Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Russian Ox tongues for Christmas.

Yesterday I showed you several of the display advertisements used by Fortnum & Mason in the early part of the twentieth century to promote their Christmas hampers. The firm also of course sold gourmet items individually, and I give you one of their lists below, to demonstrate the range and prices – and also because one of the delicacies caught my eye because I had never come across it before, so I wanted to share it with you. The list is from The Times of early December, 1911.

One Christmas Present
that is welcome everywhere –
A Selection of dainties from Fortnum & Mason’s

Some useful Presents
              At a useful price
                             Suggested by Fortnum & Mason

A very choice Mild Cured York Ham                                    One Guinea
A Stilton Cheese (1st prize Dairy Show Quality)                 One Guinea
A Genuine Strasburg Pate de Foie Gras en Croute             One Guinea
A Dressed Boar’s Head                                                            One Guinea
A “Home-made” Game Pie (Truffled)                                  One Guinea
A “Home-made” Yorkshire Pie                                              One Guinea
Six Russian Ox Tongues                                                          One Guinea
An original Caddie of Choice Kee Mun Tea, 5 lbs.                           One Guinea
A Tin of Darjeeling Tea (Choicest Hill Grown)                   One Guinea
A Caddie of Blended China Tea, 5 lbs.                                  One Guinea
A large Box of Specially Selected Preserved Fruits             One Guinea
A Japanese Box of Chocolates and Bonbons                       One Guinea

A full Xmas list on application.

Russian ox-tongues? Why were they so exotic? It is not as though the British were short of beef cattle at the time.

I did find a mention of Russian ox-tongues – again in The Times – in 1845, so clearly they were not a novelty by 1911. They could be obtained ‘smoked to order’ with three days’ notice – again from Fortnum & Mason – in May 1914, so were not exclusively a Christmas treat.

It appears that the name may have been a euphemism to facilitate a deceit. It seems to have been pretty widely believed that the tongues were sourced from horses.

An article on the rearing and trade of horses in the English The Farmer’s Magazine in 1860 made reference to ‘those breakfast delicacies yclept [called] Russian “ox-tongues,” which, never, however, adorned a bovine throat, ’ and a presumably authoritative book entitled The meat industry and meat inspection: a comprehensive account of the principal animals and fish, including cattle, sheep, pigs, poultry and game, supplied to the British meat market, together with a description of the various industrial processes connected therewith and the scientific inspection of meat Vol. II; (London, 1910) by Drs. Leighton and Loudon of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine claimed that:

‘Russian "ox" tongues are commodities which are well known in this country. Does it detract from their value that they are sometimes derived from horses?’

If there was indeed a Russian product consisting of dried ox tongues, I would dearly like to know about it, and I would especially like to know why they were so prized. My pile of TTR (Things to Research) only ever gets bigger.

In the meanwhile, the prestigious chefs and respected cookery books of the nineteenth century include Russian ox-tongues as ingredients in some of their most elaborate preparations. I give you an example from The Gastronomic Regenerator (1849) by the famous Victorian chef, Alexis Soyer:-

Turban de Quenelles à la Volaille à la Russe.

Take the flesh of a nice delicate large fowl, and with it make some forcemeat as directed (No. 122) ; when done make eight large quenelles with two silver tablespoons, by filling one of them with forcemeat, dip your knife in hot water, and smooth it over in a slight dome, then dip the other spoon in hot water, and scoop the quenelle from the first spoon with it, taking it into the hot spoon, from which it will easily slip, place them in a buttered saute-pan, and cover with good second broth, place them over a quick fire, boil twenty minutes, and lay them out on a cloth ; out also eight pieces from a boiled Russian tongue, the size of the quenelles and the thickness of two five-shilling pieces which warm in a little consommé ; make a border of mashed potatoes, cut a little piece off the bottom of each quenelle, and dress them alternately with a piece of the tongue in crown; break the bones of the fowl up very small, and put them in a stewpan with a glass of sherry, one minced onion, one bay-leaf, a little thyme, and one clove; boil it two minutes, then add a quart of white stock, reduce it to half, skim off all the fat, and pass it through a tammie into another stewpan, add a pint of white sauce (No. 7), and reduce it till it adheres to the back of the spoon ; finish with two tablespoonfuls of good thick cream, and a little sugar, sauce over the quenelles, glaze the tongue, and serve with the remainder of the sauce round and in the centre.

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