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Devils and angels on horseback: the art of the oddly named canape | Australian food and drink

What were once markers of sophistication, devils on horseback have fallen out of favour. But the evocatively named dish of toothpick-skewered, bacon-wrapped prunes has a history stretching back to the 19th century. Variations exist in France, England and the US, from spiced oysters in place of fruit – angels on horseback; to pastry-wrapped wieners – little pigs in blankets.

The canape’s convoluted history is told in Devils on Horseback: A Global Etymology of Oddly Named Dishes. Published by the Melbourne-based duo Long Prawn – who stage culinary events and write cookbooks together – the recipe book dives into the history and hearsay underpinning curiously named dishes from across the globe.

Researching the book sent Long Prawn’s Frederick Mora and Lauren Stephens into a murky, inconclusive labyrinth of characters, real or imagined: a flatulent nun, an average bloke called John, Jesus, and a hungry Buddha.

Devils and angels on horseback: the art of the oddly named canape | Australian food and drink
Angels on horseback, a variation of the devils on horseback party snack. Photograph: Ben Clement. Art direction: Long Prawn/The Guardian

“[It] was a wild goose chase through history, with books contradicting each other,” says Mora of the titular dish. “I found lots of stories depending on which century you’re in. It meant different things, had different ingredients, and I don’t think there’s a right one or a wrong one.”

For example, the first documented recipe for angels on horseback was in a 19th-century cookbook by a French chef who dubbed the bacon-wrapped oyster, “les anges à cheval’” The “angel”, Mora and Stephens presume, references the oyster, and the snack was popularised in England and served as a savoury coda after dessert.

But they weren’t on the chase alone. Painter Mark Chu contributed Buddha jumps over the wall, an elaborate soup from Fujian, China requiring multiple animals and days of preparation.

Chef Pablo Britton, who creates surreal cakes under his Deep Cake moniker, offered a recipe for pets-de-non or nun’s farts, a custard-filled, fried choux pastry found in both Tours, France, and Catalonia, Spain.

The book straddles the knife edge between absurd and serious, as Long Prawn’s work often does.

Their first cookbook, Fat Brad, is based on Brad Pitt’s many famous eating scenes in films including Ocean’s 11 and Fight Club. Their events include performance elements: they have cooked foil-wrapped meals using the heat from cars’ engine manifolds as they raced through Melbourne; and a dinner that “considered what it meant to be a landlord and what remained after everyone has helped themselves”.

Both members of Long Prawn have personal and family backgrounds in art and hospitality. Stephens’ mother works in hospitality events management and Mora’s grandmother is the acclaimed visual artist Mirka Mora, who, with her husband, Georges, hosted elaborate parties and owned restaurants across Melbourne.

“She would smash her face and her hand into a beautiful finished dish, which I guess is pretty unconventional,” Mora says. “When everyone would be coming up to pay their bills, she would snip [holes] out of her shirt so her nipples were hanging out.”

Long Prawn’s website describes the business as an “artistic food practice”. But they say they are only inspired by artists – they choose not to explicitly give themselves the title. “Someone asked if we were cosplaying hospitality,” jokes Stephens.

Devils on Horseback recipe by Long Prawn who have written a book about eccentrically named food. Australia
The pocketable paperback is lovingly adorned with arcane typography and illustrations that impart the feeling its pages contain spells, incantations or mythic tales. Photograph: Ben Clement. Art direction: Long Prawn/The Guardian

Stephens cites the 1980s New York City tapas bar and restaurant El Internacional, run by artist Antoni Miralda and chef Montse Guillén, as an example of how the art and culinary worlds can overlap. El Internacional was a functioning restaurant, but indulged in outlandish concept dining too.

“[Miralda and Guillén] ran parties only for twins and menus based on the building’s materials,” Stephens says.

A model poses in a three piece suit as a Devil on Horseback.
‘I was putting him on this incredibly large horse, glueing horns on his papery skin, it was freezing and I was having a meltdown.’ Photograph: Image: Alexander Coggin. Art direction: Long Prawn. Book design: Tristan Ceddia (Never Now)

In keeping with those subversive influences, the book eschews lavish food photography in favour of surreal visual interpretations of its dishes’ names. In honour of the titular dish, the cover stars a plastic-horned, geriatric devil riding a glistening steed.

“The horse had been in a Drake video clip,” Stephens says. “On the day [the model, Seb] moseyed up in a three-piece suit and was about 10-15 years older than his profile picture looked … I was putting him on this incredibly large horse, glueing horns on his papery skin, it was freezing and I was having a meltdown.”

Devils on Horseback A Global Etymology of Oddly Named Dishes is a layer cake of rumour and storytelling. The pocketable paperback is lovingly adorned with arcane typography and illustrations, imparting the feeling its pages contain spells, incantations or mythic tales.

“This is not a complete authority on how these dishes got their names … you can have an argument with someone about a dish’s origins and [those conversations are] the fuel for a dinner party,” Mora says. “That’s awesome and something we don’t want to lose.”

Devils on horseback

Devils on Horseback: ingredients.
Devils on horseback ingredients. Photograph: Ben Clement. Art direction: Long Prawn/The Guardian

Serves 2

Toothpicks
Sliced white bread
Butter or oil
to fry bread
6 lengths of streaky bacon
12 prunes
Cayenne pepper (optional)
Croutons (optional)
Continental parsley or watercress (to garnish)

Preheat oven to 180C. Soak toothpicks in water to prevent burning. Stone prunes and place aside.

Cut out 12 rounds of bread using the top of a champagne flute or small, round cookie cutter.

Fry the rounds of bread in very hot fat or butter until golden brown.

Halve bacon lengthways, giving you 12 strips of bacon, each strip long enough to wrap around a prune with a 2cm overlap. Skewer the bacon and prune together with a toothpick. Repeat with remaining bacon and prunes.

Bake the little devils on a greased baking sheet or pan for 5–10 minutes or until the bacon is crisp, turning as required.

Devils on Horseback
Photograph: Image: Alexander Coggin. Art direction: Long Prawn. Book design: Tristan Ceddia (Never Now)

Dish them up on a crouton, garnish with cayenne pepper, continental parsley or watercress, and serve at once, very hot.

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