10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing

Alexander Meddings - March 23, 2018

Since first discovering fire, we’ve never lacked for capability, and although prehistoric caves didn’t come fitted with kitchens this didn’t stop us getting creative in them. We are driven as a species by our basic need for sustenance, but we are unique in our ability to inject ingenuity into how we fulfil this. It’s through such creativity that we’ve forged culture, and through such creativity in our search for sustenance that we’ve created cuisine. Of course, along the way we’ve also invented nourishment to turn the stomach, and this list is stuffed full of examples of the weirdest food delicacies in history.

From delicacies derived from intestinal slurry and poultry dressed up as mythical beasts to chivalric scenes acted out by game, this list looks at some of the ways we’ve used and abused our culinary culture to make statements about power, civility, and class. By nature of their exclusivity, delicacies relate to all three. And because historically only those with the means to source the rarest of foodstuffs—not to mention the resources to turn them into something gastronomically pleasant—have created such delicacies, only these people will feature in this list. If you have a strong stomach, read on.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
“A Roman Feast” by Roberto Bompiani (1821 – 1908). Getty Images

10) The Roman Dormouse

We should be thankful to the Romans. Being the officious folk they were, the original Latinos were in the habit of writing almost everything down: from their laws and their history to their architecture and even their recipes. In fact, you can still read a genuine Roman cookbook called De re coquinaria or “On the Subject of Cooking”, wrongly attributed to a notorious yet affluent foodie called Apicius who lived during the reign of the emperor Tiberius and poisoned himself after spending his fortune on food because he was afraid of starving to death (there’s some food for thought).

De re coquinaria is full of culinary creations to make the modern stomach turn (believe me, I’ve recreated some of them). Camel heel, sow’s womb, and chicken covered in so much egg and coriander that you beg for death are just a few of the bizarre delicacies they decided to pass on to future ages. But one of the strangest guest appearances is that of the humble dormouse.

A quick note: this isn’t the critter that chews through the wires in your house but a far larger, arboreal rodent about the size of a rat. Apicius recommends stuffing it with bits of pork and its own trimmings, all pounded up with some pepper, fennel juice, broth, and nuts for good measure. Stick it in an earthenware casserole dish to roast or a stock pot to boil and—voilà. You’ve made something disgusting.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
The “Glirarium” (otherwise known as the terracotta dormouse fattener). Heather Kelley

So how did the Romans make an industry out of dormice? According to the agricultural writer Varro, already by the first century BC the rich were rearing them on their rural estates. Most of them used special terracotta pots called gliraria in which they kept their dormice in confined, darkened conditions while they gradually fattened them up. But one particularly committed individual called Titus Pompeius constructed a four-square-mile enclosure on his estate in Transalpine Gaul where he let his dormice roam wild before turning them into ragù.

Yet not everybody was happy about the dish of the day . In 115 BC, one of the consuls for the year, Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, passed a law prohibiting people from serving up of molluscs, exotic birds, and dormice at their banquets. Despite the reverential respect in which the aristocracy held their consul, however, on this occasion—and much to the dismay of dormice the empire over—they simply chose to ignore him.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
This chunk of ambergris, recently discovered on a British beach, could be worth up to £22,000. Metro

9) Sperm Wale Excrement, or “Ambergris”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the intestinal slurry of a sperm whale might not easily catch on so easily as a food delicacy, especially given that a pound of the stuff currently sells for around $63,000. Indeed, as a beach-combing British boy recently found out to his great delight, perfume companies will pay top dollar for ambergris, which has unique properties in fixing scent to the skin. But we humans are a strange species. And as history would have it, being the balenic equivalent of a gallbladder stone has done nothing to dissuade us from its consumption.

Put simply, Ambergris is edible excrement, evacuated from a sperm whale and left to float the oceans. Slow cooked by the sun, the vomit-like substance eventually hardens to become the large waxy mass you see today. It so traumatised Herman Melville, the author of Moby Dick, that he dedicated an entire chapter to it, detailing everything from its etymology (the French for “grey amber”), its sensory uses (in perfumes and hair powders) and its culinary uses (in Turkish cooking and Mediterranean wine flavouring).

