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The Romans ate Lark's Tongues?


Eden
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So there are a flock of evil songbirds who hang outside my bedroom window and commence warbling around 4 in the morning on a regular basis. My first response to this was "NOW I know why those Roman emperors ate Lark's tongues!"

Being a food history geek I of course then had to go looking for the original recipe, just out of curiosity, but so far as I have been able to tell, this is some kind of (incredibly pervasive) food myth.

there is nothing in Apicius' De Re Coquinaria (roman recipe collection) There doesn't seem to be anything from Cato or Martial...

There are some later (Victorian & modern) references to Vitellius eating the Tongues of nightingales, but nothing actually Roman that I could find. The closest I get are some flamingos & peacocks. So how did we jump from this to Larks tongues?

Anybody here have a theory or further information?

(for those of you into ornithological correctness, no my early morning songbirds are not actually larks, but that's not something you really care about at 4am when the evil chirping starts :wink: )

Do you suffer from Acute Culinary Syndrome? Maybe it's time to get help...

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Being a food history geek I of course then had to go looking for the original recipe, just out of curiosity, but so far as I have been able to tell, this is some kind of (incredibly pervasive) food myth.

from Romans-in-Britain.org might this be semi-pertinent? :rolleyes: or, heaven forfend! is it merely tongue-in-cheek? :hmmm:

:laugh: but this is the recipe in the original Latin:

I.  Aladärum M cape.

II.  Linguäs exsecxa et sepone.

III.  Alaudäs abice.

IV.  Lingäs mitte in sartaginem cum paulö olei et frige cito.

V.  Eäs traice ad patellam calida.

Quattuor sufficit.

Melissa Goodman aka "Gifted Gourmet"

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I strongly suspect that the role of larks' tongues in the Roman diet is an example of culinary fakelore (like the myth of the vomitorium). Probably it's a conflation of a couple of phenomena. On the one hand, Romans definitely loved to chow down on songbirds: for example, there's a large section of book 3 of Varro's De Re Rustica ("All About Farming") that discusses how to build an aviary, what kind of birds to raise and how much money you can make, and Petronius' Satyricon has a famous scene where a roast pig is cut open, releasing songbirds that are caught and cooked.

On the other hand, there's the Vitellius anecdote you mention; it's from Suetonius' Life of Vitellius (chapter 13), which describes the short-ruling emperor's diet (you can read a translation here. And you should read it; it's awesome.) But even if it's true, it's clearly written as an example of Vitellius' crazy luxury; that is, it's not the sort of thing that Romans, even wealthy Romans, would eat. So I have my doubts about the larks' tongues...

(And yes, the "recipe" is a joke; it's written by Henry Beard, I think. Whoever typed it into that source doesn't know Latin very well, either. Sniff.)

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I strongly suspect that the role of larks' tongues in the Roman diet is an example of culinary fakelore (like the myth of the vomitorium).[...]

They didn't have vomitoria? Then what about all those long bone things exhibited in museums as devices to draw vomit? Purely curative?

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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I strongly suspect that the role of larks' tongues in the Roman diet is an example of culinary fakelore (like the myth of the vomitorium).[...]

They didn't have vomitoria? Then what about all those long bone things exhibited in museums as devices to draw vomit? Purely curative?

I don't know about the bone things; I've never seen one. But "vomitorium" meaning "a place to vomit" is a joke. A vomitorium was a passageway that spectators used to leave a theater (the term's still used sometimes). 19th century schoolboys intentionally misinterpreted the term, because, hey, vomit.

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One of my favorite albums of all time.

King Crimson:

"Larks' Tongues in Aspic"

Edited by sizzleteeth (log)

"At the gate, I said goodnight to the fortune teller... the carnival sign threw colored shadows on her face... but I could tell she was blushing." - B.McMahan

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Isn't the full recipe "Lark's Tonue in Aspic?"

And, according to this transcript of an investigation in England, lark's vomit was used by certain unscrupulous confectioners as a flavoring agent in their candies.

Milton: (insulted) Mock frog? We use no artificial preservatives or additives of any kind!

Praline: Nevertheless, I must warn you that in future you should delete the words 'crunchy frog', and replace them with the legend 'crunchy raw unboned real dead frog', if you want to avoid prosecution.

Milton: What about our sales?

Praline: I'm not interested in your sales, I have to protect the general public. Now how about this one. (superintendent enters) It was number five, wasn't it? (superintendent nods) Number five, ram's bladder cup. (exit superintendent) What kind of confection is this?

"Milton: We use choicest juicy chunks of fresh Cornish ram's bladder, emptied, steamed, flavoured with sesame seeds whipped into a fondue and garnished with lark's vomit.

Praline: Lark's vomit?

Milton: Correct.

Praline: Well it don't say nothing about that here.

Milton: Oh yes it does, on the bottom of the box, after monosodium glutamate.

Praline: (looking) Well I hardly think this is good enough. I think it would be more appropriate if the box bore a large red label warning lark's vomit.

