by Dolly Jørgensen.
Today’s the last day of Lent, which got me thinking about beaver. That might not sound like an obvious connection but they are in fact related. During the Middle Ages, fasting throughout Lent was common, which meant that meat from hoofed animals (cows, sheep, etc) and birds was forbidden. So fish stepped up as the standard Lenten fare. For the most part, this fish probably came in salted or pickled forms and was not particularly tasty. Even though most people these days think the restriction is about eating meat, the dietary restriction wasn’t about mammals & birds versus fish, but about land versus water. Thus, other animals that spent their time in the water qualified as aquatic and could be eaten at Lent.
This was the case for beaver. Beaver was classified as an aquatic animal in cooking manuals, such as John Russell’s Boke of Nurture from c.1460 which starts the section “Carving of fish” with the recommendation to serve beaver tail as the meat in pea soup or frumenty (a kind of cracked wheat porridge) (line 547). A 1650 version of De Alimentorum Facultatibus (On Foodstuffs) likewise starts its chapter ‘De Animalibus amphibiis’ (‘The amphibian animals’) with beaver, followed by otter and frog.
When Gerald of Wales described beavers in Wales, he remarked that beaver was eaten as fish in Germany and Scandinavia:
The beavers have broad, short tails, thick, like the palm of a hand, which they use as a rudder in swimming; and although the rest of their body is hairy, this part, like that of seals, is without hair, and smooth; upon which account, in Germany and the arctic regions, where beavers abound, great and religious persons, in times of fasting, eat the tails of this fish-like animal, as having both the taste and colour of fish. (Itinerary through Wales, Chapter 3)
The beaver tail was sometimes depicted in a very fish-like manner in medieval and early modern drawings, such as this image in a medicinal tract from the late 15th century. If you have seen a beaver tail, you can see the resemblance. I noted that when I saw a real tail at the Jamtli museum. The tail is scaly, very much like fish scales, and the meat inside is said to be more like fish than red meat.
The beaver isn’t the only mammal that can be eaten during the fasting season of Lent: cetaceans like whales and dolphins qualify, as do mammals who spend a lot of time in the water like otter. After the settlement of the New World, the capybara which is native to South America was added to the list of acceptable Lenten ‘aquatic’ foods in 1784 (see Moreira et al., p. 307 for the interesting capybara case).
Even though the beaver tail was most like a fish, it is possible that all the beaver meat was eaten under the ‘aquatic’ exemption just like capybara which doesn’t have the fish-like tail. In a 1756 Swedish treatise by Nils Gissler, he noted that
Beaver meat is eaten by everyone who catches this animal, and it is said it tastes like pork (p.221).
When I was in Riga this week, I finally had the change to taste beaver meat and I can tell you that it doesn’t taste like pork. I had hoped to eat some last summer when I went on a beaver safari, but since I was out on the very first trip of the season, the smokehouse hadn’t yet delivered the beaver meat. We ate dinner at Restorāns 1221, which is doing some fusion cuisine with local ingredients prepared in new ways. As I mentioned in my previous post, Latvia has lots of beavers after its reintroduction efforts. I had the smoked beaver starter with pine nuts and pineapple vinaigrette. The beaver was tasty but it has a strong flavour. I picked up the notes of castoreum, although not as strongly as when I drank castoreum liquor! So without knowing it, I was doing a good job at eating right in Lent. Perhaps the medieval recipes for pea soup or porridge with beaver tail could make a comeback next.
Dolly Jørgensen (Umeå University, Sweden) is President of the European Society for Environmental History, 2013-2015. She writes about her research on animal reintroduction in Norway and Sweden at The Return of Native Nordic Fauna. This post appeared there on 19 April, 2014.
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