Nor was it just in Turkey. How did Dutch and English colonists like their eggs in the morning? Not with a kiss, but with a spot of ambergris. Another English recipe, found on an annotated edition of the John Milton’s English epic, “Paradise Lost”, contains a handwritten recommendation for melting ambergris onto roasted game before enclosing it in pastry. The Italians were in on it too: the famed Casanova reputed to have used ambergris as an aphrodisiac. (Followed, one would hope, by an equally potent mouthwash afterwards).

And if you think that’s bad enough, at a Chicago cocktail bar called Billy Sunday they serve up shavings of ambergris in a drink, which they say closely resembles an Old Fashioned. Only it’s not old-fashioned in the slightest. Because paying for the privilege of drinking wale intestinal matter from a glass is a pretention of the modern age.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
The fabled Cockentrice. Richard Fitch

8) The Cockentrice

When it comes to the weirdest food delicacy of the Tudor Age, the Cockentrice takes the trophy. As a half-pig, half-capon (old rooster) hybrid that was posthumously stitched together to resemble some kind of mythical beast, the Cockentrice was pièce de résistance of any banquet worth its salt. The modest size of this monstrosity might suggest that medieval men may have had a different idea to us as to what exactly constitutes a beast. But this doesn’t make it any less unnerving.

We’re not entirely sure when the first Cockentrice was fashioned. One story goes that it was first prepared for the English Tudor monarch Henry VII (1485 – 1509). But the fact that it crops up on the menu of a banquet held by the English bishop of Bath and Wells, John Stafford, given on September 16 1425 reveals it actually predated Henry’s reign by some decades.

As a culinary challenge, the Cockentrice really does throw down the gauntlet. But thanks to a couple of surviving fifteenth century recipes we know how it was made. Firstly, you took a pig and a capon, scalded them, drained them, and then cut them both in half at the waist. Taking a needle and thread, you then had to sow the back of the pig to the front of the capon and the back of the capon to the front of the pig.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
A modern recreation of the Cockentrice at London’s Hampton Court Palace. The Atlantic

Stuffing this Frankensteinian creation as you would stuff a pig, you then glazed it with egg yolks, saffron, ginger, and parsley juice before roasting it on a spit. This wasn’t the only way to go; some Tudor chefs got even more creative by soaking their Cockentrice’s head with brandy and setting it alight so it seemed to breathe fire.

Indeed, more than just there to be eaten, the Cockentrice was there to be admired. Banquet hosts would present it to their guests at the climax of the feast, ideally still resplendent with its original fur and feathers. Whipping back this outer layer they would then wow their dinner guests by revealing the cooked meat within. This might all be a bit hard to swallow. But as bellytimber—that’s medieval slang for food— we can all probably agree that the Cockentrice is hard to beat. And even harder to eat.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
The essential accompaniment to any fun-filled feast: the Helmeted Cock. Pinterest

7) The Helmeted Cock

See the image above? To source that, I just had to type “Helmeted Cock” into Google. So not only did I see some stuff that will stay with me for a while, but now that’s part of my history, and I’m soon going to be getting some strange algorithmically driven ads. Anyway, while we’re still in the Middle Ages we should spare a moment’s thought for the Helmeted Cock: the militarily outfitted equivalent to baby monkey riding on a pig. Both were designed to entertain; neither needed to happen.

