Oxtail

Kalvedans—calf-dance. Now signifying a sort of colostrum-milk dessert pudding. In my childhood in Brooklyn, however, it meant calf-foot jelly, a veal aspic, flavoured with caraway. It may have been significant that Mrs. Olsen, next door, who, by universal agreement, made the best kalvedans, came from Lista, in the remote southwest corner of Norway, a place whose dialect speech was a source of amusement among the émigrés.

Some years ago, a dinner party in Wotton-under-Edge. A sparkling affair at which our host assembled interesting characters from “all parts of Gloucestershire,” as she put it, including a burly, gregarious fellow from Forest of Dean whose hobby was resurrecting neglected, time-consuming, Edwardian specialities: jellies, consommés, galantines, aspics, terrines. I thought of kalvedans.

Stratford, where Penny and l lived in the noughties. A conversation with a craft butcher of the town, a Swiss who specialised in charcuterie. I explained about kalvedans. He shook his head. “You can’t do that over here. No one sells calves’ feet anymore.” He said you could do it with pork. Globby bits galore on a pig. Trotters, hocks, tails, bellies, ears, jowls. All the jelly you want.

But head cheese isn’t kalvedans.

Jean Dubuffet (1901–1985), Vache, 1954

The break-through came the other week in an aside to an online discussion about jellies. Oxtail, someone wrote, could substitute for calves’ feet. The trick is collagen, connective tissue, joints with lubrication and not too much load. Like a cow’s tail, which does no heavier work than swatting flies.

Oxtail is pricey. I watch for a few days and snag a past best-before 50% selloff deal.

The sawn segments of tail go in the stock pot. Bay leaf, sage and a celery blade. Salted cautiously, bearing in mind reduction. Three and a half hours barely simmering. Set aside the bones to cool, strain the stock and boil down by two thirds.

Tear the red meat off the bones into a pile of shreds in a bowl, top it up with the reduced stock, cover with cling film and put in the fridge to chill.

I set myself a constraint not to use prepared gelatine, whatever happens, and the gamble works. Fat, conveniently congealed on the surface, is now easily removed. The rest flips over readily onto a chilled plate. Solid, quivering jelly dome, clear to the bottom. Strands of dark beef floating in aspic.

We make a meal. Slabs of oxtail jelly, Penny’s fresh-baked bread, chicken-liver paté, a side of lightly sautéed, sliced brussel-sprouts, a nice domestic gewürztraminer. I make a mental note to have pickled beets the next time we do this. And a good mustard. Maybe horseradish.

Is it kalvedans? What would Mrs. Olsen have thought of it? Does it matter? I try to remember the taste of veal, if it had any. Something comes that is both innocent and corrupt, both milky and funky, memory clouded by pictures of constrained motherless animals in farmyards. Oxtail tastes rather more like an intensely focused corned-beef brisket, more Brooklyn-Jewish than Mrs. Olsen.

At a family brunch on the weekend, I am sitting next to Penny’s younger son, Ben, who asks me what I am doing. I say I am making oxtail jelly. He shudders good-naturedly. I smile.