In culinary matters, the French and the British often compete about who first discovered a particular dish. A notable example is burn’t cream – crème brulée in French. Both countries claim to have invented it . Now, there is apparently evidence that the ancient Brits were eating frogs’ legs well before their French counterparts – or is there?
An archaeological dig has been going on at Amesbury, not far from Stonehenge. The finds so far date back to the eighth millennium BC and the site could turn out to be the oldest continuously-occupied settlement in the UK. However, what has caught the media’s imagination is that fact that, among the charred animal bones, the archaeologists have found a toad’s leg. This is the evidence that frogs’ legs were on the menu.
I remain sceptical. One singed animal bone doesn’t prove that they actually ate it. Maybe the poor thing fell into the fire or was tossed onto it as part of some superstitious rite. Also, while I accept that life in 8,000 BC was tough and they probably ate anything they could get their hands on, toads are far from edible. If this was the Common European Toad (bufo bufo), its skin is toxic. After skinning it, they wouldn’t have found much flesh on its back legs, either. Frogs’ legs are said to be much fleshier.
I’m rather fond of toads – not to eat, you understand. We have some enormous specimens here. They come out of the garden walls or from under bushes at night and scuttle around – surprisingly fast – on the gravel. Sometimes we have to fish them out of the pool, mostly alive I’m pleased to say. And we’ve even found them reposing, alive, in the middle of a large pile of sand. I trod on one by mistake one night when opening the gate, but it crawled away apparently unharmed.
We’re all familiar with the less than complimentary British nickname for French people, which originated as ‘frog-eaters’ and was later shortened to ‘frogs’. Naturally, this got me thinking about the origin of frogs as a comestible menu item and a classic French dish.
Alexandre Dumas, in his Le grand dictionnaire de cuisine, noted that medieval physicians advised against eating frogs’ legs. By the 16th century, however, they were served at the most prestigious tables in France. After that, breeders made their fortunes fattening and selling frogs to the capital. It’s worth noting that the small, bright green variety that are able to jump up walls and defy gravity are not edible.
According to the Connexion, where I found this story, French diners still consume 4,000 tonnes of frogs’ legs annually. Commercial frog harvesting was banned in France in 1980, so they are all imported today.
Elizabeth David, whom I often consult about the history of French dishes, says very little about frogs’ legs, mainly because they were unobtainable in the UK except in rare tins when she was writing. She provides one recipe (no, I’m not going to try it), whereas my inherited Larousse Gastronomique offers about 20. In French Provincial Cooking, she simply writes, ‘It is odd that frogs’ legs, which are such delicate little morsels that surely even the most fastidious could not object to them, should inspire such horror in England.’
I’m not going into the ethical issues here but have you ever tried these ‘delicate little morsels’?
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Interesting piece Vanessa. I think frogs are delightful creatures and toads remind me of my great uncle – who I adored, I hasten to add!
It might surprise you to learn I have eaten frogs’ legs, back in the eighties. If I remember rightly they tasted a bit like chicken.
Yes, it does surprise me! I also remember that they tasted a little like chicken the only time I ate them. But they were smothered in garlic and parsley butter, so they could really have been anything.
By the way….. I have read that in England illegally parked frogs will be toad away.
I might have known that you would raise the tone!!
I’ve never tried frogs’ legs, I was put off by stories of how they were killed, I don’t eat lobster (not that I get offered it often) for much the same reason, but I do enjoy snails. Particularly the garlic butter.
I agree – see Walter’s comment. I don’t have a problem with eating meat or fish, provided it’s humanely raised and killed. Frogs certainly weren’t and probably still aren’t. I like snails but it’s the garlic butter that appeals most. The snail itself is an unexceptional food.
The first time I ate them was in a small restaurant in Evian, France. Delicious they were.
After dinner I had a cigarette outside, wondered round the restaurant, only found myself looking at a pile of dead and dying frogs, sliced through at the waist and chucked on a heap outside the kitchen.
It was also the last time I ate grenouilles…
Yes, I have heard similar stories from elsewhere. It’s pretty gross, isn’t it? They are no longer farmed in France but are imported and I don’t suppose they die happy deaths where they come from. I don’t have an objection in principle to eating them and, in fact, I did once when there wasn’t much choice. But I do like to feel that what I’m eating has been humanely killed.
Yes, I’ve eaten them and surprisingly, the first time was when I was a teenager in the States! Where I lived, the guys would go ‘frog gigging’ along the irrigation canals, stabbing the frogs with long, skinny pitchfork-like things. Then we’d fry up the legs like fried chicken over an open campfire. They’re good!
Oo-er, sounds a bit barbaric, but perhaps no worse than fishing. Hopefully, the first stab killed them.
I have never tried them, but I know my mom and her friends left some cut up frog legs in her French teacher’s school mailbox as a prank. She was leaving the school anyways so she wasn’t too concerned about getting into trouble.
Also is the title meant to be a reference to the children’s book Frog and Toad? I had some of them growing up in the house. 🙂
I can imagine the teacher’s reaction!
The title is actually Cockney rhyming slang from the East End of London – and therefore obscure for anyone who isn’t British, or more specifically a Londoner. Frog and toad means road in rhyming slang, which of course has nothing to do with the post, but it just appealed to me.
Other examples of rhyming slang are: ‘trouble and strife’ – wife; ‘apples and pears’ – stairs; ‘currant bun’ – sun; ‘Adam and Eve’ – believe. I wonder if anything similar exists in France? Will have to find out.
Oh okay, I would have never guessed it was Cockney! I don’t really understand the rules of Cockney very well, will have to read up on it!
I think most Americans would associate the title with the Frog and Toad children’s books. The author won several prizes for the series and they are very well-known over here.
In French, they have the “verlan” where you switch the last syllable of a word and put it as the first syllable (case in point verlan becomes l’envers so it’s all about pronouncing a word backwards). But you probably already know about that?
Cockney rhyming slang is very particular and not easy to get a grip on if you haven’t heard it as a child. My father (who wasn’t actually a Cockney – i.e. born within the sound of Bow Bells in the East End of London) used it from time to time – but more as a joke than anything else. If you Google it, you’ll find more about it.
I had never heard of the Frog and Toad children’s books. They might have been published in the UK as well but, if so, it has passed me by. Thanks for the reference.
I have heard of ‘Verlan’ and there’s something similar in English, called Pig Latin, where you put the last syllable first. I could never get the hang of it, though, so have generally ignored it. I need to do some more research on all this.
Frog legs, no, the idea is repulsive…..as with snails items like these were used
primarily for lack of sufficient food. As for the creme brulee, this desert was
used all over Europe. Different names, technique quite the same. It is interesting
how much credit one country gets for something so commonly used in others.
I’m quite partial to snails – probably the garlic butter rather than the snail itself. I have eaten frogs’ legs once but that was when there was little choice. It’s interesting that foods that started off being subsistence items (like oysters in the UK) became more upmarket menu items or at least widely consumed. I expect that the originator of crème brûlée lived neither in France nor in the UK!
absolutely have tried them… and find it amusing that the french chinese restaurants always have them on the menu as a matter of course. Personally I think they are delicious although have never managed to cook them well myself!
Well, I suppose Chinese restaurants have all sorts of things on the menu that some people wouldn’t consider eating! I don’t have a problem with the idea of eating frogs (I like snails, after all) but I do find the way they were separated from their legs quite barbaric (see Walter’s comment). Breeding was banned in France more than 30 years ago but they are imported from Asia and other places and I have a nasty feeling they are not humanely killed.