Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Beaver Tail

Beaver tail has been one of the most fun and most perplexing of the wild meats I have tried. Before cooking it, I had the impression that it had a central bone, surrounded by some substantial meat and then a fairly thick layer of fat.
Inside of a beaver tail from the cut-end.
Those perceptions were changed, as I'll share below. 
Cooks.com has a recipe that I primarily relied on: "Place the beaver tail in hot coals (a propane flame also works nicely) until the black scaly outer skin puffs and blisters. [Another site gave a time of about 10 minutes for this to happen.] Be sure you wear heavy gloves. Do this to the entire tail. As soon as the tail is cool enough to handle, peel off the outer layer of skin. Wash the tail and place in large kettle of cold water. Add salt, peppercorns, tablespoon of pickling spice and clove of garlic if desired. Cook for about an hour and slice when tender. This is a real conversation piece when served chilled on crackers." After the fact, I find that this is very similar to (and perhaps inspired by) the recipe given by a researcher of foods eaten by Lewis & Clark. For beaver tail, the expedition cook would cook the tail with direct heat over an open fire until it started to separate from the skin. He would let the tail cool and then peel off skin. He would then roast the tail or simmer it in water until it was tender and then he would salt it to the desired taste. 

Another description I found helpful: "Place the beaver tail on the barbecue until the scaly skin blisters. Let it cool in the freezer compartment. Remove the cold blistered skin and discard. As it toasts, the hide puffs away from the meat like a slowly expanding balloon  After a few minutes you can strip it away and trim the edge, leaving you with a nice filet of greasy pink/white meat for your recipe."

I put my four flame, gas-heated, out-door barbecue on full throttle and placed the beaver tail on the grill closest to the heat.
I watched the color of the flesh on the cut-end change color and then gradually the tail began to curl, much like that of a scorpion. 
I used tongs to invert the tail and reverse the curl. It did start to puff-up and I decided to leave it on a little longer [about 20 minutes] 
to see if perhaps the heat from the grill might adequately cook the inner meat so that I could scrape off the fat and eat the meat directly off the bone, kind of like a meaty corn on the cob. The outer shell did strip away, but my conception of what was inside was shattered. 
Inside the outer layer of the beaver tail.
It looked like one big blob of fat, without any visible meat. Where was all of the "greasy pink/white meat" I had been savoring?
When I turned the tail over, large veins ran through the fat. It did not look appetizing at all. 
I took a tiny taste of the fattish substance and was not impressed. I am not squeamish about fat. In fact, I like it too much. I love buffalo bone marrow. But this isn't ordinary fat. It is not as greasy as normal fat and it does not have the same rich flavor. So, my conception of eating it like corn on the cob destroyed,  I went to the second part of the recipe, which was to get a pot of boiling water, add some spices, and boil it for about an hour. I did that, but the tail still had no real discernible change in texture or taste. 
Beaver tail after boiling.
Veining in the boiled beaver tail.
Judy described it as fatty cobwebs. My first thought was fatty tapioca pudding. Fat with kind of an airy, artificial aspect to it. 
Chilled beaver tail on a cracker.
There apparently has been some controversy over whether the mountain men of the old west really ate beaver tail and considered it a delicacy? Many modern-day wanna be mountain men believe that the stories of eating beaver tail were a joke that mountain men perpetrated on their greenhorn companions (like the snipe hunt that I was subjected to as a new Boy Scout at scout camp). This interpretation of 19th century life through the prism of 21st century conceptions (and I might add 21st century tastes) posits that beaver tail "consists only of fatty gristle," has "poor flavor" and "should be considered inedible." However, at least one man's review of the mountain man literature led him to conclude that beaver tail truly was something enjoyed by the mountain men. Some time before 1840, Rufus Sage said that the beaver tail "is highly esteemed by trappers and assimilates a fish in taste, though it is far superior to any of the finny tribe." [If it tastes like fish, it would have to be halibut or some other mild, tasteless form of fish.] During the same time frame, a person named Wislenzus said that beaver tails, "which are fat all through, are especially regarded as delicacies." George Caitlin, describing the customs of the Indians in the Yellowstone area before 1832 said "this is truly the land of Epicures; we are invited by the savages to feasts of dog's meat, as the most honorable food that can be presented to a stranger, and glutted with the more delicious food of beaver tails, and buffaloe tongues."

Now I turn to some modern descriptions of eating beaver tail: (a) "Alaska natives eat them, which to me, from experience tastes like a large chunk of good tasting lard/tire mix, due to the fact that you are eating mostly fat. [B]ut the food value for one tail is about the same as a Big Mac..."; (b) "A reason for [trappers] eating beaver tail and calling it a delicacy was due to the want of fat. With their diet of lean meat...fats are a great treat...Marrow bones are real good[,] darn near like butter[,] the same goes for the kidney fat from a buffalo."; (c) "the tail hung about twelve inches from the flame. I let it hang there for almost an hour, and reached over now and then to rotate the tail...First, the scaly skin got kind of bubbly. Next, the skin started to get crispy and thin, almost like the skin of a baked potato. Finally, the skin started to pull away to reveal the shiniest and nicest block of fat that you've ever laid eyes on. It resembled what you might find on the edge of a fat beefsteak. I sliced away a shaving, as thin as a slice of prosciutto. The fat melted in my mouth like butter, leaving a gristly bit of leftover that felt like a combination of beef jerky and Styrofoam. It was wonderful. I had another slice. And another."; and (d) "whitish flaps of pungent steamed fat and gristle"
Beaver tail fat scraped away from the bone.
All of that done and said, I'm not sure where I stand on beaver tail. It was very fun to cook and to experiment with. As far as eating it seriously and getting some real food enjoyment out of it, I think that putting it in a large batch of bbq beans or cooking it to the consistency of pork rind would be the way to go. I have to give my thanks to Anshu Pathak of Exotic Meat Market (877-398-0141) for sending me the beaver tail free as part of a shipment of meats. 

8 comments:

  1. So beaver tail is pretty much off my must-try list--do people eat the rest of the beaver?

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    1. Yes, I've had beaver leg and it isn't bad.

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  2. Kind of looks like really low quality bacon.

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  3. Well, it's definitely a good conversation piece, but in my mind that is all it is good for.

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  4. Interesting. This is the first time I have seen this done.

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  5. I was going to order the beaver tail next, but now I'm not so sure I want to. Thanks for beta-testing it for us!

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    1. Cooking beaver tail is historical reenactment and culinary adventurism. In that sense, it is really fun.

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  6. We've always been curious about beaver tail. Thanks for the helpful post. Maybe we will get to try it this season.

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