Photograph by Jean-Daniel Sudres, Hemis/Corbis
Published November 7, 2013
For better or worse, frogs are often associated with the French.
But now, sacre bleu! A team of archaeologists has recently discovered remains of one such amphibian—which had obviously been cooked in some manner—at an ancient site in Wiltshire, England, not far from Stonehenge.
The bone fragments were dated to nearly 10,000 years ago. "That's well before the first documentation of the French eating frog," says dig leader David Jacques of the University of Buckingham. "The earliest source for the French eating frogs legs is in The Annals of the Catholic Church from the 12th century."
The history of the frog as human food is murky at best. But Jacques says it's not surprising that hunter-gatherers would have eaten small animals like frogs and toads. "It may well be that they were a source of useful protein then and a convenient 'fast food' to cook."
So how did such humble fare end up on the most refined menus? Cookbook recipes indicate that frog legs were a part of haute cuisine as far back as the 18th century in France, says French food writer Benedict Beauge. But how they got there is hard to decipher, in part because few cookbooks were written in centuries past about food for the masses.
What is better understood is England's reputation for not liking frog. In the Oxford Companion to Food, author Alan Davidson (a Brit) writes that frog is "perceived by the English as a staple of the French diet." He adds: "Why the idea of eating frog should be repellent to the English in particular is mildly puzzling. It may have something to do with the ugly (to human beings) appearance of the creatures, or the thought that they emerge all slimy from evil-smelling ponds."
This notion is echoed in Larousse Gastronomique, which says frog legs have "usually filled the British with disgust."
Still, some culinary records do offer proof of frog being enjoyed in Britain.
For example, in his 17th-century cookbook The Accomplisht Cook, Englishman Robert May included a recipe for a pie made with live frogs that would "cause much delight" and spur the ladies to "skip and shreek."
And Larousse Gastronomique notes that when 19th-century chef Georges Auguste Escoffier worked at the Carlton Hotel in London, he convinced the Prince of Wales to allow frog legs at his table by calling them cuisses de nymphes aurore—legs of the dawn nymphs.
Not surprisingly, archaeologist Jacques says that his discovery isn't really about who ate frog legs first anyway. "Rather," he says, "it might be worth considering that all the people settled in Britain in the Mesolithic had their origins in France and surrounding areas."
Jacques also noted that Britain was still joined to mainland Europe until around 5500 B.C., when it separated from the continent. "Perhaps we should see this as an opportunity for entente cordiale—we were all French then!"
Follow Catherine Zuckerman on Twitter.
With little known about sea snakes, scientists worry that massive harvests could be damaging wild populations.
In Kenya, baby elephant fights to survive after poachers poisoned her mother.
Photographer Corey Rich is documenting a pair of climbers who are attempting what some call the longest, hardest free climb in the world.
The Future of Food
How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?
We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.