The idea behind the Helmeted Cock is that the pig represents the noble steed while the cock—resplendent in military regalia—stands in for the gallant knight errant. Guaranteed to get a good laugh at banquets, it was served up as a companion to the Cockentrice (see the previous item). But unlike its more famous counterpart, the Helmeted Cock only appears in one medieval manuscript: a cookbook by the name of Le Viandier de Taillevent by Guillaume Tirel.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
The Gode Cookbook

Guillaume Tirel describes the method for preparing the Helmeted Cock thusly: First, after roasting both pig and poultry, stuff the latter without skinning it and glaze it with egg batter. Second, sit the bird astride the pig and equip it with a glued paper helmet and a lance balanced on its breast. Finally, to add the finishing touches and put the royalty in the royal meat (or “ryl mete” as it was then known), cover the lance with coloured leaf to signify the bird comes from noble stock (gold or silver leaf should the cock symbolise a lord, otherwise white, red, or green tin).

6) Rôti Sans Pareil

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Rôti Sans Pareil. Joe Burger

If you thought this list had moved away from animals being stuffed inside one another, think again. Literally meaning “roast without equal”, the Rôti Sans Pareil makes the American turducken look like deeply disturbed child’s play. As the name might suggest, the Rôti Sans Pareil was a French creation. And as an engastration, it was frankly insane: consisting of no less than 17 birds stuffed inside one another.

Its bourgeois inventor, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de la Reynière (1758 – 1837), was a man whose depth of character was matched only by the length of his name. Alexandre’s father once returned home to find his son hosting a magnificent banquet at which a costumed pig sat at the head of the table. Later in life Alexandre even faked his own funeral to see who would turn up. But it was as the founding father of modern food criticism and the publisher of several works about good taste that Alexandre is best remembered.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Alexandre-(Balthazard)-Laurent Grimod de La Reynière. New York Times

He published the ridiculous recipe for the Rôti Sans Pareil in his 1807 publication L’almanach des Gourmands. In order from smallest to largest the birds the recipe proscribed be stuffed inside one another were: a warbler (stuffed with an olive stuffed with an anchovy stuffed with a lone caper) > a bunting > a lark > a thrush > a quail > a lapwing > a plover > a partridge > a woodcock > a teal > a guinea fowl > a duck > a chicken > a pheasant > a goose > a turkey > and finally a giant bustard.

And that’s not all. In addition to 17 avians, the recipe also called for a pig to provide salted pork fat, forcemeat, and chopped ham. Only when the engastration had been layered with this forcemeat, as well as with Lucca chestnuts and breadcrumbs, could it be left to slow cook over a fire in a pot of onions, cloves, carrots, celery, and pretty much as many fresh herbs and spices as were available.

If you think creating this dish would have been hard, imagine trying to source its ingredients. Of all the weirdest food delicacies in history, this one would be the most difficult to recreate. Some of the 20 or so animals that would have to meet their maker, the bustard for example, are simply are on the brink of extinction. And the fact that it’s illegal to hunt them would dissuade any professional chef from cooking up a storm.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Poisonous Purple Pears. Buzzfeed

5) Poisonous Purple Pears

The Georgian era (1714 – 1830) was an interesting time for food. In many ways it was ahead of its time. Cooks of the age, for example, recommended cooking vegetables for a short time and with little liquid, much as we do now. Open-air markets sold fruits sourced from across the empire. And “ices” (much like ice cream) arrived from France and Italy as an after-dinner delicacy. In other ways, however, the era was rather backwards. Not least because it was during the Georgian period that a poisonous recipe came to be published in a household cookbook.

The toxic speciality in question is the dish known as stewed warden pears. According to the recipe, you take six large winter pears, peel them, quarter them, drizzle them in cloves, lemon peel, sugar, and red wine, and then leave them to stew in a large dish covered by a pewter lid. Charmingly, being left to stew beneath a pewter lid will cause the pears to turn purple. Less charmingly, the reason the pears turn purple is that they become infused with the pewter’s tin, copper, and lead.

