Eating In

The call of the wild

Hunting for the pot is now strictly a hobby, but you can fake it

This article is taken from the August/September 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Inelegant eating, according to Gigi’s Aunt Alicia, has wrecked many a ménage. Boiled eggs, which are liable to stain chins and squelch unaesthetically, or asparagus, which is indelicate in every sense, and lobster à l’américaine — perhaps because the bibulous sauce drips alarmingly from the fork — are the most frequent causes of rupture.

In Gigi’s education for courtesanship, however, Alicia exalted the eating of ortolans. “Slice in half,” she commanded, “with a single stroke of the knife — confidently so as not to make the plate squeak. Crunch each half whole. Disregard the bones.”

The art involves continuing conversation while struggling with the sparse flesh and the spiky, crackly bones. In the movie-musical version, Leslie Caron and Isabel Jeans play the scene with delectable restraint.

Even for those bold enough for bones, such a meal would now be impossible in Gigi’s homeland. Officially ordained taboos against cruelty and environmental profligacy ban ortolans, like most small, insectivorous songbirds, from the table in much of the civilised world.

Ecological balance depends on the survival of species that bygone gastronomy might have doomed to extinction. Wire netting for birds too small to shoot is a nasty trap. This year the European Court of Justice outlawed the alternative sticky end — the glue-traps that have dominated the market in recent times.

In parts of the EU, in an ever more restrictive season, you can still enjoy thrush with your polenta, or flambéd with artichokes, or in a risotto with saffron, but not in England.

Today, if you want to crunch an ortolan, or savour larks stuffed with juniper and braised in gin, or set blackbird-pie before your equivalent of a king, you must skulk ashamedly to some under-regulated country, like a sex tourist or tax exile, or pay an élite price to cover the cost of the blackmail.

Aunt Alicia’s predilection for ortolans is puzzling in one respect: there seems little that is erotic or aristocratic in choking on tiny carcases. Nets and glue-sticks are inherently ignoble. The usual rule is: the smaller the prey, the more déclassé the human predator, because the technology of the hunt is cheaper as you descend the scales of size and snobbery.

It is beneath aristocratic contempt to claim ownership of creatures that scamper and twitter

It is beneath aristocratic contempt to claim ownership of creatures that scamper and twitter. Bird-catching is to a pheasant shoot what tiddler-fishing is to killing salmon — though rich boors with guns, rods, Le Chameau waders and fake patches on their elbows can turn almost any sport into derogation.

In the United States, where shooting is called “hunting”, the gunmen rarely bother to eat their kill. Wild turkeys exist, as we know, because a popular brand of whiskey is named for them, and Dick Cheney apparently finds it hard to tell them apart from his fellow-huntsmen, but they are now so sedulously “conserved” that they can hardly flap fast enough to elude the most inexpert shot.

Even so, they are almost inedible. Most of the recipes aired by the National Wild Turkey Federation (there really is such a thing) are for other foods. The turkey-hunters amuse themselves by dressing up absurdly in snipers’ khaki. In Britain, pheasant and grouse have become so heavily tended as almost to count as farmed foods.

At sea, where — despite the encroachments of aquaculture which makes fish cheap and unromantic — wild catches still make a modest and diminishing contribution to the world’s food stocks. Elsewhere, hunting of every kind is no longer a resource, but a diversion, accessible mainly to those who can afford it.

Cockles and whelks are following oysters from the street-stall to Claridge’s and the Crillon

Foraging is fun for the excessively leisured — retirees in search of the good life, bourgeois escapees who poke among toadstools and hedgerows and rock pools for trophies for their tables. In any case, the social status of wild foods is highly unstable. Cockles and whelks are following oysters from the street-stall to Claridge’s and the Crillon. Bans are driving once-despised commodities upmarket like rotgut during Prohibition.

In my childhood, trapped birds still provided protein the poor needed. Pajaritos fritos was an ubiquitous Spanish dish, now confined to contraband. You can fake it, however, with licit prey in season: quail and small specimens of snipe or partridge are serviceable.

Jointed and marinaded for a few hours in coarse red wine and garlic, with a couple of bay leaves, they are ready for frying in olive oil, with more garlic cloves, lardons, breadcrumbs and sage. A pinch of nutmeg in the seasoning and a sprinkling of vivid parsley in the garnish will guarantee lawful nostalgia.

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