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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Interlude, Or, Not Part 3 Of A Visit To The LHC, Or, Thoughts On Tête de Veau

It's not the promised update --which, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, is coming --but rather a little meditation on something else.

Today's New York Times magazine has a short piece on the history of, and various forms taken by, the picnic ("an early mention can be traced to a 1649 satirical French poem, which features the Frères Pique-nicques, known for visiting friends 'armed with bottles and dishes.'") There is a mention also of a dish recommended for picnicking by Mrs. Beeton in her classic Book of Household Management from 1861 for something called a "collared calf's head." Morbidly fascinated, I searched for the recipe and found this, at celtnet.org:

"INGREDIENTS.—A calf's head, 4 tablespoonfuls of minced parsley, 4 blades of pounded mace, 1/2 teaspoonful of grated nutmeg, white pepper to taste, a few thick slices of ham, the yolks of 6 eggs boiled hard. Mode.—Scald the head for a few minutes; take it out of the water, and with a blunt knife scrape off all the hair. Clean it nicely, divide the head and remove the brains. Boil it tender enough to take out the bones, which will be in about 2 hours. When the head is boned, flatten it on the table, sprinkle over it a thick layer of parsley, then a layer of ham, and then the yolks of the eggs cut into thin rings and put a seasoning of pounded mace, nutmeg, and white pepper between each layer; roll the head up in a cloth, and tie it up as tightly as possible. Boil it for 4 hours, and when it is taken out of the pot, place a heavy weight on the top, the same as for other collars. Let it remain till cold; then remove the cloth and binding, and it will be ready to serve. Time.—Altogether 6 hours. Average cost, 5s. to 7s. each. Seasonable from March to October."

I notice this is in broad strokes essentially the same as the notorious (or maybe infamous) French dish known as tête de veau. I have never seen tête de veau on the menu of any American restaurant (and I don't expect to --Americans pay a lot of lip service to nose-to-tail dining but when push comes to shove I've noticed most of us still recoil from innards.) The collared calf's head flavorings bear a family resemblance to the famous sauce gribiche, which is the traditional accompaniment to a tête de veau, and which is based on egg, vinegar, capers, and parsley --really, a gussied-up sauce vinaigrette, which also gives it a passing relationship to chimichurri sauce, I suppose, but that's another post. In any case, one of the best discussions of tête de veau (in English, anyway) is of course in M. F. K. Fisher, who said in How To Cook A Wolf (1941) that " . . . I have lived about three-fourths of my life in the United States and I have never been served anything even faintly suggestive of the undisguisable anatomy of a boiled calf's head, in this my homeland."

In fact, she writes so well on the subject of tête de veau that I think I will quote her further.

"I must admit that my own first introduction to tête de veau was a difficult one for a naive American girl. The main trouble, perhaps, was that it was not a veal's head at all, but half a veal's head. There was the half-tongue, lolling stiffly from the neat half-mouth. There was the one eye, closed in a savory wink. There was the one ear, lopped loose and faintly pink over the odd wrinkles of the demi-forehead. And there, by the single pallid nostril, were three stiff white hairs." (I notice now, which I have never before, despite having read this passage more or less regularly since I first found the book in my mother's kitchen at the age of ten, the incantatory use of "stiff.")

My own introduction to, and so far only encounter, with tête de veau was at a restaurant in Paris on my 50th birthday, which I supposed was as good a time to eat someone's head as any, and it was preceded by an excellent dish of sea urchins and a great deal of wine, so by the time the tête de veau arrived I was in a beamingly uncaring and open-minded mood. As it happened my tête de veau was served off the bone, and was deliciously gelatinous --the brains, however, perhaps in a nod to the "undisguisable anatomy" of what I can only assume is the more classical presentation, were served separately in all their convoluted glory.  I believe, although wine and time have somewhat blurred the memory, that the brains were served with a fish fork and knife, and that most mysterious of culinary implements, the cuillère à sauce individuelle, or sauce spoon, the correct use of which I've never been able to divine. 

The thing about eating the head of an animal is that it's impossible to deny the identity between you and the creature you are consuming --there is a whiff of timor mortis there that's not present in a chop or a steak.  The head of an animal is a tombstone that says, As I Am Now, So Shall You Be, and eating it is both an act of self-sustenance, and an act of resignation.

Probably the most coy recipe in the world for tête de veau (or at least, the coyest I have ever read) is one that cannot be recommended for its hewing to tradition as it omits the sauce gribiche. It does, however, more than make up for it by being the only one I have ever read (and I assume the only one in the world) that recommends swearing an oath over Milton's Defensio pro Populo Anglicano before devouring the dish.


Coda:  My host for the evening I first ate tête de veau reminds me that it was at Le Violon d'Ingres which I believe at one point had a Michelin star, not that it really matters.  I note in perusing the menu that their tête de veau is indeed as I recall --something of a deconstructed affair, with the tongue and brains served separately.  Also I note that rather than a sauce gribiche, the restaurant prefers a sauce ravigote which is essentially identical to a sauce gribiche but omits the egg, which means that it will break more easily as the albumins in the egg white are not present to emulsify the oil and vinegar.  I'm reluctant to say this as I've run across at least once recipe for a sauce ravigote which does use eggs and seems indistinguishable from a sauce gribiche.  Anyhow, I would certainly happily recommend Le Violon d'Ingres to anyone looking for a wonderful tête de veau in the 7th Arrondissement or for that matter anywhere in Paris.  Owned by the famous Christian Constant and at least as of November the Twenty First Two Thousand and Twelve Anno Domini, a rather nice place to consume the partitioned head of a young veal with sauce wossname.