This leads us to the main downside of this dish: that it will inevitably and unavoidably kill anyone who eats it. As the lead from the pewter mixes with the acid in the pears, the seemingly harmless stewed fruit becomes fertile ground for lead poisoning. I’ve yet to come across anything linking any particular deaths with the dish. But considering its toxicity was only discovered retrospectively, we shouldn’t rule anything out.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
“The Art of Cookery Made Simple” signed by Glasse herself (1747). Wikimedia Commons

The inventor of this toxic speciality was Hannah Glasse (1708 – 1770), the author of the cookery book of the age The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple. Glasse had a hard life. Despite clearly being a born entrepreneur, luck was seldom on her side. And at the age of 49 a series of failed business ventures resulted in her first having to sell her copyright for the Art of Cookery before having to spend a brief stint in two of London’s debtors’ prisons.

Nevertheless, Glasse has gone down a treat in history; or at least more than her poisonous pears. One critic has cited her as the original domestic goddess; another as the mother of the modern dinner party. One thing’s for sure: of all the weird and wonderful recipes she invented there’s one you’d do well to steer clear of.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Beaver Tail. Getty Images

4) Beavers’ Tails

First off, this is not to be confused with the beloved Canadian snack of the same name. That beaver tail is a delicious, hand-stretched, deep-fried wheat dough. And other than the fact that it’s shaped like a beaver’s tail, there’s very that’s little weird about it. The same can’t be said for the beaver tail here in question although the two are linked: in the eighteenth century Canada’s early European settlers noticed that the aboriginals would cook beaver tails over an open fire until they cracked (the tails that is, not the onlookers), so they could access the meat inside, leading them to apply the same technique to their bread.

But not all settlers shied away from this aboriginal delicacy, as testified by literature of the time. In A Journey to the Rocky Mountains (1839), Wislnzus wrote, “In summer the beavers are lean… but in winter they get fat and have thicker hair. Their meat is very palatable. The tails, which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies”. The British explorer and travel writer George Ruxton (1821 – 1848) once wrote about eating the tail of “an old “man” beaver whose head was perfectly grey with age, and his beard of the same venerable hue.”

What’s less well-known is that this delicacy wasn’t only exclusive to North America but was eaten in considerable quantities in pre-Reformation Europe too. It goes without saying that in the fifteenth century the Church had enormous power in dictating the lives and values of Europe’s god-fearing population (which, in effect, was the entire population). On fast days, which included not just lent but also Advent, Fridays, and Wednesdays to name a few, eating animals was forbidden. But fish weren’t, and because beavers were native to water rather than land, people were able to get around this stricture by munching on their tails.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Beaver tail on a cracker. Cannundrum Blogspot

So how do you go about making this bizarre delicacy? Well you can cook it directly on burning coals, stick it on a grill above open flames, or just not even go there in the first place! If you choose to cook it on coals, you’ll know it’s done when it turns black. Peel away the blistered skin and you’ll be left with muscles, tendons, and a single bone running down the middle, hidden behind a layer of oozing fat. Hungry?

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Viper Soup. Wikimedia Commons

3) Viper Soup

Here we have another Georgian creation, this time taken from Charlotte Mason’s The Lady’s Assistant for Regulating and Supplying the Table (1787). Reading Ms Mason’s recipe, it’s hard to say whether she’s describing part of the cookery process or one of the twelve labours of Hercules. First, she writes, “take vipers, alive,” (from where she doesn’t specify) “and skin them, and cut off their heads; then cut them in pieces, about two Inches in length, and boil them, with their Hearts, in about one Gallon of Water to eight vipers, if they are pretty large.”

The jury’s out over what’s worse: the recipe’s violence or Ms Mason’s blatant disregard for correct comma and capital letter usage. What’s beyond dispute however is the mind-boggling popularity of this dish. It’s known to us from several eighteenth century sources, all of which unsurprisingly suggest adding either white wine or liquor to the broth. But before you gag, Ms Mason does suggest garnishing the soup with various herbs and spices, not to mention slices of lemon. So it’s all good.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
The more violent the death, the more potent the recipe (or so it was believed). Foods of England

So how did this exotic delicacy find its way to English shores during the eighteenth century? The answer, unsurprisingly, lies with Britain’s Empire. Viper soups seem to have come from China, where snake skin was revered for its remedial benefits. A snake’s natural flexibility was thought to offset our stiff, arthritic joints; its regular shedding of skin was thought to serve dermatological purposes; and its strong venom was believed to inject a spot of that manly vigour so important to Georgian culture.

