The second time I met the woman who is now my mother-in-law, we spent part of the weekend preparing a buffet dinner for a party. There were vegetables to chop for crudités, crisps to pour into bowls, cream to whip, pots to stir, and glazes to paint on. Late in the afternoon, the meat dishes were baked: sausages in pastry and the turkey goujons.

I don’t know that I had encountered the word “goujons” before, because that’s how I imprinted it: a type of preparation of turkey. The inclusion of the word “turkey” in their name implied there could be other kinds of goujons, such as chicken, or possibly beef. They were four or five inches long, erratically thin – an inch or so, breaded and baked.

Clearly, the word was a French import, if pronounced Englishly. I thought no more about it until yesterday.

Last year at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Raymond Blanc was one of the chefs who organized a sumptuous feast for the conference attendees. He’s a friendly fellow, congenially, chatty, welcoming. We talked briefly over his book-signing session and briefly again when he came round in person to pour a gravy the kitchen staff had overlooked. I went home with his autobiography, A Taste of My Life, autographed.

Yesterday, I finally started reading it. His childhood was structured by the cultivation and preparation of food, from the acre of family land devoted to vegetables and fruit, to the hours spent helping his mother in the kitchen. He joined his older brothers in learning to hunt, and to fish.

And what did Raymond Blanc fish for as a young boy? Pike, trout, crayfish – and goujons. In my mind I see little turkey fish, swimming about in rural French streams.

Goujons, then, are “tiny fish that love sandy banks and shallow water with a gentle current”. Blanc recounts how his mother served them as fritters, “by quickly gutting the fish, flouring them and deep-frying them until brown and crispy”. They were served with lemon and mayonnaise. (p. 63) In other words, exactly like the turkey goujons in preparation, if not in substance.

Blanc clarifies that these fish are anglicized as “gudgeons”. They are a relative of the carp, and are indeed quite small. This webpage (“Get Hooked on Fishing”) tells me that the current record for largest gudgeon, also known as a goby, caught in the UK is a mere five ounces.

The word gudgeon was an English import by the fifteenth century. It did indeed come from Middle French, which owes its earlier roots to the Latin name for the fish, “gobio”, whose accusative form, “gobionem” is considered the shape which impressed itself into the French word. The species name, accordingly, is Gobio gobio.

But gudgeon wasn’t the version of the word I learned first. Goujon is also imported from French, rather more directly so, but used from its earliest instance in English to refer to the battered, deep-fried version. The OED has an instance of it in 1940, when Andre L. Simon’s Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy defined it as “fillets of sole cut up in strips, floured and fried”. The dictionary specifies that the word as a dish entered English through Louisiana French.

And so it continued, with sole, not little gudgeons, being the English fish of choice for use in goujoning, so to speak.

Turkey may be a relatively recent variant. Google Timeline Search has no mentions of “turkey goujons” before 2002. “Chicken goujons” gets us back to 1984, while beef, pork, duck, and goose variants return no hits. Hardly conclusive, but probably generally indicative at least.

Thus it is that the French word “goujon” has twice entered the English language, at least in the UK, firstly as a little fish, the gudgeon, and secondly as a breaded and deep-fried (or baked) little fish-shaped bit of meat.

I’m still thinking about those little turkey fish.


You will rarely need to know what the Bisaro pig is. It’s a pig, which is more than our party knew at the Portuguese restaurant on Friday night, when we collectively failed to ask the waiter for a translation. None of us had it, nor its accompanying sweet potato mash and pickled baby onion sauce.

The Bisaro is not just a pig. It’s a central and northern Portuguese pig, part-boar, of Celtic origins. The breed was classified by J.F. Macedo Pinto in the nineteenth century as “Bizaro Type 1, or Celtic”. Supposedly, it originated in Gaul. Its labeling could hardly be more mythic, more Asterixian.

