I want to start today with a lovely, oft-repeated story told about the famous French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (17551826.) This is the version given in The art of dining; or, Gastronomy and gastronomers (1852) by Abraham Hayward:
An anecdote (related to Colonel Damer by Talleyrand) may help to rescue the fair fame of BrillatSavarin' from the reproach of indifference, and illustrate the hereditary quality of taste. He was on his way to Lyons, and was determined to dine at Sens. On his arrival he sent, according to his invariable custom, for the cook, and asked what he could have for dinner? The report was dispiriting. "Little enough," was the reply. "But let us see," retorted M. Savarin, "let us go to the kitchen and talk the matter over." In the kitchen he found four turkeys roasting. "Why!" exclaimed he, "you told me you had nothing in the house. Let me have one of these turkeys." "Impossible!" said the cook, "they are all bespoken by a gentleman upstairs." "He must have a large party to dine with him then?" "No, he dines by himself." "I should like much to be acquainted with the man who orders four turkeys for his own eating." The cook was sure that the gentleman would be glad of his acquaintance; and M. Brillat-Savarin immediately paid his respects to the stranger, who turned out to be his own son. "What, you rogue, four turkeys all for yourself?" "Yes, sir; you know that, whenever I dine with you, you eat up the whole of les-sots-les-laissent"— the titbit which we call the oyster of the turkey or fowl—" I was resolved to enjoy myself for once in my life, and here I am, ready to begin, although I did not expect the honour of your company."
It may not be deemed an unpardonable digression to state here that the late Lord Alvanley had his supreme de volaille made of the oysters, or les-sots-les-laissent, of fowls, instead of the fillet from the breast; so that it took a score of fowls to complete a moderate dish.
So, is this indisputably the most prized bit of the chicken?
The ‘oysters’ are small, round pieces of dark meat found on each side of the backbone, adjacent to the thigh joint in the chicken and turkey. Each one provides a mouthful of firm but exquisitely tender and juicy dark meat with a characteristic mouth-feel. It is considered by aficionados to combine the best elements of both breast and thigh meat and is traditionally the perquisite of the cook. The French call it sot-l'y-laisse which means something along the lines of "a fool leaves it behind" – and indeed, those who do not know of it do sometimes consign it to the stock-pot along with the carcass. I suspect a small part of its value lies in the fact that they are very small, and there are only two per bird, and as we all know, as a matter of principle, in rarity is desirability.
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first reference to chicken oyster as appearing in 1855, in the fourteenth edition of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery for Private Families. Miss Acton would hardly have omitted it from her original edition in 1845, so it appears that this was a new usage around this time. In the 1855 edition, the mention appears in the section on carving:
The breast, wings, and merrythought, are the most delicate parts of a fowl. On the upper part of the side-bone is the small round portion of flesh called the oyster, by many persons considered as a great delicacy.
There are a number of other apocryphal stories about the chicken oyster – my favourite is one about pies being made entirely of them at great expense, with the intention to impress. As for random factoids about them: there are apparently real restaurants in Japan where one can enjoy yakitori made exclusively of chicken oysters; they feature in a dish at least one high-end dining establishment in the West (If only I could remember the details;) there is a restaurant in Paris with the name Le Sot-l'y-laisse; and they have been mentioned in at least two movies (Amélie, and Red Dragon) and a couple of episodes of Master Chef.
As the recipe for the day, may I give you the instructions for chicken pie from the 1855 edition of Acton’s Modern Cookery quoted from above? If you are are not foolish and are extremely rich, I guess you could use chicken oysters.
A Common Chicken Pie.
Prepare the fowls as for boiling, cut them down into joints, and season them with salt, white pepper, and nutmeg, or pounded mace; arrange them neatly in a dish bordered with paste, lay amongst them three or four fresh eggs, boiled hard, and cut in halves, pour in some cold water, put on a thick cover, pare the edge, and ornament it, make a hole in the centre, lay a roll of paste, or a few leaves round it, and bake the pie in a moderate oven from an hour to an hour and a half. The back and neck bones may be boiled down with a bit or two of lean ham, to make a little additional gravy, which can be poured into the pie after it is baked.
What is merrythought?
Has anyone tried that recipe for chicken pie? It sounds a little wet to me.
The curious fact that all references to the "oyster" seem to lack is the fact that this piece of meat is the gluteus muscle—the butt—of the chicken!
Thanks, Peter! I meant to look this up and include it. I guess "chicken butt" might make it a bit less desirable!
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