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Monday, September 10, 2012



(The European beaver has a slimmer 
skull and tail than the American Beaver)
Photo from: madeofpaper&things
L. Castor feber, Eng. European beaver. In the Middle Ages, the beaver was prevalent in almost all of Europe including Al-Andalus. It is not the American species. Terry Decker explains that they cannot be inner bred because the European beaver has 48 chromosomes while its American cousin, Castor canadensis, has 40.

During the Middle Ages, the Church permitted eating red beaver meat on fast days as they are considered to be fish because they use their tails for swimming.  John Topsell in his 17th C Fourfooted Beasts describes the tail as weighing four pounds and that it is eaten like barbels. Although allowed on fish days, Topsell continues, the body is “unclean for food.” Avenzoar, 500 years earlier in Cordova, did not recommend eating the meat. William Harrison, in the 16th C, describes the animal as akin to a large rat. Sarah O’Connor, today, describes the meat from the body as tasting something like beef. Marcus Loidolt claims that the flavor is like groundhog and beef or venison. O’Connor concludes that it may have a very strong flavor depending it's diet while alive.

Decker explains that due to the number of  European Renaissance recipes that have survived, it appears that the tail was such a delicacy that special instructions were necessary for preparing it.  Topsell states that the tail and forefeet are very sweet, hence the proverb: sweet is that fish, which is not fish at all.

Harrison states that in his day, beavers around Balascham, Persia were exported everywhere with dried cod. It does not seem likely that Spain would have imported beavers as they were abundant in Spain longer than elsewhere but no recipes for them seem to have survived from the Middle Ages at least.

Beaver Pies
Photo from: radioboy*
It is known that beaver tail was served as a pottage. It was thought that boiling eliminated some of its noxiousness or “evil vapors.” John Russell in his Book of Nurture instructs that beaver tail should always be served with pea soup or fumitary. Two recipes for beaver tail from Max Rumplot’s 16th C German cookbook call for removing the fat and the boiling in water and/or vinegar before roasting, which is the same procedure in other surviving recipes in Europe and Russia. One of Rumplot’s recipes calls for the tail to be baked in a pie and in the other the tail is scald, roasted and boiled.

As the beaver produces castoreum, a substance so popular in medieval pharmacology that the term was passed on to mean the animal itself in Arabic. Castoreum contains volatile oil, benzol acid, a fatty substance and some salts. It tastes bitter and nauseous and has a strong smell. This reddish-brown ointment is found in two reddish sacs near the groin next to the intestinum rectum. It is not part of the genital organ. It was used to treat palsy and other illnesses. Some claim that Paloma Picasso uses it in her perfumes for the leathery aroma. [Black. Medieval. 1992:11; Clair. 1963:81; Espasa.1988:12:CAS:352; Ency Brit.1988:2:Bayeu:25:2b:3b: 59; ES: Beaver. Jan 15, 11; Ibn Zuhr/García Sánchez. 1992:Layton. 1948:210; and Wilson. 1973:38]

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