Rob Gentile, the chef at Buca, an ambitious Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto, had a problem. Everything he knew and believed about cooking told him that he shouldn't waste a single edible bit of the whole hogs he brought into his kitchen, and so he'd demanded that his pig supplier send along the blood with Buca's weekly order. But Mr. Gentile tried making crêpes with it, and they didn't taste interesting enough, he said. He made sausage with it, and those didn't grab him either. The blood was piling up.
Then, last March, Giuseppe Marchesini, Buca's manager and sommelier, called his mother in Basilicata, who called her mother, who passed along her recipe for torta di sanguinaccio, a traditional southern Italian pastry commonly eaten in the run-up to Lent. The result is a showstopper of a dish. It combines fresh figs steeped in grappa and espresso with satiny buffalo-milk crème anglaise, chopped, candied almonds – and at its base, a dense, decadent (and not-at-all bloody tasting) dream of a custard that's made from a mix of dark chocolate and slow-tempered blood.
"At first, with the blood tart, people were shocked," Mr. Gentile said. "They thought we were crazy." Now they can't seem to get enough. When Mr. Gentile briefly took it off the menu earlier this summer (it's not exactly a hot-weather dish), his customers complained. Mr. Gentile has also added a dish called spaghetti al nero di maiale, for which he tosses blood-blackened noodles with rapini, crumbled 'nduja sausage, garlic and burrata cheese. That pasta is almost indecently good.
Though Mr. Gentile's intention wasn't to jump on a trend, those two creations are part of a wave of not-your-usual blood dishes turning up on influential menus in Canada and the United States.
At the Black Hoof in Toronto, chef Brandon Olsen recently debuted a savoury blood custard flavoured with rosemary and topped with pickled pears. Every week, he buys 16 litres of fresh blood from his butcher and freezes it in one-litre batches.
Does Mr. Olsen get squeamish at all? "I enjoy blood," he answered. "I think blood is a great vessel for culinary expression. When I look at The Learning Channel, at all those surgery shows, that's when I get squeamish. But working with animals, no."
At DNA restaurant, a cutting-edge kitchen in Old Montreal, chef Derek Dammann serves panna cotta made from cream, cocoa, black pepper, lemon peel and pig's blood. He sometimes does blood soup, and blood pasta, too.Chris Cosentino, the star chef at Incanto, an offal-focused restaurant in San Francisco, does a chocolate blood pudding garnished with Bing cherries. Other U.S. chefs use it to enrich dark Swedish rye bread or Finnish blood pancakes, which are called blodplättar, and are typically served with preserved lingonberries.
Just yesterday, Rene Redzepi, the chef at Copenhagen's Noma, which is arguably the best restaurant in the world, posted photos showing cauliflower and other vegetables marinating in pig's blood.
At Cook It Raw, a symposium of many of the world's most innovative chefs in Lapland last year – the sort of clubby, invitation-only event that most chefs can only read about with awe (Mr. Redzepi is a fixture at the annual event) – one team presented a dish of cappelletti pasta stuffed with reindeer blood. And Food Arts, an industry-focused culinary magazine, made a long essay about blood the cover story of its July/August issue (the cover photo, unfortunately, looked more like an outtake from CSI Miami than your usual food porn).
There's a very good chance, in other words, that your dinner is about to get bloody.
To be sure, this is nothing new to most Europeans – from black pudding to morcilla to Poland's duck blood soup, the continent has almost too many blood recipes to count. Blood dishes are also common across South and Central America, Africa and most of Asia; you can find blood tofu in many Chinese grocery stores in Canada; some Vietnamese restaurants also offer pork blood pho.
"We're one of the only cultures, us North Americans, who don't utilize every part of the animal," said Mr. Dammann, of DNA. "Pigs are pork chops running around on slabs of bacon in people's minds, right?"
His decision to cook with blood isn't about shocking customers, he said. Rather, he argues, "It's the responsible thing to do."
In her superb new cookbook Odd Bits: How to Cook the Rest of the Animal, Toronto food writer Jennifer McLagan devotes a section to cooking with blood in hope that home cooks might be ready to give it a try. A whole cow can yield 18 kilograms of blood, she writes, and a hog can yield 4.5 kilograms. At present, most of it just washes down the drain.
"There is no reason why properly inspected blood couldn't be in our supermarkets right there next to the frozen dinners and offering us a much healthier choice," she writes.
No reason except for supply, that is. Though fresh pork blood is relatively easy to find in Quebec, sourcing it in other provinces can take persistence and legwork, even for chefs. Of about 90 provincially licensed abattoirs in Ontario that handle pork, for instance, just three have the required provincial-government-approved protocols in place to process pork blood, said a representative for Ontario's ministry of agriculture, food and rural affairs. In British Columbia, just two plants process pork blood for human consumption.
Of course that may change, if there's enough demand.
In Odd Bits, the last recipe of the blood section is for "chocolate blood ice cream." Ms. McLagan mixes sugar, cocoa, ginger, whole milk, orange zest and Grand Marnier with half a cup of pork blood in the dessert's base. "The result is a rich, chocolate-tasting ice cream that is delicious and good for you," she writes.
Or maybe you've already had it and didn't realize.
As Ms. McLagan puts it, "I doubt anyone will guess the secret ingredient."