In culinary matters, the French and the British often compete about who first discovered a particular dish. A notable example is burn’t cream – crème brulée in French. Both countries claim to have invented it . Now, there is apparently evidence that the ancient Brits were eating frogs’ legs well before their French counterparts – or is there?
An archaeological dig has been going on at Amesbury, not far from Stonehenge. The finds so far date back to the eighth millennium BC and the site could turn out to be the oldest continuously-occupied settlement in the UK. However, what has caught the media’s imagination is that fact that, among the charred animal bones, the archaeologists have found a toad’s leg. This is the evidence that frogs’ legs were on the menu.
I remain sceptical. One singed animal bone doesn’t prove that they actually ate it. Maybe the poor thing fell into the fire or was tossed onto it as part of some superstitious rite. Also, while I accept that life in 8,000 BC was tough and they probably ate anything they could get their hands on, toads are far from edible. If this was the Common European Toad (bufo bufo), its skin is toxic. After skinning it, they wouldn’t have found much flesh on its back legs, either. Frogs’ legs are said to be much fleshier.
I’m rather fond of toads – not to eat, you understand. We have some enormous specimens here. They come out of the garden walls or from under bushes at night and scuttle around – surprisingly fast – on the gravel. Sometimes we have to fish them out of the pool, mostly alive I’m pleased to say. And we’ve even found them reposing, alive, in the middle of a large pile of sand. I trod on one by mistake one night when opening the gate, but it crawled away apparently unharmed.
We’re all familiar with the less than complimentary British nickname for French people, which originated as ‘frog-eaters’ and was later shortened to ‘frogs’. Naturally, this got me thinking about the origin of frogs as a comestible menu item and a classic French dish.
Alexandre Dumas, in his Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine, noted that medieval physicians advised against eating frogs’ legs. By the 16th century, however, they were served at the most prestigious tables in France. After that, breeders made their fortunes fattening and selling frogs to the capital. It’s worth noting that the small, bright green variety that are able to jump up walls and defy gravity are not edible.
According to the Connexion, where I found this story, French diners still consume 4,000 tonnes of frogs’ legs annually. Commercial frog harvesting was banned in France in 1980, so they are all imported today.
Elizabeth David, whom I often consult about the history of French dishes, says very little about frogs’ legs, mainly because they were unobtainable in the UK except in rare tins when she was writing. She provides one recipe (no, I’m not going to try it), whereas my inherited Larousse Gastronomique offers about 20. In French Provincial Cooking, she simply writes, ‘It is odd that frogs’ legs, which are such delicate little morsels that surely even the most fastidious could not object to them, should inspire such horror in England.’
I’m not going into the ethical issues here but have you ever tried these ‘delicate little morsels’?
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