On Wednesday we talked about moon jellies and the fact that they are a favorite food of sea turtles. Sea turtles, in turn, were a delicacy to pirates and privateers. But how, exactly, did our seafaring ancestors enjoy the meat of these massive and now thankfully protected critters?
The answer is really as many ways as you can imagine. As noted in Wednesday’s post, sea turtles often ended up on the boucans of early Tortuga buccaneers. Though the black pig that ran wild on Hispaniola was the usual BBQ, turtle meat was prized as not only healthier than pork but protective as well. The boucaniers believed that ingesting turtle would keep them from getting the pox. When men like Michele de Grammont and Laurens de Graff were out buccaneering, roasting a turtle whole in its shell was an easy and tasty way to enjoy fresh fare. Turtle meat was also enjoyed fried as a kind of fritter mixed with turtle eggs.
Later, in Henry Morgan’s era, sea turtles were cooked according to where on the animal the meat was originally found. Meat from the lower shell was cooked much like a roast with herbs and sauces. The meat from the upper shell, which was thought to be tougher, was slow cooked in a broth to which the turtle’s eggs were sometimes added.
This broth of turtle, which was also cooked in St. Domingue before and after it became Haiti, came to Louisiana shores and morphed into the Creole delicacy known today as turtle soup. Though sea turtle meat is no longer available, some land turtles are still raised for eating and this is what goes into turtle soup today. Like squid and octopus, turtle meat remains enervated even after being chopped up so it can be a little intimidating to deal with. According to Leon E. Soniat, Jr., the Creole tradition is that the meat will stop moving once the sun goes down. You better start working on his recipe for turtle soup before then, though, or it surely will not be ready by supper time. Here it is in all its glory from his definitive book on Creole cooking, La Bouche Creole:
¾ cups butter
8 tbsps flour
½ lb lean ham chopped into small pieces
1 cup chopped onion
3 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
¼ cup chopped celery tops
1 bell pepper, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 lbs turtle meat, cut into small pieces
2 tsps salt
2/3 tsp black pepper
2 pinches cayenne pepper
4 bay leaves
½ tsp powdered thyme
¼ tsp cloves
¼ tsp allspice
¼ tsp grated nutmeg
4 cups beef stock
1 ½ cups water
1 tsp Worcestershire
2 thin slices lemon
4 tbsps good sherry
1/8 cup finely chopped parsley
2 hard cooked eggs, sliced
Melt butter in a heavy soup pot/Dutch oven. Gradually add the flour, stirring constantly to make a roux. When the roux is medium-brown, add the ham, onion, tomatoes, celery tops, bell pepper and garlic. Mix thoroughly and cook over low heat until the vegetables are browned, about half an hour. Next add the turtle meat, salt, pepper, cayenne, bay leaves, thyme, cloves, allspice, and nutmeg and stir to combine. Add the beef stock and water, stirring again to combine. Bring mixture to a boil and then lower heat, cover, and simmer for about two and a half hours.
Come back to your soup and stir in the Worcestershire, lemon and sherry. Let cook uncovered for ten minutes and then add the parsley. If your soup is too thick, you can add water at this point. Let the soup simmer a few minutes more and then remove it from the heat, cover and let it rest for fifteen minutes. Now stir it up from the bottom, plate it in soup bowls, garnish with the hard cooked eggs and serve with French bread. This recipe serves four to eight, depending on serving size. Bon appetite!
Header: 18th century engraving of a freebooter catching a sea turtle