Features & Stories

Consuming Passions: Liver

Neil Buttery is a chef and food blogger based in the North of England who specialises in British food from a historical perspective, cooking familiar favourites, forgotten dishes as well as food that has unfairly acquired a bad name. Liver certainly falls into the latter category, shunned by many otherwise adventurous cooks. These liver sceptics don’t know what they are missing…. Whether as a fine chicken liver paté or a Michelin star foie gras dish, liver can scale gastronomic heights. In this piece the author seeks to rehabilitate an ingredient which ill-deserves its reputation.

By Neil Buttery

My first exposure to liver may be familiar to anyone who enjoyed dinner in British comprehensive schools of the 1980s. I did enjoy them too, hugely. However, two menu items did beat me: gristly sausages and, worst of all, liver and onions. The liver was grey and, more often than not, still had its tubes attached. It was so overcooked it had acquired the rubberiness of a pencil eraser. The onions were boiled, not fried, and the gravy grainy with flecks of scum, which, instead of being skimmed off, had simply been stirred back in. This childhood trauma affected me to such a degree that I refused to eat meat altogether. A vegetarian at six in 1980s Yorkshire: my poor mother knew not what to do. It took ten years before I would take my first tentative steps back into carnivory once more, and aside from some shop-bought pâté at Christmas time, liver did not touch my lips for another decade.


Jane Grigson’s English Food - the book which started an obsession.


The turning point came when I started my PhD in evolutionary biology at Manchester University: I had been out of academia for a few years and thought a cooking project might be good fun and a welcome respite from lab work and statistical analyses. This project would become my first blog, Neil Cooks Grigson, an attempt at cooking every recipe in Jane Grigson’s wonderful tome English Food. Then, looking more closely at the contents, I was suddenly concerned by the fact that I had signed myself up to eat all sorts: kidneys, tongue, brain and, of course, plenty of liver.

I put off any offal-containing recipes for as long as possible, but eventually plucked up the courage to tick one off the list. I knew I didn’t mind a pâté, so chicken livers would be my starting point. Jane’s chicken liver and mangetout salad seemed the least offensive. It was a revelation: rich, pan-fried, buttery chicken livers, blanched mangetout, crisp croutons and streaky bacon. It looked very 1970s but tasted wonderful; the richness was perfectly offset by the crisp, almost grassy pea pods. Then I cooked her coarse chicken liver pâté: excellent. Interest piqued, I cooked her devilled chicken livers, hot with mustard and Cayenne pepper, covered in breadcrumbs: also excellent. I tried Elizabeth David’s ultra-smooth potted chicken, and with the almost infinite number of flavour combinations, I disappeared down a pâté rabbit hole. With a decent shelf life, it would become a core part of my food business when it first began on the artisan market stalls of Manchester in 2012. I discovered too the simple wonder of chicken livers fried in butter. It’s the simplest of fayre: a frying pan as hot as you dare or your smoke alarm will allow, and a large knob of butter. As soon as the butter stops sizzling, add your livers – two or three per person – and fry for two minutes. Turn them over and cook two more minutes, adding a little sage in the final thirty seconds. The livers will have developed a good crust and will have a soft, pink-tinged interior. Serve on toast with deglazed pan juices, or in a salad. There are similar recipes everywhere, and when I moved to pop-up restaurants and then bricks-and-mortar premises, I made variations on this theme such as chicken liver tikka masala, and devilled chicken livers never left the menu when my restaurant, The Buttery, was open.


Chicken Liver Chorizo Salad from Let’s Eat by Tom Parker Bowles


Very similar to Jane’s salad is Gary Rhodes’s Chicken Livers with a Spinach and Bacon Salad. Classic flavourings for pâté include garlic and mushroom, but Chicken Liver Pâté with Green Peppercorns, like that made by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, is a personal favourite. Tom Parker-Bowles’s Chicken Liver & Chorizo Salad is an excellent example of seared liver salad; Peter Gordon takes things in an unexpected direction, cooking duck livers with fenugreek and chilli; and the Quality Chop House’s Duck Liver Parfait, Black Truffle and Puffed Pig Skin, is simply modern British cookery perfection.

Having made my chicken liver discovery, I eagerly sought out the livers of other birds: duck, goose, turkey, all fantastic chefs’ treats to fry up before commencing making the Sunday dinner. But now it was time to face my real foe: lambs’ liver. Now I come to think of it, I assume the school liver I had was lamb, but the animal whence it came was never specified.