This explains why various viper soups or broths were recommended to cure (or at least alleviate the symptoms of) a number of ailments. And the predominant belief of the age that an animal’s sudden and violent added to the potency of its healing powers goes some way in explaining the palpable violence of Ms Mason’s recipe and why the vipers had to be alive in the first place.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Frog legs. Huffington Post

2) Frog legs

“Sacre bleu!” I hear you say; frog legs isn’t a weird delicacy from history, it’s a weird delicacy from now. And from France! Well yes, and no. While frog legs are indeed enjoyed nationwide across one of the foremost culinary countries in the world, they’ve only been a popular part of their national cuisine for the last 200 years or so. As a group of archaeologists recently discovered when they found cooked frog leg bones while excavating an ancient English site in Wiltshire near Stonehenge, the Brits had been tucking into this delicacy as far back as 7596 – 6250 BC.

This predates the first written attestation of the French eating frogs (12th century) by a fair few millennia. And it also makes it slightly awkward. Since the eighteenth century, “frog” or “frog eater” have been insults the Brits have thrown at their French counterparts across the narrow channel; insults to which the French habitually responded by calling us “the roast-beef” or les rosbifs. Indeed, frogs and frog legs used to be synonymous with the hated French and were therefore hated themselves; so much so that in the 19th century when the French chef Auguste Escoffier tried to sell frog legs to a London clientele, he resorted to trying to call them “nymphs”.

There is one important thing to bear in mind regarding these prehistoric Britons’ consumption of frog legs. Until around 5,500 BC, Britain was still physically connected to mainland Europe, somewhat blurring the lines between our prehistoric ancestors’ national consumption. Frog legs are still considered a delicacy, exported widely in the East especially from countries like Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. But when it comes to creating national stereotypes, they are at their most powerful in France.

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
“Calf’s Head” by Francisco de Goya. Wikimedia Commons

1) Boiled Calf’s Head

Just as tea is Britain’s national drink, so too is roast beef the country’s national dish. From the still-savoured cuts of rump and sirloin to the slightly less desirable bullock’s heart (a common substitute for the Christmas turkey for the poor of Northern England), since the English Reformation in the 1600s we’ve been consuming beef in the brisket load. And if you need any more proof as to how strongly the stuff flows through the veins of our national identity, “les rosbifs” is a term the French have been using to insult us since the 1850s.

Of the hundreds of varieties of how we cook our beef, one particular recipe stands heads and shoulders above the rest. Or rather just heads. The recipe in question is for the Calf’s head, and it first dates from the year 1660, when the English king Charles II was restored to the throne. Before we look at how to prepare this delicacy, it’s worth emphasising that the recipe was as symbolic as it was gastronomic. For in terms of cattle rearing and animal husbandry, the English in this period were at the cutting-edge (or at least as cutting-edge as it was possible to be in the pre-industrial age).

10 Weird Food Delicacies from History that are Not Appetizing
Calf’s head and feet. Foods of England

Several versions of the recipe have been passed down. And we have the Poisonous Purple Pears’ creator Hannah Glasse to thank for one of them, who not only illuminates her reader as to how they can boil, bake, or hash the head but also suggests a recipe for how they can turn it into a rather charming pie. The process is much the same; at least for the first part. You have to wash the head well, removing as much brain and blood as humanly possible, and then boil it in water and liquor until it’s tender. Only then can you remove the skin, slice the tongue, and, in case you were wondering, gouge out the eyes.

As well as the sage, meat, and breadcrumb stuffing packed into the head, condiments to compliment the dish include a lovely white wine, nutmeg, and orange sauce (sprinkled with a dash of salt of course). But just in case this is starting to sound tempting and you’re thinking of making this for your next Sunday lunch, just be aware that it’s pretty hard to get hold of and it might not be quite to everyone’s taste.