Boucan de Tortue

This post is taking us back to my research in buccaneer food, with a description of a festive dish prepared with turtle meat. In the description by Jean-Baptiste Labat, this was done by flibustiers, but in honour of a high-ranking colonial dignitary. This is not everyday food.

They chose the largest of the four turtles they had taken and without cutting off its feet or head, they had opened in on one side to tear out all its insides (tout le dedans). They had lifted off the back shell (plastron) of another and after had lifted out all the meat and fat. Having chopped this together with what they had taken out of the first, hard-boiled egg yolks, fine herbs, spices, lemon juice, salt, and strong chili (piment), they refilled all the chopped meat into the shell (le corps) of the one they had left entire. Following this, they re-closed the opening with a piece of clay (terre grasse).

While the cooks were busy with what I have just said, other dug a hole in the sand of the beach to a depth of four to five feet and six feet in diameter. They filled that hole with wood which they let burn until it had become just coals (charbon) in order to properly heat the entire depth (concavité) of the hole. They then drew out the coals, laid the turtle on its back at the bottom of the heated hole, and covered it with three or four inches of hot sand from around it and the coals they had removed, with a little sand on top. In this kind of natural pastry coffin and this manner of oven, it cooked in the space of four hours, and it was cooked far better than it would have been in an ordinary stove. And this is what one calls a Boucan de Tortue.

This is altogether a credible account and a good description of the kind of high-end cuisine that could be achieved with fairly basic equipment. I do not envision the result as finely minced as a modern forcemeat, but still chopped so as to meld the different flavours and consistencies. The meat that adheres to the shell directly most likely stayed inside the first turtle, being cooked whole and suffused with the seasonings of the filling. We don’t know exactly how large the turtle in question was, but the dimensions of the earth oven suggest a large specimen. To cook it completely in four hours (even allowing for a certain imprecision in an age before exact pocket watches) would have required a high heat. The preparation itself is close to something Marx Rumpolt describes as being done with tortoises in Europe in 1581, though these are boiled, not cooked in an earth oven:

9 Take the tortoises and hollow them out so that the shell stays together. Chop the meat together with eggs and green herbs, and add fresh butter. Fill the shells with it and boil them in a broth, be it sour or sweet, and serve them with the shells on. This is called filled tortoises.

It is interesting that Labat uses the word boucan to refer to a method of cooking – over a wooden grille – and the kind of meat that resulted, but also as a social occasion. It is applied in that sense here. A boucan was a feast held in the wilderness, away from the social conventions of grand homes, and is associated closely with the people of that realm, the chasseurs, boucaniers, and flibustiers he speaks of in awed and perplexed tones. It is more than likely they fully understood the value of their notoriety and, like the cowboys of the Old West when faced with curious townspeople, laid it on with a trowel. Still, Labat is a contemporary eyewitness and his account generally reliable.

Actually replicating what this dish tasted like will be hugely challenging. The seasoning is good – I have already worked with it and found it balanced well if you emphasise the lemon and keep a light touch with the chili. Finding a reasonable substitute for turtle meat is far harder. Few sources agree on what to compare it with, and while I have tried veal, lamb, and richly marbled pork singly and in combination, I am no nearer to understanding wehich comes close. Cooking it in a closed container, by comparison, is fairly trivial, though it will need to heat up fast and high. This is no crockpot dish.

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