Milton: Our sales would plummet...."

Full transcript here..

Apparently, lark-eating may have been more a 70s British phenomenon than an ancient Roman one. :laugh:

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Isn't the full recipe "Lark's Tonue in Aspic?"

And, according to this transcript of an investigation in England, lark's vomit   was used by certain unscrupulous confectioners as a flavoring agent in their candies.

Good point. The same source elsewhere mentions the famous Roman delicacy, wolf nipple chips ("get 'em when they're hot!")

Edited by Andrew Fenton (log)
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Isn't the full recipe "Lark's Tonue in Aspic?"

Exiles:

Now in this faraway land

Strange that the palms of my hands

Should be damp with expectancy

Spring, and the air's turning mild

City lights and the glimpse of a child

Of the alleyway infantry

Friends - do they know what I mean?

Rain and the gathering green

Of an afternoon out of town

But lord I had to go

The trail was laid too slow behind me

To face the call of fame

Or make a drunkard's name for me

Though now this better life

Has brought a different understanding

And from these endless days

Shall come a broader sympathy

And though I count the hours

To be alone's no injury

My home was a place by the sand

Cliffs and a military band

Blew an air of normality

"At the gate, I said goodnight to the fortune teller... the carnival sign threw colored shadows on her face... but I could tell she was blushing." - B.McMahan

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I strongly suspect that the role of larks' tongues in the Roman diet is an example of culinary fakelore (like the myth of the vomitorium).[...]

They didn't have vomitoria? Then what about all those long bone things exhibited in museums as devices to draw vomit? Purely curative?

I don't know about the bone things; I've never seen one. But "vomitorium" meaning "a place to vomit" is a joke. A vomitorium was a passageway that spectators used to leave a theater (the term's still used sometimes). 19th century schoolboys intentionally misinterpreted the term, because, hey, vomit.

Considering the quality of current Hollywood fare, this would be a useful addition to modern theatres.

SB :laugh:

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Indeed, vomitoria were not for vomiting and the Roman's might have occasionally indulged in the tongues of larks but only occasionally, as the bird tongues they preferred were those of hummingbirds. A favored recipe among some of the more perverse emperors was for dormice stuffed with hummingbird tongues.

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Don't have anything to add, but I do have a query regarding historical recipes...

The oldest recipes in my collection originates from Francois Vatel (a commissioned chef to Louis XIV; 1671)....you know the guy that off'd himself causepart of his meal wasn't going to be served at the King's banquet due to mass complications created by elaborate plans.

Anyway... I was wondering if someone wouldn't mind trading a few recipes.

Regards from DC,

Chris

Here's one of the Vatel's...

Duck Sauteed in Madeira Wine

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1 duckling, about 21/2 kilos, quartered

1 medium onion, chopped

2 Tbsp. flour

1/2 cup red wine

1/2 cup beef or chicken stock

1 bouquet garni made by tying together 3 sprigs

2 shallots, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed of parsley, 2 sprigs of thyme and 1 bay leaf

salt and pepper to taste

100 gr. mushrooms, sliced thinly

1/4 cup Madeira wine

1 cup toasted bread croutons

chopped parsley for garnish

In a large skillet saute the pieces for 1 - 2 minutes and then turn skin side down to cook until browned and the fat has been rendered . Remove the duckling pieces and set aside.

Discard all but 2 Tbsp. of the fat and into this stir the onion and saute until lightly browned. Add the flour and continue cooking, stirring constantly over a medium flame until browned. Whisk in the wine, stock, bouquet garni, shallots, garlic, salt and pepper. Return the duck to the skillet, cover and simmer until the duck is tender when pierced with a fork (about 30 minutes). Add more stock during cooking if the sauce becomes thick.

Add the mushrooms and Madeira and simmer until the mushrooms are tender (3 -4 minutes). The sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Remove the duckling pieces to a serving platter and if the sauce is too thick add stock; if too thin boil to reduce further.

Discard the bouquet garni and correct the seasoning. Surround the duckling pieces with the croutons and over this spoon the mushrooms and sauce. If ample sauce remains, serve in a gravy boat. Garnish with the parsley immediately before serving. Serves 4.

PS - I had to edit the original post; after researching Vatel's bio a bit further, I found that my data was wrong - the filet of sole dish was never prepared.

Edited by C_Ruark (log)
"There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic." - Bourdain; interviewed on dcist.com
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Hummingbirds are confined to the Americas, so it seem unlikely that the Romans ever had conact with them.

Adam, Hello...

You are correct that the only hummingbirds in Europe today are those kept in cages or those which have escaped from captivity. Hummingbirds are not, however, at all strangers to Europe, having existed there for some thirty million years. I believe you will find an extensive report of the archaeological findings, including full fossils that were found in Germany in the 7 May 2004 issue of Science (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science). Hummingbird fossils have also been found in the Dorogne region of France, the French and Spanish Pyrenees and the Swiss Jura.

