Chicken Liver Sauce From Back When Tratts Were Fab

I've just been listening to someone on the radio wittering on about how terrible British restaurants were back in the 1960s and 70s. This version of history seems to be accepted as the official narrative today. I admit that many of the restaurants back then were pretty bad. In fact some of them were laughably awful such as the trendy restaurant that served only tinned food. But there were very good places to eat if you looked hard enough in the right places. I was lucky because the right places were often in London and that's where I happened to be living. If you headed for one of the simple trattorias scattered around town then you could get decent, straightforward Italian food at a reasonable price as well as encountering waiters with comically large pepper grinders.

There wasn't a huge choice of food in those bygone tratts but some options were very similar to what's on offer in restaurants today. For instance, I swear I had crushed avocado on toast in a little place in Soho in around 1979. On the other hand, there were some dishes that you rarely find on menus now. This recipe is one of those missing dishes and I was reminded of it when I came across a few very old, dogeared recipes that I'd collected back who knows when. I'm quite sure that this particular recipe dates back to the 1960s and I seem to remember eating very similar dishes whilst wearing flares in the 70s.

The original recipe was a little vague and so I might have tweaked it a little for my current tastes but when I ate it I felt as if I was back listening to Jonathan Richman singing about a Roadrunner or maybe the first Talking Heads album. More importantly, though, I started to wonder why we stopped cooking and eating this kind of dish. I know it's humble, simple and cheap but it tastes really good to me.

Chicken Liver Sauce
Personally I think this amount should serve 4 but it's the sort of sauce that I've seen served in big 1960 style portions in large bowls, in which case you might consider it a generous amount to serve 2. I like this paired with gnocchi but, in the spirit of the 1960s and 70s, you could use whatever pasta you happen to have in the cupboard. I know I just said that this was a cheap dish but using a good quality Marsala will make a real difference to the flavour. A Marsala revival must be long overdue.

A small handful dried porcini
400 g chicken livers
2 tbsp flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
A dash or two red wine vinegar
100 ml Marsala
1 tbsp tomato purée
300 ml chicken stock
The leaves from a sprig of thyme
A little chopped parsley

Soak the porcini in hot water for 20 minutes (or whatever the pack recommends). 

Cut out any sinews or other unpleasant looking bits from the chicken livers and chop them into smallish but not tiny pieces. Pat the livers with kitchen paper to dry them a little then coat them in the seasoned flour. Drain the porcini and reserve the soaking liquid. Chop the porcini quite finely.

Melt a small knob of butter in some olive oil and fry the livers fairly gently for about five minutes. Stir in the chopped porcini. Add the Marsala and red wine vinegar to the pan and cook, stirring now and then, for 5 minutes until the liquid has reduced to something close to a coating consistency.

Stir in the tomato purée then pour in the chicken stock and the reserved porcini soaking water. Sprinkle the thyme leaves around the pan, bring to simmering point, partially cover and let the mixture simmer for around 30 minutes, stirring every now and then. Keep an eye on the sauce to make sure it doesn’t dry out and add a little water or stock if need be. By the end of the simmering time the sauce should be suitably thickened and the chicken livers should be meltingly tender. Uncover and cook for a little longer if the sauce seems too thin.

To serve, cook your chosen pasta or gnocchi, check that the seasoning of the sauce is just right, combine the sauce and pasta and sprinkle with a little chopped parsley. 


  1. Phil, if ever I was going to eat chicken livers (I avoid all organ meats), I would love this. Really, I like everything in it and believe a good Marsala would make a real difference. As it is, I'll have to pass the recipe along to a couple of my friends who really enjoy chicken livers but have never, I'm sure, cooked them like this. And I'm trying to think of what I could use in the recipe in place of chicken livers. Any ideas?

    1. The cheapness of chicken livers was probably a major attraction of this dish all those years ago. Later in the 1980s when people were more willing to spend money eating out I remember one restaurant made a sauce similar to this using finely chopped and (I think) marinated steak. I've never tried to recreate that dish but it might just work.

  2. My OH Nick is a great fan of Marsala. If we run out of it on either side of the English Channel he is distraught as he uses it in so many dishes.
    This sounds lovely.
    I agree, the 1970's was not a great era for eating out but in reality it was all relative. It was all steak Diane and prawn cocktail, both of which deserve a comeback now.

    1. I understand why he'd be distraught - Marsala is just so useful. I use it all the time. Funnily enough I've found that it's easier to get hold of really good Marsala (and sherry, come to think of it) in England rather than France. It seemed especially tricky in the south of France for some reason.
      I couldn't afford much steak Diane in the 1970s but it does deserve a revival - it's a really good, classic dish. You're probably right about prawn cocktail too but I had some really terrible prawn cocktails way back when and so I'd need to be persuaded.

    2. You're absolutely right, we have never found it in France and bring a bottle from the UK every spring.

  3. I love chicken livers, so must try this. Time to treat myself to a bottle of Marsala! My late husband didn't like it.

    1. I've come across quite a lot of people who can't see the attraction of Marsala but it's actually one of my must-have ingredients in the kitchen. I once went to wine tasting where a Marsala importer was showing off his best (and very expensive) wines. I thought they were excellent and said how much I'd like to cook with them. It was meant to be an enthusiastic compliment but he looked deeply offended. That's the difference between people who love to cook and people who don't I suppose.

  4. This sounds delicious! And you're right - who cooks with chicken livers these days! I think you're going to give it its comeback moment.

    1. Chicken livers have faded away like so much of the music of the 1970s. To be honest, I'd be more pleased to see chicken livers revived than some of the music.


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