This Sunday, I had friends visiting and we tried out a few recipes from seventeenth-century sources on the Caribbean for my book project. Altogether, it was a success:
I revisited some recipes I had tried in an earlier session and several new ones, and the results generally left everyone happy. The centrepiece this time was ‘mock turtle’. I used veal and pork in place of turtle which, for obvious ethical and practical reasons, is out of the question, though it was a common meat in the seventeenth-century Caribbean. The preparation was based on what Jean Baptiste Labat wrote about flibustier parties in his account of the French Antilles:
This is what one calls a turtle boucan and how it is prepared: The largest of the four turttles that had been caught was chosen and without cutting it on the head or legs, it was opened on one side to tear out all the inside. Then the back shell (plastron) of one of the others was lifted off and after having taken out the flesh and the fat, all of that was chopped together with what had been taken out of the first (turtle), with hard-boiled egg yolks, fine herbs, spices, lemon juice, salt and strong chili, and all this chopped matter (forcemeat) was put into the turtle that had remained whole and afterward its opening was closed and shut with a piece of clay (terre grasse).
While the cooks were occupied with what I have told, a hole six feet in diameter and four or five feet deep was dug in the sand. The hole was filled with wood and this was allowed to burn down until it was just coals in order to heat the entire depth (concavité) of the hole well. Then the coals were removed and the turtle laid into the hole on its back, covered with three or four inches (pouces) of hot sand from its surrounding and the coals which had been removed, with a little sand above. this became like a natural pasty (paté naturel) cooked in that kind of oven in the space of about four hours, and it cooked better than if it had been prepared in an ordinary oven. And that is what is called turtle boucan (boucan de tortue).
Now, obviously this is not everyday food. The occasion Labat describes is flibustiers holding a beach party for the governor, so they are putting in extra effort. However, there is nothing about the dish or its preparation that would limit it to the tables of the rich and powerful. This could easily have made the centrepiece of a buccaneer celebration.
The problem is that it is very hard to simulate turtle. Most European ‘mock turtle’ recipes of the eighteenth and nineteenth century use veal and pork, and so did I. I wrapped a piece of thin-cut meat around a forcemeat stuffing with boiled egg yolk, lemon juice, chili, ginger, allspice, and salt and secured it with string. Then I wrapped the whole thing in several layers of foil and cooked it at a low temperature. The result was positive, but in need of improvement.
The flavour was excellent, though it would have benefited from more assertively using salt and chili. the foil, however, did not hold well enough and too much of the juices ran out. They were excellent, but should have stayed with the meat. A salt crust or a roasting dish closed with water paste would probably serve better. Also, the veal was soft and tender, but the pork was probabnly too sheer. Turtle was famous for its unctuous softness. Next time, a fattier, streakier meat with more connective tissue may work better. But on the whole, it is a recipe worth developing further.
I added mustard because Labat writes the flibustiers will always eat mustard with their meat. This version added a little molasses and allspice to the mustardseed and vinegar (I used white wine vinegar instead of the sugarcane vinegar described in the sources because I did not have the time to make that myself). It turned out quite satisfactory, and has a nice flavour balance of sweet and sharp.