The interesting question is when the hummingbirds disappeared from Europe and unless there was a major conspiracy at work during Roman days, mentions of hummingbirds can be found in more than forty of the literary works that have come to us extant from those times.

At this point, going entirely on memory as my full data base is not available to me, was it not the Emperor Egalabus who was accidentally responsible for the death of several guests at one of his feasts when a net above the visitors fell and they sufficated under the flood of hummingbird wings in which they were buried?

Whether the Egalabus story is merely apocryphal (he was an odd bird to say the least) is unimportant though.....what seems to be important is that the hummingbirds vanished from Europe only sometime in the last 2,500 years, to be rediscovered again only during the exploration of the New World in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.

Edited by Daniel Rogov (log)
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replying to many comments:

So the hummingbirds we saw in Positano (that were the exact same size as the bumblebees!!!) were escapees? They were certainly thriving.

FYI no hummingbird recipes in Apicius & I dont' recall any in Medieval European sources either... Probably because they dont' sing outside people's windows at 4am :wink:

I haven't double-checked for myself, but I'm told there are no larks anywhere in the satyricon (I did check Trimalchios banquet - they're not there). I think we blame this on Monty Python & KingCrimson...

Chris (and anyone else) I'm always happy to discuss historical recipes. My main focus is earlier than Vatel, but I love learning about other periods if you want to start a new thread :smile:

re Dormice, As far as I know, the only extant recipe we have is from Apicius as follows.

Dormice: Stuffed dormice with pork filling, and with the meat of whole

dormice ground with pepper, pine nuts, silphium, and garum. Sew up and

place on a baking tile, and put them in the oven; or cook the stuffed

[dormice] in a pan.

Translation from Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini; A Taste of Ancient Rome,

University of Chicago Press, 1992.

But they're included in Trimalchio's banquet as well: "Dormice seasoned with honey and poppies lay on little bridge-like structures of iron"

FYI Dormice are tres cute, but they make irritating noises at night hence their presence at the table? (Hey I've got a good theory going here - think roosters at dawn, then think coq au vin! :laugh: )

Do you suffer from Acute Culinary Syndrome? Maybe it's time to get help...

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The German specimen is the only convincing modern hummingbird found in Europe to date, it is 30 million years old. Given the amount of geographical, climatic, flora and fauna changes in Europe during the last 30 million years, I doubt very much that the Romans saw a hummingbird.

That some later comentators may have misinterpreted a Latin description as a hummingbird is another item all together.

According to the OED the earliest mention of "hummingbird" is from the 17th century and not surprisingly describes the New World birds.

Obviously, "Hummingbird" isn't Latin, any translation of a Latin phrase as "Hummingbird" post 17th century is suspect. I would be surprised if any Roman descriptions of the birds would be clear enough for modern writers to make a positive ID. "Bird with a long bill" isn't enough.

The only Roman reference to birds tongues in a recipe I am aware of, refer to the flamingo.

Since there are over forty literary references to "Hummingbirds", it should be a simply matter to look at the original Latin and work out what was ment. What is the Latin word?

I only have access to Apicius and Pliny, the only bird tongues I seen mentioned are "Phoenicopteri linguam praecipui saporis esse Apicius docuit, nepotum omnium altissimus gurges", which is Pliny mentioning that Apicius thought that flamingo tongu tasted quite nice.

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Adam, Hello....

A fun dialogue but, not having been around either 30,000,000 years ago and having been born a bit (just a bit mind you) after Apicius, I cannot vouch for any of this personally.

As to personal taste, the only bird's tongues that I have tasted were those of parrots and an assortment of songbirds (shot by noble hunters in Igoumenitsa in Greece) and to tell the truth, I think I would prefer eating a handkerchief.

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replying to many comments:

Chris (and anyone else) I'm always happy to discuss historical recipes. My main focus is earlier than Vatel, but I love learning about other periods if you want to start a new thread  :smile:

Thanks Eden, I'll start the thread up and see what happens.

Chris

"There's something very Khmer Rouge about Alice Waters that has become unrealistic." - Bourdain; interviewed on dcist.com
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This reminds me of a huge hummingbird scandle from the late 70's. Craig Claiborne and Pierre Franay were the highest bidders in a charity auction for a dinner, which included hiummingbird tongues. It was in Paris I believe, but I can't remember which restaurant it was or the outrageous price of the meal. Does anyone remember the details?

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As far as Roman meals go, wasn't it their policy to eat pretty much like modern day Cajuns? In other words, no matter what we have in recipes left over from then, I think a Roman policy was if it breathes, eat it. I tried two recipes from a food history, and found them to be so overladen with luxury ingredients as to be akin to a modern fusion kitchen with an excess of exotica. So it seems to me that they more than likely ate any songbird unlucky enough to get caught, or raised.

Was there not once a huge to-do about a Senator who debased himself so far as to raise a particularly prized eel in modern-styled tanks?

Hell they probably scarfed on hyena guts while the Coliseum was in its most excessive period. :blink:

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