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A taxonomy tribute in tapas

Who is the ultimate human being, the single shining example against which all other humans are judged? It’s a massive question that is the cause for much possible debate with little resolution. The likes of Jesus, Muhammed or the Buddha are obvious answers for the adherents to their religions, but what about amongst the secular? A brilliant scientist like Newton or Einstein? An artist like Da Vinci or Shakespeare? A thinker like Plato or Confucius? How about the man about whom French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (who himself appears in both the above lists) said “I know no greater man on earth“? The Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus described this man by saying: “No one has more completely changed a whole science and initiated a new epoch. No one has become more of a household name throughout the world.”

So, who is this man of unmatched greatness? It’s the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus, apparently modesty was not one of his many virtues! However, while Linnaeus may be wrong about his ongoing status as a global household name, he didn’t underestimate his contribution to science. Whether Linnaeus is the “greatest human” may be debatable, but that’s not the question I asked. I was wondering about the ultimate example of a human against which others are judged. In that case the answer must surely be Linnaeus, because Linnaeus is the lectotype of the species Homo sapiens. Essentially a lectotype is the specimen that defines the traits of a species, so a human is defined as “something that is like Linnaeus”. Whichever way you look at it, that’s an incredible honour.

Systema Naturae title pageGiven he’s not so well known as he himself suggested, why does Linnaeus deserve to be the defining specimen of humanity? Well, he was a pioneer in biological taxonomy, seeking a comprehensive system that would categorise all life in terms of how it relates to other organisms, essentially creating something like a dictionary of life with his Systema Naturæ, first published as an 11 page work in 1735, reaching over 2000 pages by the 12th and edition in 1768. Basically, if you remember back to your school biology class attempting to fit the natural world into classes, orders, genera or species, that all comes from Linnaeus.

If you think that that doesn’t sound all that special or exciting, remember that before Systema Naturæ there was no way of understanding the world of natural organisms as they related to one another. Thanks to isolating their key characteristics, Linnaeus was able to realise that animals like bats and whales, previously viewed as birds and fish respectively, actually were a much better fit for his category of “mammalia”. Eventually, the result of all this was to lay the building blocks on which the theory of evolution could be raised over a hundred years later when Charles Darwin first presented his ideas of natural selection to the Linnean Society of London.

ChimpAs for his role as the archetypal human, this springs from Linnaeus’ incorporation of the species Homo sapiens into his taxonomic system. He was really the first natural scientist to view mankind as part of the animal kingdom and to attempt to study them accordingly. In the book he described humans just as he did any other animal and observed their anatomical similarities with apes and monkeys, placing them together in the category of primates (along also with bats, curiously enough, still not finding quite the appropriate place after being moved from birds). It may all seem obvious to us now, but this was truly groundbreaking stuff in the 1700s and theologically very controversial. If you imagine how in the 21st century there remains fierce opposition to the seemingly obvious relation of man and ape, think of how the opposition would have been to Linnaeus.

Linnaeus understood that man existed as part of the animal kingdom and that we have our role to play in what Elton John would refer to as “The Circle of Life”. Humanity exists in a priveleged place on the food chain and have never been shy about exploiting the possibilities in consuming animals that exist in as wide a variety of classes and orders as possible. Last week was Linnaeus’ birthday and, to celebrate, I decided to cook six dishes, each one based on a different one of Linnaeus’ animal classes  – mammalia, aves, amphibia, pisces, insecta and vermes – a sort of Systema Naturæ smörgåsbord, if you will.

While Linnaeus’ overly complex system of classes in the Plant Kingdom have not persisted, the six animal classes listed here are broadly familiar. Three of the six, mammalia, aves and pisces, fairly obviously correspond with the major meat and fish we eat today. The other three are less clearly food based but contain enough tasty creatures for my idea to work.

Amongst the “mammalia” class, Linnaeus identified six orders, including the primate section in which we find ourselves. Of those orders, “pecora”, the cloven hoofed cud chewing animals like sheep, goats, deer and cattle, are the most obviously edible, so I started with lamb, known to Linnaeus as “ovis aries”. Similarly the “aves” class, the birds, is divided into six orders, many of which, like the “accipitres”, birds of prey, and the “picae”, anything from parrots to hummingbirds, aren’t very food-like. I chose, then, to focus on the “gallinae”, birds like turkey, grouse and chicken, and selected a quail or “tetrao cotumix”, largely because it’s small enough to serve the two of us and have room left for five other dishes. There is more variety in the “pisces” or fish class, but I chose to go with the creature that wins on both ugliness and tastiness, Lophius piscatorius – the monkfish, something that tasty in itself wouldn’t require another level of cookery on top of the five other things already being prepared.

The other three classes are less obvious in their culinary opportunities, but contain a huge variety of potential foodstuffs. “Insecta”, for example, appears to present something of a challenge being a class devoted to flies, bugs and beetles (not that there isn’t some move toward making the likes of locusts fashionable to eat). But, insecta is a broader class than that. Linnaeus divided the insect-ish into seven orders based on the number of wings that they had. In the no-wing or “aptera” order, then, we find, alongside termites and lice, lobsters, shrimp and crabs, things that sound much more appetising. The only one of the crabs Linnaeus identifies as belonging to the crab genus “cancer” that is still listed there is the edible brown crab, “cancer pagurus”, so I decided to eat that as my example of insecta.