Bisaro pigs grow to a meter tall at the shoulder, and a meter-and-a-half in length from shoulder to tail. They look like this, approximately. Their iterations, for comparison, were studied for genetic origins in the c. 1999 article, “Genetic characterization and inventory of the Bísaro pig through visible effect genes. Their utilization in the genotypic comparison between populations and in the establishing of a nucleus for in vivo genetic conservation” (PDF). In the article, the pig is regularly referred to as the “ancient Bisaro”.

Since breeds were first systematically categorized in the nineteenth century, it’s rather hard to say just how much the modern version of the breed resembles the pig-boars known to what would have been Asterix’s companions. (Had he, y’know, been real.) As a living, breeding creature, however, odds are it has developed and changed over the intervening centuries quite a bit, if not as much as languages do.


A dapifer is “one who brings meat to the table”. Its literal meaning is far more interesting for its potential modern uses than for its historical function. daps is Latin for food or feast, originally, as a Greek-derived word, a ceremonial or sacrificial feast, but later, post-Augustus, any kind of feast or banquet. A -fer is a bearer or holder of something.

In Latin, dapifer is a word which evolved to mean “butler” or, more commonly, “steward” or “seneschal”. The job title was fairly widely used in the Middle Ages, with several dapifers listed in the Domesday book. Eudo Dapifer is the most frequently cited of these as he was steward to William the Conqueror. The 1355 Golden Bull, or charter, of the Holy Roman Empire, which specified imperial election procedures, dictated that the count palatine act as dapifer for the coronation.

It was used in English as a Latin import by the mid-seventeenth century, initially by Richard Braithwait, prolific and highly-educated author and poet, as a synonym for a specific rank of courtly household officer, i.e. steward, in his book, The Lives of all the Roman Emperors (1636). Thomas Reeve, charmingly, used it metaphorically in 1657 in his God’s plea for Nineveh, or, London’s precedent for mercy, when he wrote, “Thou art the dapifer of thy palate.” (Quoted from the OED since there are no freely-available copies I can find off-hand online.)

Modern uses of the word for anything other than a description of a historical office are scarce. Diana Norman wrote a pair of historical novels, A Catch of Consequences and Taking Liberties, involving a main character, an English noble, named Philip Dapifer. There are also various streets named after one past dapifer or other. (Eudo again, in the case of Colchester.)

I’d like to think there’s room to revive dapifer’s basic meaning. Vegetarians and vegans would avoid them at meal times. They might work at barbecue restaurants or rotisseries. At home, they may or may not bring home the bacon, but they would certainly make sure that the bacon did not languish in the kitchen when there was a table to bring it to.

porpoise porridge

Porpoise porridge has been minorly in the news recently, an event not likely to happen again anytime soon. It’s in the news because it’s a recipe which appears in The Forme of Cury(e), one of the earliest cookbooks written in English, specifically Middle English. It was written by a chef working in the court of Richard II. It’s a well-known cookbook as a result.

It was from this book that most of the recipes came when one of my departments held a medieval feast. It was from this book that all the recipes came when I took a medieval cooking workshop several summers ago. Editions of it have been available online and offline for years. What’s new is that this summer, back in June, the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester put a digitized version of the original manuscript online.

The porpoise has been monopolizing headlines. The BBC announced the release of the digitized manuscript with “14th Century cookbook goes online. Recipes for porpoise, pike and blancmange from a 14th Century cookbook have been made available online by the John Rylands University of Manchester library.”

This week, the two other major UK newspapers caught up with this year’s events, inspired by the press release for a tasting session based on the cookbook, held at the library’s café. On the 2nd, The Telegraph’s article was entitled “How to cook porpoise, and other 600-year-old recipies” [sic]. The Daily Mail, on the 4th, used the headline “Porpoise porridge, Sire? World’s oldest recipe book reveals dishes English kings enjoyed 600 years ago”. (Larsdatter’s Medieval Material Culture Blog comments on the factual error in the latter headline.)

