Main ingredients in this classic veal stew (veau en tortue in French): veal head, madeira wine, tomatoes, mushrooms and pickled gherkins.
Oh my good God, how I love this classic!
It’s a veal stew, also known as tête de veau en tortue in French. The main ingredients here are veal head brawn (or head cheese), madeira wine, tomatoes, mushrooms and pickled gherkins.
And it’s absolutely delicious!
Veau en Tortue (Belgian Veal Stew)
But here’s the catch.
I’m not making this dish from scratch or I would have to boil down a whole veal head first which is very hard to find these days plus it’s quite time consuming. But there’s an easier way to make this delicious dish.
The stew is sold cold as head cheese (also known as brawn in the UK) in Belgium and France: bits of veal head and veal tongue, tomato sauce in gelatine and sometimes mushrooms, vinegar and pickled gherkins are also added as well.
In Flemish this cold gelatine product is called ‘preskop (or simply kop) in tomatensaus’. Depends where you buy the head cheese. This type of cold gelatine stew is also available here in Spain but it contains tripes instead of veal head.
Belgian Veal & Tomato Head Cheese or Brawn
But still I prefer to add a handful of extra shrooms and pickled gherkins myself to the veal stew to make it more like a whole meal.
The method is simple from here on: just let the gelatine tomato sauce dissolve in some water. And a good glug of madeira wine if you have any – a splash of white wine or red wine also works well as a substitute here.
The veal meat will soon swim in the most delicious red sauce you’ve ever tasted…
What if you can’t find this typical tortue head cheese with veal head and tomato gelatine?
Then here’s an idea: go for a classic head cheese with whatever meat it contains. Because the method stays the same: let the head cheese melt in some water, add wine and then add a cup of canned pureed tomatoes, some vinegar and a teaspoon of tomato paste. Let this simmer and stew a little, adjust the seasoning and add the mushrooms and pickled gherkins.
The boiled egg on top is a classic element of this stew, don’t forget to add it in the end!
Serve the veal head stew with homemade golden Belgian fries or simple boiled potatoes. I’ve even seen it served over al dente pasta too as a chunky pasta sauce!
I once made French head cheese (jambon persillé) at home.
Do you love a good kitchen experiment?
Then check out my head cheese recipe!
Classic veau en tortue stew with veal head, madeira wine, tomatoes, mushrooms and pickled gherkins.
- 1 lb tortue veal head cheese (450 g)
- ¼ cup water (60 ml)
- ¼ cup madeira wine (60 ml), or dry white wine
- a handful pickled gherkins
- a handful white mushrooms
- 1 large hard-boiled egg peeled
- 3 tbsp fresh parsley chopped
- dried herbs
- 1 bay leaf
1. Add the veal head cheese to a large pan and pour in the cold water and madeira wine (or white wine).
2. Place the pan over medium-high heat until hot and let the head cheese melt slowly in the water. Stir it regularly. Once melted, add a pinch of the dried herbs and the bay leaf.
3. Stir again and put a lid on the pan. Turn the heat a little lower and simmer the stew for 5 more minutes. In the meantime slice the pickled gherkins finely. Clean and trim the white mushrooms and slice them into bite-size bits. Slice the boiled egg in half as well. Add both the sliced mushrooms and pickled gherkins to the veal stew together with the freshly chopped parsley.
4. Stir the veal stew well and let it simmer for another 10 minutes until the mushrooms are cooked through. Check the seasoning and add extra pepper or salt to taste if necessary.
5. Scoop the veal stew onto deep plates, drizzle with the remaining tomato sauce and garnish with half a boiled egg. Serve hot.
Veau en Tortue: Veal Turtle!
Have you ever heard of veau or veal en tortue?
It is a French name, that’s for sure. Tortue means turtle, so what does veal have to do with a turtle? Take a look at the sliced veal head cheese that I am using in my recipe. Does that pattern remind you of something? It kind of resembles a turtle shell, at least that’s one theory I keep on hearing over the years.
You decide for yourself.
Do you like head cheese?
It’s very popular in Belgium and France but also in the UK. My English neighbour didn’t know what I meant by head cheese when I told her that I was making head cheese at home.
Turned out a couple of days later that the British call head cheese brawn! Well that was new to me. In Belgium head cheese can also be called aspic depending on how it is made. Aspic contains more transparent gelatine and comes often with more vegetables in it than meat.
I heat up the head cheese until it turns into a delicious stew but it can also be eaten cold.
You can serve a slice of cold head cheese accompanied by a salad or just put a slice of cold head cheese between bread slices as a cold cut or charcuterie and eat it as a head cheese sandwich. Cold head cheese often comes with mustard, extra pickled gherkins and silver skin onions, creamed horseradish or piccalilli pickles.
You can find this tomato veal head stew in France and Belgium like I said before but also in Switzerland and Germany. In Italy it is often served for Christmas dinner. Needless to say that recipes and the added ingredients can differ quite a bit as well.
You can find variations of tête de veau en tortue that contain olives, black truffles, nuts, kidneys and chicken dumplings depending on what region it comes from.
Where to eat Veau en Tortue in Brussels
Nowadays (I can only speak for Belgium though) this veal stew is unfortunately harder and harder to find. It is a classic but pretty old-fashioned dish. I do know a couple of restaurants in Brussels that have the stew on their menu at all times.
’T Kelderke for instance on the Grand Place serves a good veal head stew (€14) and so does La Taverne du Passage (€20) a bit further down the road in the beautiful Queen Gallery. Both are near Brussels Central Station and serve good Belgian classics, I recommend both.
La Taverne du Passage is a bit posher and more expensive but top notch dishes. ’T Kelderke (which means The Basement) is more lay back, cheaper and cozier, and indeed situated in a brick basement. There’s an upstairs floor as well if you want to have a good Belgian dinner with a spectacular view on the bright lit Brussels Grand Place. Good quality price ratio, good value for money.
If you have the opportunity to try this dish, go for it!