The secret history of monkeygland sauce
The origin of Monkey Gland Steak, a South African classic, has always been shrouded in mystery. Eric Bolsmann claims to have found the truth
When I first researched the origin of Monkey Gland Steak in the '60s, nobody could tell me why it was named after the glands of a primate.
Even experienced chefs shrugged their shoulders.
But later, someone came up with the story that it was French chefs who, at the old Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg during the '50s, were so disgusted with the eating habits of some South African guests that they mixed chutney with tomato sauce, sugar and garlic, and served the concoction with steak.
The rest of the story is predictable. The diners loved it and, the legend was born, but this is all wrong.
During the '70s I met Cavaliere Fiorino Luigi Bagatta, the man who introduced Monkey Gland Steak to South Africa.
He said that it was at the Savoy Hotel in London that the Monkey Gland Steak was born.
It all happened when the Russian-born French scientist, Dr Abrahamovitch Serge Voronoff (1866-1951), caused a sensation by grafting monkey testicle tissue onto the testicles of men, believing that this was an effective treatment to induce rejuvenation.
The first such transplant, in 1920, appeared to be so successful that Voronoff could not cope with the demand from men hoping to regain their virility.
Three years after introducing his monkey gland treatment, Voronoff was hailed by 700 of the world's leading surgeons at an International Congress in London - for his revolutionary discovery of how to reverse the ageing process.
Irving Berlin even composed the song, Monkey Doodle-Do, with the lines: If you're too old for dancing/Get yourself a monkey gland.
It featured in the Marx Brothers' film, The Coconut.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was also inspired by Voronoff's innovative techniques. He wrote about a professor who injected himself with monkey gland extracts in a Sherlock Holmes story.
Voronoff regularly visited the Savoy Hotel in London, and his medical experiments led to the naming of a new dish, flamed with brandy, by the Italian maitre d'.
It was common for young men working in the large hotels in Europe to gain experience and learn English before moving on to seek career advancements elsewhere.
At the old Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg, there was a steady demand for skilled restaurant staff.
Bagatta was one of the waiters at the Savoy.
He told me he had brought the Monkey Gland Steak recipe to South Africa in 1935 and had introduced the dish to the diners at the old Carlton Hotel.
Before World War Two, Bagata said, the national dishes in South Africa were steaks, lamb chops, mixed grills and fish and chips.
At the Carlton, pasta, scallopinis and classical French dishes were available, but steaks were always in demand, and not infrequently there was a request to vary the recipe by topping a well-cooked piece of meat with a fried egg.
Bagata enjoyed variations and thus the flamed steak recipe made its debut.
In 1946, when he moved to Cape Town to the Del Monico Restaurant, the Monkey Gland Steak became the talk of the town.
In 1947 his employers, African Caterers, sent Bagatta to Pretoria to organise and supervise the state banquet for King George and Queen Elizabeth.
Bagatta also supervised the Pretoria city lunch for the king, and the Princess' Ball in the Johannesburg City Hall, for 2000 guests.
From the Del Monico, Bagatta moved to new, family-owned ventures, and a career in the Trust hotels and ultimately Protea Hotels.
In 1974 he was awarded the title cavaliere (the equivalent to an English knighthood) by the Italian government in recognition for his contributions to the advancement of the hospitality and catering industry.
Vornonoff died in Switzerland at the age of 85. His experiments were denounced as failures.
Almost 50 years after his death it was speculated that he could have been responsible for introducing the Aids virus by transferring monkey testicles to humans.
More recently, his early research and experiments were recognised for their pioneering efforts in replacing hormones.
Cavaliere Fiorino Bagata's recipe for a monkey gland preparation - Monkey Gland Steak (Serves 2)
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 100g butter
- 2 fillet steaks, flattened
- 1 chopped shallot
- 10ml French mustard
- 10ml Worcestershire sauce
- 50ml brandy
- 10ml chopped parsley
- Season the flattened steak on both sides with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
- Heat chafing dish over lamp or flame and add half the butter.
- Fry steak, slightly underdone; remove from pan and set aside.
- Add rest of butter to the pan and sauté shallot. Add French mustard and Worcestershire sauce; stir thoroughly.
- Put the steak back into the pan and allow it to macerate into the sauce.
- Pour in the brandy, set alight, burn for 10 to 15 seconds, then smother the flame with the lid of the chafing dish.
- Serve the sauce over the steak and sprinkle parsley on top.