independent

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Live 'blackbird pie' thankfully no longer in fashion

The male Blackbird has a narrow yellow eye-ring in addition to its yellow bill. Blackbirds were once eaten though their meat is said to be rather bitter
The male Blackbird has a narrow yellow eye-ring in addition to its yellow bill. Blackbirds were once eaten though their meat is said to be rather bitter

Jim Hurley - Nature Trail

The tradition of eating small songbirds is widely practiced worldwide but thankfully it is a thing of the past in Ireland.

The amount of meat on a small songbird like a Robin is obviously tiny; bigger wild birds like Woodpigeons yield more to chew on.

Blackbirds were once eaten though their meat is said to be rather bitter. Blackbird pie is immortalised in the nursery rhyme 'Sing a Song of Sixpence': Sing a song of sixpence/Four and twenty blackbirds/Baked in a pie/When the pie was opened/The birds began to sing/Wasn't that a dainty dish/To set before the king.

The references to singing 'a song of sixpence' and having 'a pocket full of rye' are subject to different interpretations by those with a scholarly interest in such matters. Interpretation of the 'four and twenty blackbirds' baked in a pie appears to be more straightforward and owes its origin to an entremet dating back to the Middle Ages.

In sixteenth century French cuisine, an entremet was a dish served between courses as a novelty item for the entertainment of the nobility and upper classes. The 'four and twenty blackbirds' were in the pie but rather than being 'baked' they were alive. Furthermore, 'blackbird' was possibly a generic term meaning small songbirds in general rather than specifically referring to the member of the thrush family that is one of our most common garden birds.

A big, wide pie was baked for a royal banquet and over it a large dome of pastry was placed with a collection of live songbirds housed under the crust. The creation was carried to the table, the outer crust of the pie was opened and to the delight of the assembled guests the birds flew out calling as they escaped from their confinement within the outer pastry casing.

Putting all the live birds under the pastry shell must have been challenging for the kitchen staff. One or two birds would be manageable but having 'four and twenty' was pushing things to the extreme.

The practice has now fallen out of fashion and would, in any event, be incompatible good kitchen hygiene and a raft of modern environmental health and safety regulations.

The modern take on the medieval idea is to have a huge mock-up cardboard cake wheeled in with a suitably attired, young, attractive woman crouching and hiding within before standing up and bursting forth at the appointed moment of surprise.

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