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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Tyler

Little songbirds, Jewish Garum, Sexual abstinence, and Thongweed - some pieces of grim food history

I have been mulling over a number of different historical/folklore topics to blog about and couldn't really get going on any of them. But, this morning's Times finally sparked me into life.

The Times carried an article headed, 'Former rugby star accused of eating protected songbirds'. For me this was obviously a French story because I remember, as many of you will, that President Mitterand's last meal included the eating of an ortolan (a small songbird). The EU had banned the killing of songbirds for food. This didn't stop Mitterrand. The ortolan is a very tiny bird, about the size of your thumb. To prepare and eat such a bird, you first drown it, then pluck it, place it in a cassoulet with salt and pepper and put it in the oven. It is served in the cassoulet straight from the oven. You eat it with your fingers, bone, head and all. In eating it you cover your head in a napkin, rather like sniffing from a bowl of menthol when you have a cold. Objectors said you hid under a napkin so as God wouldn't see you eating these little birds. The French Rugby international whose story in The Times set me off on this subject is accused of killing 8,500 songbirds between 2011 and 2019, and selling them frozen in packs of 12 on a skewer at a cost of approx £27. There is also an ongoing legal tussle between EU Authorities and the continued practice of catching songbirds as they fly in migration over the island of Malta.

Oh well, you might say, another example of how Britain differs from continental Europe. Actually, no. We also have eaten songbirds in more recent times, they were especially a meal for the rural poor in 19th century Britain. In fact there was a Press report in 2011 of a pub on the Isle of Wight which had wild birds on its menu, until stopped by the police. The law isn't actually particularly easy to follow. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 does protect all wild birds, but you may obtain a licence to kill birds which damage farm crops. There is a specific list which includes canada geese (not recommended for eating, too tough), feral pigeons (absolutely a no from me for a meal), magpies, jays, rooks,crows and a few more. None of which I find particularly alluring as a cooked supper. However, with a licence under the Act for preserving your crops, you may eat the aggressors you have killed. You cannot however sell them on for food.

Dorothy Hartley, in her incomparable 'Food in England (1954) gives advice on the cooking of small birds (she lists larks, sparrows and small blackbirds ('Four and Twenty blackbirds baked in a pie ...'); and, separately, she discusses ortolan, alongside snipe, plover, and woodcock. Of course, she also refers to that most popular rural dish of young rooks, or squab, and like blackbirds baked in a pie. Hartley's recipe for the cooking and serving of ortolan is a little more cordon bleu than the French version! She recommends cooking in fatty bacon or ham and serving on a square piece of toast and finally soused in a wine sauce. But you still have to eat bones, head, and all!

One thing I do not envy the ancient Romans for is their favourite fermented fish sauce, eaten throughout their empire. It even came, like curries, in a range of grades. The Roman author, Martial, congratulates his friend on pursuing his amorous advance on a girl who had over indulged in garum by having six helpings, whereas most people found one quite enough! I just hope she was worth it.

Everyone ate it, including Jews in the Empire, even though garum was clearly non Kosher. Pliny tells us that Jews made their own garum which did conform with dietary laws. This Jewish garum, as it is called by historians, has been found in pots at Pompeii. There is much academic debate on what this Jewish garum consisted of, and whether it was also eaten by others and not only by Jews. If you are Jewish please don't ask your rabbi for guidance because they might get quite the wrong idea, particularly if he/she is a classicist. You see Pliny wrote that non Jews ate Jewish garum when they were abstaining from sex!! I pass on garum. I agree with Seneca who wrote, 'Do you not realise that garum sociorum, that expensive bloody mass of decayed fish, consumes the stomach with its salted putrefaction'. Quite.

When I originally thought of writing a piece about odd foods, it was swimming through thongweed here on Worthing West Beach that first set the idea running. Of course, I didn't know the name thongweed then . But tracing its name is all part of my self learning programme about the natural history of our beach. Thongweed has an alternative name, sea spaghetti. In short you can, instead of battling through it in the sea, take it home and cook it. It is suggested you use it to thicken soup, rather like Chinese noodle soup. Alternatively you can mix it with normal spaghetti and eat it that way. Finally you can use it as a pickle. But beware thongweed does not look like real spaghetti as it is thicker. Bootlace weed looks more like the real thing - although you could eat it without ill effects (as with all British seaweeds) It wouldn't taste particularly good. Frankly I don't even want to try thongweed let alone bootlace weed; although if Brexit goes disastrously wrong I may harvest it for sale. Taking orders now in advance of January at £5 per pound!

Finally, for the refined amongst you, 'Here,Ma. Eat your rhubarb'. 'I hate the way people call it rhubarb now. It should be rhu-BUB. Only the Queen and I pronounce it properly'. Jane Gardam writing in her novel, 'Last Friends'. Do let me know if you say 'rhu-BUB'.

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