The detail in the devil

November 6, 2009

devilsWell friends, the party season is almost upon us. Oh hell, it’s upon us every week, let’s face it. I just said that as an excuse for talking about one of my favourite nibbles, the devil on horseback.

I had a big fad with these a couple of years ago, and then forgot about them until the amazing Jules served them at her place the other week, and now I’m all agog again at how good they are and have made them several times since.

For those whose parents never served these as snacks at classy ’70s progressive dinners (now there’s a whole other topic for a post …), or who have not otherwise discovered the delights of this little torpedo of salty sweetness, a devil on horseback is basically a prune wrapped in bacon, skewered with a toothpick and then grilled, barbecued or otherwise lightly frazzled.

Put like that, of course, it sounds – well, silly. But believe you me, Kimmy, we are talking seriously good finger food here.

The laziest, most cursory bit of online research reveals little about the ridiculous name, except that it’s a cheaper version of angels on horseback – a fresh oyster wrapped in bacon and then grilled (which I’ve never tried – sounds slippery, but really must give it a go), and this was apparently first documented in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in 1888, derived from the French dish anges à cheval. All of this explains nothing about horses and angels. I think the horse is the bacon, and the devil (being black, I suppose??? sheesh) is the prune. Go figure. Told you it was nuts.

Anyhoo – enough with the dodgy historical nomenclature, and on with the recipes.

Jules’ absolutely delicious version, and my copies pictured here, were the updated groovified kind made by your friend and mine Maggie Beer, and the recipe is here. Of course it involves verjuice, and orange zest, and rosemary. These are good, as the verjuice plumps up the prune and gives it a succulence it otherwise can lack, and the orange zest provides some zip in what can be a cloying sort of flavour combo. I did mine with some pancetta I had in the fridge, but Maggie says speck or bacon.

My other fave comes from Margaret Fulton’s Encyclopaedia of Food and Cookery, and is a rather boofier version, direct from the seventies. If you are delicate about salt, stop here, turn around, and take refuge. But if like a true howtoshuckanoysterlover you feel the force strong within you, proceed!

1. First, take one blanched almond.

2. Wrap that little baby in an anchovy, and pop the swaddled nut into the hollow centre of a pitted prune.

3. Wrap in bacon, secure with toothpick and proceed to bung in the oven / stick on the barbecue / in a non-stick frypan, etc.

Repeat procedure for as long as you and your guests can take it. These are so rich and salty you can really only eat about two, although Senor has been known to clear a plate without once gasping for water. Jules and I have discussed possible variations; perhaps a caperberry in place of an anchovy? A teeny smidge of chilli?

Please do have an experimental go – and if you come up with your own variations, tell us all about it.

May the devilish force be with you.

*PS: I know I just said I wouldn’t be here for a bit, but just writing that got me all aquiver about the devils. Now I really am going to be gone for a week …


  1. When my grandfather a stroke a few years ago, he became very sad (as one would), and really wouldn’t eat much of anything – until, for some reason, I came up with the idea of taking him some Devils on Horseback – perhaps I’d made some for a party and he initially got the leftovers. He DEVOURED them. Mine had cheddar cheese in the middle. I was nicking off from work in the middle of the day to rush home, grill the Devils and then courier them out to his rehab hospital twice a week, and he was much cheered.

    • Virginia, how gorgeous is this story. When I am a toothless old woman, I want my (siblings’) grandchildren to come and feed me devils twice a week. What a devoted girl you were and what an inspired idea.

  2. Bless you Ms Charlotte.
    Devils always more appealing to writers than angels and you can see why, especially post GFC. Personally i wouldn’t fancy doing that to an oyster, even if it was over age.
    And the old timers know best. I first tried these with proscuitto- it tasted like burnt brown paper. You need the FAT.
    Lovely story Virginia, Tasty sharp textured tidbits are much in demand for those in hospitals or homes.

  3. Don’t write your school assignment without checking Factopaedia (?Tripe-opaedia) offers the following:

    “….the origin of the devils on horseback name. It stems from Cornwall in the south of England at the turn of the last millenium, where Norman raiders would disguise themselves is suits of armour made by layering rashers of bacon.

    This armour had many advantages; Primarily it’s grotesque appearance was used to frighten villagers. Then, when the job was done, the armour could be cooked and eaten. Protection was roughly in the same class as leather armour depending on the thickness of the bacon.

    “Devils on horseback” was the nickname of these bacon-clad warriors.”

    I did not make this up.

  4. I can see that at some point in the near future, I’ll simply have to get past the fact that prunes have always reminded me of little glossy turds…

  5. That is exactly what I like about them.

  6. Lawks, you gels crack me up. (Of course Jools, what you like about them is also what they produce, I imagine, if one cared to look …)

  7. That’s a, er, solid point you make, Charlotte…

  8. I remember making these back in the 70’s as a young bride. Good cocktail party fare, and second cousin to the chicken liver (or oyster) placed on top of a water chestnut slice and then wrapped in bacon and broiled.

  9. […] Devils on horseback – everybody loves them! And you can keep sealed pancetta & pitted prunes on hand for months… […]

  10. […] we sat lawnside with Pimm’s and lemonade, plus a little plateful of matching retro canapes, the devil you know. It raised my memory of the first time I was introduced to Pimms No. 1 Cup many years ago, at a […]

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