Thursday, July 7, 2011

Salt To Taste

Cane rat aka grasscutter aka ground-pig

I.     "Cane Rat (Thryonomys Swinderianus), a large African rodent which also goes by the name grasscutter (especially in W. Africa) and ground-pig (a misnomer which has been current in S. Africa, perhaps because of its bristly hairs).  It can live in various environments, mostly but not always in damp areas; enjoys an excellent vegetarian diet (roots, young shoots, bark, etc.) and is capable of causing havoc in some crops such as sugar cane.

        The cane rat may reach a length, not including the tail, of nearly 60 cm (24") and provides a substantial amount of good meat.  It is eaten on a large scale in sub-Saharan Africa." 

From:  Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food.  Oxford, Oxford University Press,  1999.

Millet beer

II.    In Native Stranger: A Black American's Journey into the Heart of Africa (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992), Eddy L. Harris provides this account of cane rat stew in the Ivory Coast:

   "Denis asked if I was hungry and took me to the home of a woman making stew. He was tired and so was I. It had been a very long day. We would rest awhile and have something to eat with her before going home..

       We sat outside and drank millet beer, frothy and sweet. Then we ate this woman's strange stew. Denis watched me carefully -- too carefully, it seemed.

   "What's the matter?" I asked.

   "Nothing, " he said. "How do you like the stew?"

   "It's different," I said. "But it's good."

    He was playful again.

   "Did you ever eat a rat before?"

    I kept eating. Nothing surprised me anymore.

   "Don't worry," he said. "It's not like a rat in the sewer. It's more like a field rat."

   "Oh, I wasn't worried," I said, glad that he had explained the difference.

    The stew was vaguely sweet, pungent, a new taste.

    We drank more millet beer and the evening began to glow. Denis smiled. He became for me then all that was right about Africa, the warmth, the generosity, the laughter."

III.         A long, happy (it seems to me now as it seemed to me then) time ago, during my first visit to Mallorca,  I purchased (as I usually do when I travel) a local recipe book so that I could remember my vacation and the many new and wonderful things I ate after I had returned home.  In this case, I also wanted to remember the sounds and spelling of  Mallorquin, Mallorca's unique and remarkable language.  The book contained the following recipe, which I have never tried (and am unlikely to):

        Frito de Ratas (Rat Fry): 

      "The rats are skinned, well cleaned and given a good boiling.  Drain and cut into little pieces.  These are fried in a frying pan with a lot of oil seasoned beforehand with salt and pepper.

      When cooked, add a good quantity of garlic, leeks and tomato, and if in season, one or two chilis.

        In La Puebla (in the northern part of Majorca), where this dish is general, they always advise you to "lift the elbow", that is to say, wash it down with plenty of good red wine.

        Needless to explain that the rats in question are the ones called "ratas de campo" or field rats, which abound in the area of La Albufera (bordering the Bay of Alcudia), and in the surroundings of La Puebla."

From Luis Ripoll, 125 Cookery Recipes of Majorca, Minorca, Ibiza (translated by William Kirkbride).  Palma de Mallorca, 1975.

IV.        Also from Ripoll's book, and highly recommended, is the following recipe, which no visitor to Mallorca, especially one who had been a guest in a private home, would fail to recognize:


Pamboli (Bread and Olive Oil)

        "Bread and olive oil is maybe the plainest item of food in Majorcan cuisine; but that doesn't prevent it from being one of the most widely eaten.

        Pamboli is nothing more or less than slices of bread -- brown or white -- dressed with a little good quality olive oil and, if desired, a dash of vinegar.

        If we want to make it more succulent, we can include, before dressing it, some slices of tomato.  Would then have in the Majorcan language "pamboli tomatiga".  We can improve this item of food further by adding green or black olive, whole or cut up, and a spoonful of capers, as well as some samphire (an aromatic cliff plant used in pickles).  Salt to taste."

Pamboli -- grisaille view

V.        What connects all this is the following: 

          The other day, while consulting Alan Davidson's magnificent Oxford Companion on another subject, I encountered his entry on the curiously-named Cane Rat and became interested in the history and lore surrounding this rodent.  (For instance, did you know that calling someone a "cane rat" is a mild term of disapprobation in South Africa?)   I learned that this charming, herbivorous field creature is a standard item of "bush fare" and considered a valuable, fairly inexpensive food source in Africa.  But one thing led to another, as usually happens, and I eventually ended up learning about Eddy Harris's fascinating volume and  remembering my Mallorquin cookbook and its odd-seeming "rat fry" recipe.  It had been years since I opened Ripoll's book, which is really more of a pamphlet that conveys great authenticity in the rusticity of its paper, printing and graphics.  Opening to the Frito de Ratas page, I discovered a pink phone message slip dating from the early 1980s alerting me that an ambulance chasing lawyer in Manhattan wanted to speak to me about a pending case.  The message bore the date of Caroline's birthday.  Curious.  I then began writing this mini-semi-survey.

       I consider it propitious and not an accident that this ends with the excellent, healthy and humane Pamboli, the quintessential Mallorquin foodstuff

       The message to me -- the clear and unequivocal message -- is that we need to leave the cane rat and other animals alone and to eat more Pamboli.

        This post is dedicated to the memory of Cy Twombly.

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