This article may merit an apology or a warning before you read any further. Unlike some of the other descriptions of fine black pudding dishes that we lay before you, this one may not leave you hungry and heading to the fridge or your favourite butcher. Instead, it may put you off the idea of a jumbo sized meal for life.
This is the short tale of an Indian (or African) meal like no other. It is the story of how one of the finest restaurants in Paris served up elephant black pudding.
“Ce soir, je retrouve Chez Voisin le fameux boudin d’éléphant et j’en dîne.”
Edmond de Gongourt recorded this in his diary on New Year’s Eve 1870. “Tonight, at the famous Chez Voisin, I found elephant black pudding and I dined.”
The thought of it may not tickle everyone’s taste buds but de Gongourt and his fellow Parisiennes were rather hungry at this point. December 31, 1870 was day 105 of the Prussian siege of Paris and the city was starving. Or to be more precise, the poor of Paris were starving – the rich were eating exotic meats that Heston Blumenthal could only dream of.
They quickly worked their way through an estimated 70,000 horses before moving on to cats, dogs and then rats. The Jockey Club de Paris offered a fine selection of gourmet dishes including Salmis de rats à la Robert. However the rats, perhaps not surprisingly, did not meet the approval of every palate. So it was that the butchers and chefs of Paris turned their attention to the Jardin des Plantes, the city’s zoo.
First to be killed were the large herbivores such as antelope, camel, yaks and zebra but others soon followed. City menus began to offer such exotic dishes as Haunch of Wolf with a Deer sauce; Terrine of Antelope with Truffles; Kangaroo Stew; Camel Roasted a ‘l’Anglaise. Those to survive included monkeys because they were thought to be too close to humans; lions and tigers because they were too dangerous; and the hippopotamus because the 80,000 francs per hippo was just too rich for the butcher’s taste.
Next for the chop however were the zoo’s two elephants Castor and Pollux. They had previously given rides to children in the park but when the city’s belly began to rumble, they suddenly represented a really big meal. They were duly shot and Monsieur Deboos of the Boucherie Anglaise on Boulevard Hausmann bought the pair of them for 27,000 francs. A bargain compared to a hippopotamus.
An Englishman unfortunate enough to be in Paris at the time, Thomas Gibson Bowles, wasn’t too impressed with the taste. He wrote that he had eaten camel, antelope, dog, donkey, mule and elephant and of those, he liked elephant the least. Henry Labouchère recorded, “Yesterday, I had a slice of Pollux for dinner. Pollux and his brother Castor are two elephants, which have been killed. It was tough, coarse, and oily, and I do not recommend English families to eat elephant as long as they can get beef or mutton.”
However, as it is said that you can eat everything of the pig except the squeal, then it was also true that every part of the elephant was used except the trumpet call. Even though the meat of Castor and Pollux wasn’t to everyone’s taste, the rest of it went down rather better. Their trunks, sold as a delicacy for 40 or 45 francs a pound, were said to be very tasty and one Christmas Day menu in 1870 included consome d’elephant as a cheeky little potage before the diners got tucked into a festive camel or kangaroo.
It was Chez Voisin that went the whole hog however, serving up elephant black pudding for the more discerning Parisiennes. The boudin d’elephant was prepared by the butcher Roos on Boulevard Hausmann and proved a bloody huge success. It was the elephant in the room that everyone was talking about.
How good was Chez Voisin? Put it this way, its maitre d’hotel was one Cesar Ritz who went on to open a few successful hotels of his own and whose regular chef was a chap named Auguste Escoffier. If elephant black pudding was good enough for those two then who are we to disagree…