Tête de veau

Very few dishes can elicit such contrasting reactions from the prospective consumer as tête de veau (calf’s head). Most people respond with an onomatopoeic exclamation of disgust (‘yuck’ in English, ‘beurk’ in French). Others emit a contented ‘yum yum’ (‘miam-miam’).

Yet others have to admit that tête de veau is an acquired taste. That was true in my case. My own first experience of the dish was disconcerting to say the least. I was served a wobbly concoction that defied description: its colour was grey-green, its temperature lukewarm and its texture gelatinous. Never again, I said to myself. But a few months later, I plucked up enough courage to give the dish a second chance. This time it was served piping hot, it contained some identifiable pieces of flesh (tongue, cheek) and it was swathed in a delicious sauce.

Tête de veau is eaten chiefly in Germany (Kalbskopf) and Italy (testina di vitello) as well as in France. In Britain, turtle meat from the Caribbean had become too costly an ingredient by the late 18th century to put into turtle soup except on the wealthiest tables, so calf’s head was used as a substitute because it had a similar consistency.

But nowhere has the historical, cultural and symbolic significance of tête de veau been greater than in France. Every year, on January 21, the Confrérie Rocheleuse de la Tête de Veau organises a banquet in La Rochelle on the theme of the calf’s head to commemorate the beheading of Louis XVI in 1793. Originally the pièce de résistance of such meals was a stuffed pig’s head accompanied by pig’s ears: Louis was often caricatured as ‘le roi cochon’. But at some point around the mid-19th century, the pig’s head was replaced by a calf’s head. It is unclear why or how this happened. But according to one of the characters in Gustave Flaubert’s Education sentimentale: ‘[Tête de veau] is an English import – in order to parody the ceremony that the Roundheads used to perform to commemorate the beheading of Charles I on January 30, 1649, the Independents founded an annual banquet at which calves’ heads were eaten, red wine was drunk out of calves’ skulls, and toasts were proposed to the extermination of the Stuarts.’

1024Px Tetes De Veaux
Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, the boning of a raw calf’s head is best left to a professional butcher, who will usually display it in cylindrical form and tied up with string. It will comprise the tongue, cheeks and just occasionally the brains of a calf. In its 1788 edition, Menon’s influential La Cuisinière bourgeoise includes the eyes as an ingredient, a rather gruesome addition which has since fallen out of favour.

The cooking of tête de veau varies little: it is simmered for hours in a broth flavoured with various herbs (bouquet garni) and vegetables (celery, carrots, onions, shallots and sometimes parsnip), which ‘jazz up’ the inherent insipidity of the dish.

A final touch is contributed by its accompanying sauce, which can be either sauce gribiche or sauce ravigote. As often in French culinary matters, the two sauces are mutually exclusive in the eyes of their fans, who include not only the ordinary citizen, but prominent literati and politicians. (A similar dividing line exists between at least three versions of the haricot bean stew, cassoulet: in Carcassonne, they like to include mutton and partridge (when available), while Castelnaudary cooks prefer to restrict themselves to pork. In Toulouse, Toulouse sausage, mutton and duck or goose are preferred.)

In fact sauce gribiche and sauce ravigote are not all that different. They are both made with oil, vinegar, mustard, onion, shallot, capers, gherkins, chervil, tarragon and parsley. But the gribiche version also contains the mashed up yolks of hard-boiled eggs and finely chopped white of egg, and has the consistency of mayonnaise. Both in taste and appearance, the egg-less sauce ravigote resembles that of a classic vinaigrette.

Needless to say, in the string of (jocular) rhyming insults exchanged between Parisians and provincials down the years you’ll find ‘Parisien, tête de chien’ and ‘Parigot [a familiar word for a Parisian], tête de veau’. So calf’s head qualifies as a ‘plat canaille’, a virtually untranslatable expression with overtones of ‘informal’, ‘unpretentious’, ‘working-class’ and ‘raffish’. All of those terms apart from ‘working-class’ could be applied to the late president of France, Jacques Chirac, who was celebrated for his legendary appetite. When visiting trade fairs, particularly agricultural ones, he would scoff any amount of sandwiches containing cheese, ham or saucisson sec that were on offer, which he washed down with his favourite beverage, beer.

Although a wobbly tête de veau was not something he could easily negotiate while visiting a trade show, Chirac somehow acquired a reputation for being a great fan of the dish. When he became president in 1995, there was an upsurge of enthusiasm for tête de veau, which had by then become a minority taste. And after Chirac died in September 2019, a tripier in the Paris suburbs who used to sell six kilos of tête de veau per week was pleasantly surprised when demand for the dish leapt to ten kilos per day.

But was Chirac really such a fan of tête de veau as all that? All the evidence would seem to suggest otherwise. Guillaume Gomez, who was head chef at the Elysée Palace for 12 years, has gone on record as saying that when he served Chirac tête de veau for a second time, the president remarked: ‘It was very nice, but there’s no need to cook it for me again. It’s by no means my favourite dish.’ I have no idea how the legend of Chirac’s imaginary fondness for calf’s head sprang up. It could simply be that the image of tête de veau as an eminently peasanty dish fitted his own image as a former agriculture minister like a glove.


Mock Tutrle
Illustration by Margaret Tarrant

I have to admit that this piece on tête de veau contains a glaring omission. Having already included in my post on oysters the whole of Lewis Carroll’s poem, ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, I mistakenly assumed there was no need to refresh my memory of ‘The Mock Turtle’s Song’, since it was ‘mock’. But the ‘mock’ ingredient in the soup, which replaced real turtle, was precisely what inspired Carroll and John Tenniel to imagine the mock turtle as a composite creature consisting of a turtle’s body and a calf’s head, feet and tail. The need for this correction was pointed out to me by my friend Dennis Childs, who also dug up this different depiction of the Mock Turtle by Margaret Tarrant (1888-1959), another well-known illustrator of children’s books.

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