“Vermes” is Linnaeus’ dumping ground for animals that don’t fit elsewhere, what Linnaeus calls “imperfect animals” – squishy, boneless, featureless beasts like worms, leeches and jellyfish, none of which seem incredibly appetising. Fortunately, this category of slimy invertebrates, like “insecta”, takes us under the sea, and there we can find the delicious likes of squid, octopus, mussels and scallops, easily enough dinner options to make any seafood lover happy.  CrocodileIn the end, I went with the scallops, largely as they’re Professor Plum’s favourite.

Thus far, then, I had been able to find a tasty animal readily available at the supermarket in each of Linnaeus’ animal classes – lamb, quail, salmon, crab and scallop – but the final one, “amphibia” presented more of a challenge. Beyond simply amphibians, this category included everything from tortoises and frogs to snakes and sharks, all of which are eaten in parts of the world but are unlikely to be found in the meat and fish aisle of the local Morrisons. Remembering a couple of weeks ago when I was cooking horse, I returned to the Kezie Exotic Foods website to see what they stocked in the area of reptiles and amphibians and found an impressive range of crocodile products.

Linnaeus MeatsSo, crocodile on order and all other meats easily available, how was I going to cook it all? Although I earlier referred to the idea as a “smörgåsbord” in reference to Linnaeus’ Swedish heritage, very few of my ingredients, and certainly not the difficult one – the crocodile, are often cooked in the Swedish style. Spanish style tapas is a much more fashionable style of serving food in small sharing portions and the popular flavours of Mediterranean cooking seemed a better fit for the citrus fruit accompaniments Kezie assured me worked with crocodile.

Tapas also had the appeal of allowing me to cook my six meats in a wide variety of different styles from different regions of Spain and the Mediterranean. Partly this is good for allowing some variety of flavours. Mostly, though, having some stuff slowly stewing and others quickly frying at the end meant not having to do everything all together at once. So, for example, I used my lamb in a tagine, utilising Spain’s Moorish heritage to make something where I could cook the meat slowly and focus on my other dishes, while I made some Basque style crab tarts to reflect a completely different style and region of cooking.Tagine and Tart The monkfish I decided could be made into simple fritters by coating them in flour and egg, while for the quail I followed the same thinking as with the lamb with a slow cooked Castillan dish called “cordonices en escabeche” inspired by Rick Stein’s excellent book on Spain. The same book gave me a suggestion to roast a pepper and combine it with tomatoes and breadcrumbs for my scallops.

So, that’s everything taken care of but the crocodile. Unsurprisingly Rick Stein’s Spain has little to offer on this subject, but Kezie’s suggestion that it pairs with citrus fruit served as my inspiration. I decided, then, to marinade Marinating crocodilethe diced crocodile steaks that I had had delivered in lime, to fulfill the citrus suggestion, along with complimentary flavours like red chilli, garlic and ginger. After marinating, I grilled my crocodile chunks on skewers with chunks of mango, again adding a different cooking style to my Linnaeus tapas.

And how did it turn out? Well, to my mind, the tricky crocodile was the star. Crocodile proved an enjoyable meat, with a good texture, but the lime marinade and mango chunks really worked with it too, giving it both a sweet and bitter edge and keeping it juicy. The other dishes were all pretty good individually, although, as ever with a spread like this, some worked better with the whole than others. The vinegary sauce the quail had been prepared with didn’t really compliment the rest and, despite using plenty of pimenton – the Spanish smoked paprika, the lamb tagine was a bit unremarkable compared to the stronger flavours of the seafood.

To observe scientifically, then, as Linnaeus would, does eating each of the Systema Naturæ’s classes give an insight into their differences? Would eating each animal help fit them in their taxonomic place? Frankly, no. Or, at least, it would result in a very different taxonomy. The crocodile tasted and felt more like chicken meat than the quail, despite the latter’s far closer position to chicken in the Systema Naturæ. A taxonomy based on taste would, therefore, have resulted in a very different view of the world (besides placing a bit of a challenge on understanding and studying humans as Linnaeus did). Had Linnaeus viewed the animal kingdom as I do, as some sort of endless larder, then maybe we’d never have understood evolution as we do today! Still, perhaps he’d have been pleased with this tapas tribute none the less. It proves, at least, that he might not be the household name he imagined he was in every house, but he certainly is in this one.

PlumProfessor Plum in the Dining Room: I had expected the crocodile to taste fishy (insofar as someone who doesn’t eat fish might recognise it) but Colonel Mustard correctly identified it as “tastes like chicken”. I enjoyed the protein heavy meal, though as tapas goes it probably wouldn’t pass muster in Spain!

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15 thoughts on “Crocodile for Dinner? Better Make it Snappy

  1. First of all, terrible title, but everyone loves an awful pun. Second, until you got to the point of eating an animal from each of Linnaeus’s six classes, I for some reason felt certain (hoped?) you were about to announce you were going down the Reverand William Buckland route and begin to eat a sample of every known animal in the world. Of course, if you decide to do so you’re now six down, millions more to go, so good start. Buckland decided that the worst creatures to eat were bluebottle flies and common garden moles so save yourself the trouble: they’re disgusting.

    • Estimates of the number of animal species in existence range up to about 30 million, so I reckon that would be a somewhat bolder undertaking today than it was in Buckland’s time. Even eating six species a meal for three meals a day it would take around 4500 years. Still, it’s 6 down 29,999,994 to go!

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