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Larks’ Tongues & Calves’ Feet: Or, Corsican blackbi...



Larks’ Tongues & Calves’ Feet: Or, Corsican blackbirds flambéed in brandy, anyone?

Foie gras. Reinhard Thrainer on Pixabay

Who would be the Kitchen Boy in a Roman kitchen when the head chef demands lark pie for the dinner menu. ‘Octavio! Catch me a thousand larks, and make it snappy!’

Id. In psychoanalysis, ‘the part of the mind in which innate instinctive impulses and primary processes are manifest.’ You’d eat that, would you? How about: Ego. ‘The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity.’ Yum.

What would you eat if you had been lost in the Kalahari for three weeks and the only things you could find to eat were meerkat, dune crickets, and a barking ghekko called Gordon?

The key phrase there is “three weeks”… after three weeks without anything to eat, if you’re still alive, a meerkat assumes the deliciousness of a prime cut of rib-eye steak, your mind’s eye pictures dune crickets piled high like prawns and drizzled with garlic butter, and you could just tear off a chunk of that ghekko with your bare teeth (after bring grilled to perfection, of course).

My dad, a veteran of the British Royal Navy in World War II, knew all about what it was like to be in a harsh environment with the rations having run out. Once, when I complained about not liking the look of a fish he’d cooked, he barked: “If you’re hungry in the dessert you’ll have no qualms eating live insects, now get that down your gullet.” I grew up never forgetting that lesson – and soon decided that fussy diets were for the pampered and fussy.

Which is not to say I would eat anything. The sight of a mopani worm honestly does not appeal, so I’ll leave that off the table for the time being, ever ready to bring it on again if ever I should be so unlucky as to have to repeat my father’s desert experiences. But there are many other things that my palate is not fearful of.

Brains. You have them. Even I have them. Some people have more than others, so say cleverer people than us. Ma Cuisine, the French culinary bible published in 1934 by August Escoffier, the “king of chefs and chef of kings”, lists 19 recipes for sheeps’ and pigs’ brains, from crepinettes, fritters and “brains with macaroni” to “brains with black butter”and “poached brains with truffle foie gras”. Id? Shmid. To a Frenchman, that’s food.

Brains? How about the entire head? If you thought a “smiley” was a uniquely South African thing, from farm to township, you may be surprised to find, in Ma Cuisine, a recipe for “English-style calf’s head” which “is usually served whole, or cut in half, without boning it… it is served with a piece of boiled bacon and parsley sauce”. More poshly, it’s called Tete de veau a l’anglaise and “may be served cut in pieces and, in that case, the brains and tongue should accompany it”. Naturellement. A traditional French tete de veau (calf’s head) requires us to “select a very white calf’s head and cut it into pieces” … and includes such admonitions as, “make sure the air does not come in contact with the pieces of head while they are cooking, as they will turn black” … and, “then cook gently until the pieces of head are tender”.

If that isn’t enough of a head-turner, try this: Tétine de veau (I’ll save you the googling – it’s calf’s udder) is “cooked in stock and allowed to cool and is used to advantage in forcemeat for galantines”. I did not know this, or whether it is an old tradition or still current: Tétine de veau is “especially used in Jewish cooking”, says Escoffier, “where it takes the place of bacon fat”.

One of my clearest and favourite food memories from my childhood is being treated to suckling pig in a Mouille Point hotel dining room at Christmas. It was the old Bay Beach Hotel, now sadly long gone, and it was done properly: cooked whole, after having been stuffed. Escoffier recommends an “English stuffing” of breadcrumbs, eggs, brandy, and herbs: “Fill a suckling pig with the stuffing, sew up the belly and roast in the oven or on a spit.”

Tails, trotters and tongues. Skaapstertjies (little sheeps’ tails) are a South African delicacy, not least in the Atlantic-swept communities inland of the West Coast. They’re lovely in a potjie, and make a great curry, what with the gelatinous, gooey goodness from the itsy-bitsy marrow in their teeny-tiny bones. I ate skaapstertjies the other day, as it happens. Scrawny, blink-and-you-miss-them little things which, once you start to explore, give up a surprising amount of meat for their tiny size. Three of them make a nice starter portion.