I had done enough reading around by this point that I knew liver needed cooking carefully and quickly. I bought smoked streaky bacon and a few good slices of lamb’s liver. After frying the bacon until crisp, I dusted the liver with seasoned flour and pan-fried it in the bacon fat. One minute per side was all it needed. With the pan deglazed with brandy, I sprinkled in a little chopped thyme and a swirl of cream. The liver had the metallic flavour one might expect, but without the harshness, the underdone centre ensured some softness and sweetness remained. With its crisp exterior and even crispier bacon, I had produced a sublime meal. And like the chicken livers before, I hunted out the liver of other animals: calf, deer, rabbit and hare. What I had been missing out on all of my life! 

If you want to try some recipes akin to these try France Bissell’s classic Seared Liver and Bacon, James MackKenzie’s Seared Calf’s Liver, Michel Guèrard’s Calves’ Liver with Pepper Jelly, or the subtly-spiced and very simple Turkish dish Arnavut Ciğeri from Pomme Larmoyer’s Istanbul Cult Recipes.


Seared Calf’s Liver from On The Menu by James Mackenzie


Now, with eyes wide open, I could tuck into those dishes previously treated with suspicion: faggots, Lincolnshire haslet, and of course, haggis: variations on a theme of oatmeal or breadcrumb filler, chopped offal or meat, all enriched and bound together with minced liver. Indeed, there is nothing different between these British classics and French pâtés and terrines, where liver is used as a delicious mortar, binding the grouse, pheasant or rabbit meat. I even tried a fifteenth-century chicken liver ‘black sauce’; poultry livers were used throughout medieval Europe to enrich sauces, the best-known extant example being ragu Bolognese. I even tried a liver pudding poached in animal intestines, a dish not unlike liverwurst. 

If you are interested in these recipes try Gary Rhodes’s excellent Faggots in Onion Gravy and Haslet recipes from New British Classics, Regula Ysewijn’s 15th Century Haggis, Lucy Cuffin’s Venison Tureen, Anna Del Conte’s Ragu Alla Bolognese, Gabriel Kreuther’s liverwurst, and for the adventurous, A Liver Pudding Boiled, by Hannah Glasse.


Faggots in Onion Gravy from New British Classics by Gary Rhodes, a classic dish made with lamb’s liver and several other ‘variety meats’


Discoveries such as these came to form the core of my cookery mission: to rediscover forgotten foods, or foods notoriously cooked poorly, and show people that they were worth eating when cooked well; and if I could be turned around, then anybody could. Yet there are still dishes to explore that are completely unknown to me; holes in my culinary education I need to fill. I have never dived into the world of fish liver, for example. I intend to right this wrong and experience Thomas Keller’s Torchon of Monkfish Liver, Ole Mouritsen’s Baked Monkfish Liver with Raspberries and Peanuts. Perhaps I should go all-in with Alexis Soyer’s Cod Roe and Cod Liver?

There is one liver I have not yet mentioned, and that is one of the most controversial of delicacies: foie gras. It is a food of which I have merely tasted the tiniest of forkfuls, but it was enough to see what all the fuss was about: deliciously opulent, and surpassing the chicken liver in its richness by a mile. Otherwise, I have kept away from it – if possible, I prefer my meat to have come from well-treated animals, so foie gras goes very much against my own beliefs and values. But it is so tempting; it has been used so much in Britain’s culinary past, and is a whole sector of meat and offal cookery I have never experienced. 

The process of fattening a bird’s liver by force-feeding it grain is not an act borne simply from the cruel mind of man; it is the exploitation of natural pre-migratory behaviours shown in several species of ducks and geese. Before their long intercontinental flight, the birds sensibly fuel up on food and convert the calories into fat, and it is this behaviour that has been exploited to make foie gras. The vast majority of these birds are force-red by machine in tiny cages. In researching this article, however, I found high welfare foie gras is available. Here, the birds are not force-fed but have plenty of food and a free-range life. Armed with this knowledge, perhaps now I can experience long-yearned for dishes like Shaun Hill’s Terrine of Foie Gras, Franck Dangereux’s Pan-Fried Foie Gras with Endives, or perhaps I should go back to my Yorkshire roots and start with Anne Willan’s Sautéed Foie Gras with Rhubarb, a world away from where my story began. 

Neil’s selection of liver recipes

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