waste, applying breeding practices, ensuring welfare during livestock birthing, and restoring wildlife habitats. With such a range of responsibilities, a farmer can properly care for only a certain amount of land and livestock.

This is why nose-to-tail eating was the foundation of all great cuisines of the past. It evolved through necessity. The proper scale of good livestock and land husbandry had to be supported, while ensuring that nothing on the farm was wasted. The practice then continued to be widely undertaken for nutritional reasons and a broader enjoyment of food – until the introduction of industrial farming perverted our eating habits.

So it’s time to restore our respect for the whole animal. Like our culinary past, returning to varied and dynamic menus that make use of whole beasts and birds is how we can help make small-scale farming viable again, and encourage the growth of family farms in agriculture.

‘It’s easy to cook a filet mignon... and
call yourself a chef. But that’s not real
cooking. That’s heating. Preparing tripe,
however, is a transcendental act.’

Thomas Keller, chef, French Laundry

Produce less, eat better

In transforming nose-to-tail into delicious meals, chefs can still serve the same amount of meat but use far fewer animals, while presenting their patrons with tastier and healthier fare.

For example, rather than serving 20 kilograms of lamb chops a month, which would require the production of 30 commercially bred sheep, a restaurant can serve 20 kilograms of nose-to-tail meat from just 2 sheep of a slow growth variety that have been raised humanely and ecologically by an independent family farmer.

The choice we make about which parts of an animal we eat dictates the numbers produced. Being aware of the power of such decisions can change our food system. By embracing whole beast and bird cookery, we can divert our attention from producing more animals on factory farms and focus on supporting the family farmer, creating more nutritious and tastier meals, and sustaining agriculture into the future.

Quinto quarto (5th Quarter)

Eat every part, and feed everybody.

When considering nose-to-tail eating, it’s important to remember that an animal is not all meat. We should also think about the bones, offal, tendons, fat, skin and even the blood, as these parts in total comprise a significant chunk of the weight of the carcass.

The truth is, by celebrating these forgotten prized parts, we can put more food on our plates and feed more people. These parts also have the most flavour and nutrition. Yet sadly, these days most of them are thrown out or converted into animal feed.

In the past, consuming all parts of the whole animal was foundational to ensuring everyone in the community was fed.

Many people today claim that reducing meat consumption will make farming sustainable and ethical, which is a little misleading. One animal can provide us with so much food. It’s our present eating choices and habits that need to change.

The importance of offal

In Testaccio, home to the slaughterhouses of old Rome, an entire cuisine called the ’quinto quarto’ (fifth quarter) was born around the leftovers of an animal.

The animal was generally divided into fore and hind quarters, with the first quarter distributed to the nobles, the second to the priests, the third to the bourgeoisie, and the fourth to the soldiers. The rest of the people of Rome were left the offal, head, tail and feet, which makes up about one quarter of the carcass weight – the ‘fifth quarter’. These parts eventually came to be prized for their taste and nutritional value.

While such appreciation of the whole animal is lacking in modern cuisine, it continues to exist in many ethnic cultures. In China, everyday fare includes chicken feet, blood, tongue, tendon, intestines and the serving of whole poultry. Even in France, these parts are called ‘les parties nobles’ (the noble parts), and similar appreciation can still be found across the Middle East, South America, Africa and Asia.

The art of butchery

Great chefs agree there’s no better way of getting to know an animal than by breaking down the carcass.

With the revival of whole beast cookery, the art of butchery is once again being appreciated, and there’s much more to it than slicing meat.
To know how to wield the blade and understand how every piece of the animal can be used and consumed can provide a tremendous feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment.

Honing these skills is empowering, and widens a chef’s culinary repertoire and flexibility. Just as there are different ways to cook an ingredient, there are many ways to cut meat, providing countless options for creativity.

On top of this there are the cost savings, with whole carcasses, sides and quarters being so affordable when compared to individually cut and packaged meats. And with the potential for zero wastage, the benefits of whole beast butchery and cookery are beyond doubt.