The Fanciest Prairie Oysters This Side of the Rocky Mountains (A Review)
If you’ve been to a restaurant in the Rocky Mountain region, chances are you already know what Rocky Mountain Oysters are. Also known as prairie oysters, these items that sound like mollusks don’t come from the sea at all, unless that “sea” is actually a “C” — and it stands for “castration.” Bull testicles are a bit of a novelty food for most people, the type of food you dare a newcomer to eat, but for some, they’re actually a sought-out delicacy. Consuming bull testicles is certainly not a new fad — in fact, I reviewed a beer derived from it earlier this year — and one pub in Calgary, Canada, has even held a “Testicle Festival” for two decades.
“There really is a little bit of a following,” said Andrew Seguin, the classically trained chef of Bottlescrew Bill’s Pub in downtown Calgary. “We do have people who come in and really do enjoy it.” He and Sous Chef Paul Turgeon were responsible for the menu of this year’s 20th Annual Testicle Festival, which coincides with the city’s annual Stampede rodeo festival. It’s available at the pub shortly after the annual “harvesting” season of the gonads; 99% of Alberta’s cattle are castrated at the same time each year, at a young age, when the calves are branded.
With enough inventory of bull testicles to last the five-week duration of the culinary festival, Seguin and Turgeon take them in their raw form, parboil them with salt and pepper, and then slice them to prepare in gourmet dishes. On the 2013 menu, there are three different preparations, which Chef Seguin made for me in the kitchen before plating them to look like haute cuisine. “[Plating is important because] otherwise people will get nervous about it,” Seguin told me.
At a glance, you might think these meatballs are actually the testicles themselves, especially since they’re served in pairs. But this entry-level dish is mostly made of ground bison meat blended with Thai chilies. The balls are then smothered in a spicy ancho-tomato sauce in classic Italian style. It’s only when you bite or cut into the meatball that you see the surprise — inside is a piece of testicle.
“You have to remember that the testicle has a slight taste of liver. So for those that are a little less adventurous, this would be the dish,” Seguin explained. “The flavor [of the testicle] is hidden by the spice.”
My Verdict: Four (out of five) stars. Even if you can’t really taste the testicle behind the spice (I’m sure that’s a plus for some people), its slightly firm texture, similar to that of a hot dog, is there. Everything else going on in the dish makes it delicious, especially if you like a little heat; the chilies in the meat go well with the chilies in the sauce, making this savory treat a solid meatball dish with a kick.
“If you want to try something in the middle, something very enjoyable and slightly sweeter, then you’d go for [this one],” Seguin said. Slices of bull testicle are coated in a cornmeal batter, deep-fried and then served with an apple-raspberry chutney, alongside a garnish of greens and carrots.
My Verdict: Four (out of five) stars. This is a spin on a more traditional way of preparing Rocky Mountain Oysters, that is, by simply deep-frying them. Because let’s face it: For many people, anything fried is awesome. However, most traditional Rocky Mountain Oysters come off as just having a generic “fried” flavor, and simply taste like the bottled ketchup or seafood cocktail sauce they’re dipped in. Here, there’s thought put into the accompanying condiment; the fruits bring a new dimension to what would otherwise be an overly salty dish.
In this dish for the seasoned testicle gourmand, slices of the gonad are sauteed with white wine, shallots, herbs, hand-crushed walnuts and a rum-butter sauce. They’re finished off with slices of strawberries and garnished with gooseberries. As Seguin explained, “This is for people who truly do enjoy the organ itself.”
My Verdict: Five (out of five) stars. Admittedly, before attending this Testicle Festival, I’d only eaten Rocky Mountain Oysters the battered-and-deep-fried way, which masks the organ’s fleshy texture. Biting into this, I was pleasantly surprised; the texture, sans bison or batter, is a lot like a foie gras terrine, and I felt “sophisticated” when eating it and describing it that way — at least, more sophisticated than simply saying, “I put an uncoated testicle in my mouth.” The muscle tissue of the gonad actually absorbs a lot of the ingredients. In each bite, there’s a nice hint of the white wine that harmonizes with the saltiness of the butter and sweetness of the strawberries. The walnuts add to the overall texture, but don’t take too much away from the organ’s slight firmness. In the end, this is a complex dish that true gourmands would enjoy — that is, if they can get over what it is they’re eating.
Erik Trinidad is a food and travel writer, and author of Fancy Fast Food: Ironic Recipes with No Bun Intended , based off his popular food humor blog .