All the these articles leave out their centerpiece, however. How does one make “furmente with porpeys”? The book offers two recipes. (There’s also a recipe for “porpeys in broth” but “porpoise soup” doesn’t have the same alliterative appeal.) I’ll give you the more detailed of the two.

A furment (“frumenty” in modern English) is a kind of porridge, made from wheat. It comes from the Latin, frumentum (wheat), unlike porridge which comes from the Latin word for “leek”, porrum.

Take clene whete and bete it small in a morter and fanne out clene the doust, þenne waisthe it clene and boile it tyl it be tendre and broun. þanne take the secunde mylk of Almaundes & do þerto. boile hem togidur til it be stondyng, and take þe first mylke & alye it up wiþ a penne. take up the porpays out of the Furmente & leshe hem in a dishe with hoot water. & do safroun to þe furmente. and if the porpays be salt. seeþ it by hym self, and serue it forth.

In modern English, slightly adapted: “Take clean wheat and crush it into powder in a mortar. Aerate it to clean out the dust, then wash it clean and boil it until it’s tender and brown. Then take the second milk of Almonds and do the same thing. [i.e. Powder, aerate, boil?] Boil them together until they are thick. Then take the first milk and mix it up with a feather. Take the porpoise out of the frumenty and leave it in a dish with hot water. Add saffron to the frumenty. And if the porpoise be salted, set it by itself and serve it forth.” The recipe, like every other in The Forme of Cury, is non-specific about quantities and cooking times.

In practice, the porpoise – from Latin “pig-fish” (porcus + piscis), via Old French – is a group of protected species, and thus illegal to hunt and eat in many places, including the US and the UK, so the recipe is not actually likely to be of much use to you.


“Great Dunmow: historic flitch town” reads the road sign on the A120 as it passes the town in question. After years of very occasionally driving by, I finally remembered to look up the word on returning home, expecting that it would be of some architectural or mining term. But no. In the Great Dunmow sense, a flitch is a side of bacon, a preserved half of a pig.

The Great Dunmow Flitch Trials test the happiness of married couples, who must convince a jury that they have never once wished themselves not married. The competition has been around at least since the fourteenth century, when Chaucer referred to it in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue. (lines 217-8: “The bacon was nat fet for hem, I trowe, / That som men han in essex at dunmowe.” ) Once yearly, they now take place every four years. The next one will be in July of 2012. The prize, awardable to multiple couples in a given trial, is a flitch.

A form of it, flicci, was used in Old English (c. 700) and “flitch” was regularly found in Middle English inventories, wills, and other lists of possessions. (From a York will in 1462: “iiij. bakon-fliks, ij. beffe-fliks”) In his Ovid-inspired parodic poem, Baucis and Philemon (1710), Jonathan Swift used it:

And then the hospitable Sire
Bid goody Baucis mend the fire;
While he from out the chimney took
A flitch of bacon off the hook,
And freely from the fattest side
Cut out large slices to be fried;

Its use continued at least through the nineteenth century when a George Elliot character from Adam Bede (1859), weighted with local accent, observes,

“But what’s th’ matter wi’ th’ lad? Thee’t hardly atin’ a bit o’ supper. Dostna mean to ha’ no more nor that bit o’ oat-cake? An’ thee lookst as white as a flick o’ new bacon. What’s th’ matter wi’ thee?”

A Derbyshire stalactite is named, analogously, the Flitch of Bacon.

“Flitch” was not used exclusively to refer to pork. Originally, it could refer to any side of meat (see the “beffe” mentioned above). In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it was also used to refer to cuts of whale and halibut. Knight’s Mechanical Dictionary (1884, IV.348) defines “flitching knives” as “for slicing halibut into steaks or flitches.”

So. Great Dunmow: historic flitch town. No whale, no halibut, no beef, no stalactites. The winners of the trials, instead, bring home the bacon.

*© S. Worthen 2009