A rose by any other name

I always believed ’sweetbreads’ was a modern moniker, a name doubtlessly dubbed by a smart butcher who couldn’t get rid of the not-so-little bloody blobs known more correctly as the thymus glands of vealers and lambs. Sex on the cover of a novel is said to guarantee sales, so sexy names to move non- sellers. Not so. According to the Shorter Oxford, the term has been hanging around in English since the sixteenth century. Mr Oxford has no idea why, although it seems that ‘brede’ can mean roast meat. The Latins were not so prim, calling it as they saw it — glandium vitulinum (veal glands).

Australians generally couldn’t care less what you call these glands. Despite a notation in an old Australian cook book I picked up for $2 at a book sale (marked up from 50 cents!) that sweetbreads are ‘considered a great delicacy, much used for entrees, and a good dish for invalids’, I have seen them only once or twice in a butcher shop. I can guarantee that my mother never put them to table. Not even as a substitute for scallops, the closest thing in texture and flavour.

Their absence from the meat-sellers’ shops is simple to explain. Sweetbreads apparently greatly assist our balance of payments. They are ripped out, stuffed into plastic bags, snap-frozen and sent to more appreciative places far and wide in 27-kilo lots. Even whole vealers come to the butcher minus their sweets. Nobody seems to complain.

The way to cook them is to hardly cook them at all. Soak them for a couple of hours to get rid of any nasty blood. Toss them into some boiling water for a minute or so to firm them up, and to assist you to remove the membranes and plumbing devices. Break them into their fairly small components, removing any membrane and pipes as you go — they will end up about the size of walnuts. Keep them covered in a little stock if you have some, or water if you don’t.


Heat a little oil in a very hot pan. Throw in the sweetbreads. If you are adept with your wrist, toss them around for no more than a minute. If you have a limp wrist, use a wooden spoon. Coat them with walnut oil and spoon the sweetbreads onto some heavily buttered toast. Sprinkle some lemon juice and black pepper over the top. It could be the start of a beautiful friendship.


Sweetbreads are brilliant in salads, tossed in a nutty oil like walnut oil, especially with nuts, avocado, generous lacings of lemon and orange zest and — a real clincher — roasted and peeled red peppers.

WINE: If you are putting them on toast on a cold Sunday afternoon, why not serve a not-so-small glass of amontillado sherry? Don’t put it in one of the terrible little shot glasses that you got sherry served to you in at bush weddings. Put it in a decent wine glass and swirl it around — something you can stick your nose in.