Trotters? They’re “cooked like pig’s ears and can then be coated with breadcrumbs and grilled or truffled. Helpfully, Escoffier precedes this by explaining how to cook pig’s ears: “after being well singed and cleaned, put the ears into a pan with 2 pints cold water, a quarter ounce salt, 1 or 2 sliced carrots, 1 onion stuck with 1 clove and a bouquet garni. (Cooked the same as a Christmas gammon, then.) Bring to boiling point and simmer gently. Pig’s ears may also be cut in half lengthwise and cooked with sauerkraut, lentils or haricot beans.”

Tongues? Well, tongues come in all sizes don’t they? Little larks tongues and a cow’s tongue can hardly be compared. The Romans knew what to do with the former. “Catch 1,000 larks; they must be caught alive to ensure the meat is fresh,” goes an old recipe. Oy vey. Who would be the Kitchen Boy in a Roman kitchen when the head chef demands lark pie for dinner. “Octavio! Catch me a thousand larks, and make it snappy!” “Yes, Chef! Coming up.”

Langues de Mouton – mutton tongues – is a French dish requiring 12 sheep’s tongues and is cooked the same way as trotters (or gammon). The tongues are soaked in cold water for hours, then put in a pan of water, covered, for half an hour, then drained and cooled and the skin removed. The tongues then go in a saucepan on a bed of carrots and onions, a bouquet garni and stock and cooked till tender. They’re removed and kept hot while you reduce the remaining liquor and pour it over the tongues. Which you then eat. By use, among other things, of your tongue. It is perhaps the most ironic of foods.

Cheeks. The meat of a pig’s or sheep’s cheek can by utterly sublime and so, so tender, if cooked properly. Beef cheek cooked with red wine, carrots, celeriac; pig’s cheek cooked in cider.

But why stop there: Pieds de veau pour hors-d’oeuvre (calf’s feet as a starter, in essence) are cut, after cooking, into thin strips and garnished while hot, then allowed to cool, and served cold.

Richard Olney, in his wonderful The French Menu Cookbook, proffers an entrée of calves’ brains in red wine for which the brains must be “firm and moist in appearance, unstained with blood”.

For a light, cold summer starter, Olney conjures up Cold Calves’ Brains in Cream Sauce, the preparation of which requires us after cooking to “pass the trimmings from the brains through a small sieve, stir them into the sauce, then stir in the cream”. A great lover of offal, the great Parisian-American offers an Autumn dish of Boiled Pig’s Tails and Ears with vegetables. If perchance you can get hold of fresh ones, he advises you to “sprinkle them generously with coarse salt … cover, and leave for several days”. “Serve in a large deep heated platter,” Olney advises, “the cabbage quarters placed outside, the meats in the centre, and the other vegetables distributed pell-mell around. Pour a couple of ladles of bouillon over the lot. A pot of mustard, a dish of coarse salt, and a jar of sour gherkins should be at hand.” Obviously.

And birds (apart from their tiny tongues). Why be squeamish about eating birds? While I can’t claim to have eaten larks with polenta, pigeons with crayfish butter, or Piedmont-style thrush risotto (all dinkum dishes), I have eaten potted grouse and squab pigeon, both dishes in England. The grouse was at Rules, near London’s Covent Garden, in the Dickens room upstairs. This was and remains the oldest restaurant in England still operating, and it was a simple yet divine dish never to be forgotten. The second was at the Lygon Arms in Broadway in the Cotswolds.

Corsican blackbirds flambéed in brandy, anyone? (You cook them the same way you cook thrushes – easypeasy.)

Thrushes!? (Place wide-eyed emoji here.) You can choose to have them Piedmonte style, in a risotto, for which you need to prepare them as you would for stuffed thrushes, which recipe requires “four thrushes” and includes truffled foie gras, so no expense spared there. (As if foie gras isn’t exensive as it is, then to truffle it…)

Or you can prepare them as a light supper for the kids. Yes, that’s right: Timbale of Thrushes with Macaroni and Cheese. Or go the whole bird, if not hog, and order in some nice Corsican blackbirds. Don’t worry if you’re not sure how to cook them – you prepare them exactly as you would thrushes. DM

Read Tony Jackman’s reflections on his time at the Cannes Film Festival and other tales of food and the life in foodSTUFF (Human & Rousseau), a cookbook-cum-memoir with essays about life and food, illustrated by 60 recipes, which was nominated for the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards (2018) in the category for best food writing. Book enquiries: [email protected]


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