Now this won’t be one for anyone with a delicate disposition, you guys should look away now because we’re going to deal with slaughter and ‘bits’. This one’s for the hardcore thrift-sters, the ones who really don’t want to see ANY part of a carcasse go to waste, no matter how grim the going gets.
I have often raised dairy bull calves for beef – it was my full time business up until 2013 – because otherwise they, particularly Jersey calves, can struggle to find a market in the beef world and end up being shot as soon as they enter the world. I gave it up as a business because I lost my shed space – they need a shed when very young, so that was that. BUT, I have reared the odd one or two since. I far prefer the more robust flavour of beef to veal so generally wait until they are full grown to kill, but my circumstances changed very quickly when the group I was rearing was a few months old and I had to kill early as nobody else is interested in rearing Jersey bulls because each one represents a loss of a good few hundred quid (please buy jersey beef whenever you can so they have somewhere to go) Not something I enjoy doing, I arranged to have them killed on the farm and eat them myself, rather than add stress by having them to go to the abattoir so the meat would be saleable to others. I was determined to make use of every single part of the carcasses, as I usually try to do but especially so this time. The meat was straightforward, the offal was made into haggis, the skins kept for tanning, which pretty much only left the feet…
Calf’s Foot Jelly (CFJ) is one of those things you might hear of a lot if you spend any time reading stuff about history – it was often fed to ‘invalids’. But I’ve never seen it for sale in my lifetime and thus, never tasted it. Quite often the funky bits of animals will be made into brawn (pig’s heads) or similar jellified meat products, but they are all savoury and CFJ is sweet – it’s flavoured with lemons, sugar and wine. When I searched for recipes, there were plenty to chose from. I had 8 feet, enough for two batches according to most recipes, so I was able to pick one made with white wine and one with red. The white wine recipe was the elder of the two, from “English Housewifry”, 1764. The red wine was from “Directions for Cookery, in its Various Branches”, 1840 (gotta love those meandering Victorian titles!) so I also spanned the centuries.
The first part of both recipes was the same – basically, boil the feet to b*ggery. The aim is to get all the gelatin from the sinews and bones I guess, so I dug out my Big Pan and put the feet in with some water. The first recipe called for 4 quarts per set of feet and the second 6, so I compromised and went for 5. Then the idea was to end up with half the volume of water. There was so much though that I couldn’t get all the water in, so I ended up sitting up until 1am to add more water and wait for it all to boil down. The results were strained into a big ceramic bowl:
After sitting overnight it had solidified really well, with a clearly discernible layer of grease on the top, which I skimmed off with a spoon and then used paper to blot off as the recipes commanded. Then I was to cut the scummy layer from the bottom. It wasn’t quite solid enough to flip up and cut yet, so I just carefully poured off the blobs into a jam pan (original recipes wanted it to be a ‘porcelain kettle’ but my stainless jampan was a good proxy) and stopped pouring before the cruddy portion went in:
Once I had carefully melted the gelatinous mass, I split the liquid into two and added the differing amounts of egg whites, lemons and sugar and the two types of wine. The smell was really peculiar, hard to describe but certainly felt somehow historical! I had been unable to source Madeira for the later recipe so had to use Port instead. I’m afraid they were both very cheap-o wines as I’m not a wine fan, never buy it and am working to budget here people! The later, Victorian recipe was kind of obsessed with getting the jelly to be clear, the 1700s one not so much. I thought it would be something of a miracle if I managed to get mine clear, and I was right! After reducing both down to desired amount of liquid, I strained both mixtures into their dishes to set:
The following morning, the white wine version hadn’t really set into a firm jelly, so I put it back on to boil and reduce and then re-strained it into the dish again. After two strainings it still wasn’t clear! This is despite using many more egg whites than the later recipe which was supposed to help make the jelly clear. In the red wine one, I had been stupid enough to add the egg whites while the liquid was hot, which cooked the egg. This didn’t seem to affect the setting as it set well and when strained out, there was no trace of scrambled egg:
I had the idea that I’d use icing sugar to dry everything up, like turkish delight, but that didn’t work so well, it just seemed to draw liquid from the jelly and covered everything with a sweet slime. Without icing sugar, everything stayed perfectly dry and the jellies were far more robust than the stuff you make with a packet these days; I was able to happily slice it into squares that weren’t going anywhere:
And the taste? I would describe it as ‘medicinal’. I certainly preferred the 1764 white wine version, it was a stronger flavour. It tastes antiseptic, and with all the nutrition from the concentrated gelatin I could see a half-starved, 18th century, bedridden peasant welcoming a cold slice of antiseptic jelly sliding down a raw throat. In fact, a few days after making the jellies, when I still had a box in the fridge (I’ve put the rest in the freezer in case of a plague outbreak), I had a cold so I had a square and it did feel soothing. Would I eat it for fun at other times? I doubt it. It’s quite rich and sweet.
However! I think with some tweaks this could be awesome. I’m keen to use this in the place of packet jelly, ditching the wine and using fruit flavours only, going steady on the lemon. I’m thinking raspberry would be nice, or maybe rose for a turkish delight style jelly. So cows can be so much more than meat and leather – we can have local, grassfed dessert, too! I think adding some strong gravy flavour instead of going down the sweet route would also be a good idea for a low-carb, paleo or keto snack, so this has a lot of potential as far as I’m concerned.