Captain Moonlight's Notebook: The python tasted quite good, really

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The Independent Online
The death of the French grocer- caterer Paul Corcellet earlier this week reminds me of a banquet he prepared that I attended some years ago in the palace of President Bongo of Gabon in central Africa.

Corcellet was a grocer of novelty who had made a speciality out of showing the French new gastronomic pleasures. He claimed to have introduced them to avocados when he opened his Paris grocery shop in 1934, and later, in the Sixties, to the kiwi fruit. All this is tame now, especially compared with the recipes he devised to cook monkey, python and elephant's trunk.

Corcellet's celebrity stemmed from the fact that he descended from a dynasty that stretched back to the French Revolution. An ancestor, Jean-Pierre Corcellet, had a shop in the Palais Royal where, according to family tradition, Josephine de Beauharnais met Napoleon when they both came to buy coffee.

No doubt the Corcellet family was involved in selling off the livestock of the zoo during the Paris Commune, when food shortages obliged the Communards to eat rats.

It would explain Paul Corcellet's affinity for monkey and snake, and also the invitation to Gabon. President Bongo, who is so short he refuses to dance with his wife - even when wearing his stacked heels - for fear she may overlook him, has an elephantine appetite. He likes nothing better than to dine on a little local delicacy.

The banquet was held in a vast hall. There were guests from all over Africa, plus, curiously, a table of Lloyd's underwriters. Tribal dancing was accompanied by buckets of red wine. Eventually, the lights went down and a line of uniformed guards entered the hall carrying flaming torches, followed by waiters in white coats and gloves. Each man bore aloft a massive tray of food, all of which would have been fine had the contents not been identified with a label. Singe en cocotte, civet de python, ragout de crocodile. The list went on and on. The crocodile was the worst, like stringy, fatty mutton tasting of fish. But the python really wasn't bad. Honestly.

Midway through the evening, Monsieur Corcellet sat down to tell me how it was done. 'Soak in vinegar and water, dust with flour, saute with shallots, onions, tomatoes and white wine, and at the end add a pimento or two, to bring out the flavour.' A bit bony perhaps, but on the whole pas mal.

President Bongo tucked in with gusto, the insurance underwriters with trepidation. As for the rest of us, we were lucky that our host wasn't Emperor Bokassa. A proven cannibal, he might have offered Rhum Bebe for pudding.