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Frogs' legs with chipsStoneybatter is once again the starting point for my third Moss Reid novel (provisional publication date: November 2014; working title: Never You Bloody Well Mind Now You Nosy Parker And Isn’t It Fierce Bad Luck To Tell All and Sundry Far Too Early?).

Did I just say Stoneybatter? (Psst: and isn’t that the simple answer to the books giveaway competition I’m currently running?)

This time, though, besides the Stoneybatter and Smithfield bits I felt it was high time Moss Reid was let loose on the Continent with two or three other regular characters, for a nice juicy case in a tasty gastronomic place in the sun.

My research in the sun

Hence – someone has to do it – six weeks ago yours truly found himself researching away in various sunny locations in northern Italy and the south of France while Ireland was covered in rain. None of that “Oh I just make everything up in my head” nonsense that authors spout in interviews with the broadsheets – my books get good proper first-hand on-the-ground research.

So anyway – no plot spoilers – let’s just say that that particularly busy Friday lunchtime I found myself in a lovely little village, in a perfectly noisy cafe bar, down the road from a large town called Aigues-Mortes. Good name, that, if you write crime fiction.

Anyway, when the lunchtime plat du jour just happens to be cuisses de grenouille – frogs’ legs with frites for nine euro, or €10.50 if you throw in un quart de blanc ou rouge (250 ml or a third of a bottle of the house red or white) – and you’re famished and you haven’t quite done your quota of food research for the week, well, what would YOU do?

A simple ways to cook frogs’ legs would be to dip them in flour, add garlic and shallow fry them in oil for five minutes on either side. A far fancier way would be to make a tempura type batter, or do a deep-fried thing. Or even do some kind of grenouille parmigiana (apologies for the mashed up language there) with a cheesy frog instead of chicken. Or in minuscule portions with a fecky foam and a jus or reduction of something or other.

But for, well, basic narrative purposes – and the chance to rabbit on about gastro-nationalism (more of which anon) – I needed a recipe somewhere in between: the way they’re typically done today in a good honest down-to-earth bistro in the south of France.

These ones arrived in a light buttery/parsley coating. To. Die. For.

Oh yeah. And came with a couple of sachets of face-wipes, because the little pieces of meat are that kind of finger-food. Perfect to dive into, to gnaw, suck and pick at. Hands-on bistro fare, not fine dining with fancy silverware.
More frogs' legs

Some people will find this all too finicky, far too much trouble for so little reward. Others will swear that frogs’ legs taste “nothing special, like chicken with a hint of fish”. I think they’re missing the point.

Inside, under a slightly crusty slightly brown surface the meat is lean, ultra-white and perfectly tender, with a texture similar to chicken wings. The taste of the meat itself can be almost bland and nothing special. This lot had a subtle, mild, sweet flavour in there somewhere, a bit like farmed rabbit in that sense, though to tell the truth the real star of the show was the parsley and garlic coating.

Ludivine’s recipe

It took a bit of wangling to be let into the kitchen and quiz a charming woman called Ludivine – about sixtyish but you know Moss Reid and me in working out people’s ages – in my rusty old French and her half dozen words of English, and watch her work away while not getting in the way.

Obviously a busy bistro works with industrial quantities, so I’ve done the sums so that the following ingredients serve two:

  • 18-24 pairs of frozen frogs’ legs (all depends on their size)
  • About 50 ml of milk and 50 ml of water (or 100 ml of lait écrémé)
  • 3 cloves of garlic
  • Plain white flour for dusting
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil – ordinary, not extra virgin
  • 1 small bunch of parsley
  • About a handful of white breadcrumbs
  • A knob of butter
  • Frites for an accompaniment, plus chunks of lemon to garnish

The dish is called cuisses de grenouille. Frogs’ legs to English speakers. Yet une cuisse is literally not a leg (une jambe) but a thigh. Frog thighs. In this instance the thighs in question came in pairs, connected and intact rather than the other main way of doing them – snipping each pair apart. Don’t panic – I’ve no photos of the raw meat (some would find it squeamish).

For the prep stage…

  1. First, Ludivine had already soaked the frogs’ legs in the milk and water mixture until they were thawed out. I’ll explain why we’re using frozen in a minute. The soaking goes some way to tenderising them. Maybe it sweetens them too, much as you sometimes soak livers before frying them.
  2. Next, make a garlic butter: peel and finely chop the garlic, remove the stalks from the parsley and roughly chop the leaves (or if like me you’re being frugal, chop the stalks very finely too), mash the garlic and parsley into the butter and put this mix to one side.
  3. Tip a small cup of flour into a large plastic bag with the salt and pepper.
  4. Drain the legs, pat them well dry with kitchen paper, toss them in the bag of flour to coat them lightly, then take them out and put them in a sieve to shake off any excess flour.

Then once a new order comes in…

  1. Heat up the oil in a large pan. Sauté the legs over a medium heat until they begin to brown, flipping them halfway through cooking. Drain them, place in a serving dish and keep warm.
  2. Melt the garlic butter in the same pan until it just begins to foam but doesn’t brown. Sprkinkle on the breadcrumbs. Stir for half a minute and pour this buttery nectar over the frogs’ legs.
  3. Serve with the frites and a chunk of lemon for garnish.
  4. Tell Irishman to get out of your busy and roasting hot little kitchen.

The environmental issues

Un quart de blancYou may have noticed how the above recipe assumes that the meat is frozen.

If you come across packs of frogs’ legs in western supermarkets – even in France – they are likely to be frozen ones from Thailand, Vietnam or, most of all, Indonesia. Not exactly air-mile friendly.

My desk research later told me that while commercial frog farming has been tried in various countries, the sad fact is that most frogs that end up on the world’s plates have been caught in the wild.

Many species of wild frog are at risk not only from hunters but also from pollution, pesticides, dwindling habitats, the deadly chytrid fungus and other diseases, and a reduction in their food supply (such as insects killed off by pestticides).

After a dramatic fall in frog numbers, France eventually banned commercial frog harvesting in 1980. So frogs are now a protected species – at least in France itself.

Hence the somewhat mad situation that this iconic, traditional, “local” French dish relies on imports all the way from Indochina. Hồ Chí Minh must be turning in his…

Chicken alternative

OK. So let’s suppose you can’t find a ready supply of genuine farmed frogs around Stoneybatter. Or you care about the ecological implications for wildlife. Or you simply aren’t up to doing the real thing. The answer is simple: don’t eat them.

Instead, you could adapt the above recipe by substituting thin strips of fresh chicken* fillet.

Because the secret is all in the addictive parsley-buttery sauce, and the crusty bread to mop it all up.

(* What? The author is making a suggestion directed at people who care about wild frogs but turn a blind eye to farmed chickens? Blimey – this blog post is getting messy.)