Four and Twenty Merle … in a Corsican Pie




There’s a French saying, “Faute de grives, on mange des merles”(No thrushes? eat blackbirds) which basically means half a loaf is better than none.

A common blackbird. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Behind this adage lies a simple explanation: though grive and merle are closely related, gastronomes traditionally prized the former for its more delicate flesh.

Europe’s Royal Courts and palaces back in 16th century also prized blackbirds for a variety of reasons apart from the eating.

An aristocrat planning a banquet for instance and at a loss for suitable entertainment — no TV or  Facebook in those days — might have ordered the kitchens to bake a pie, throw in a couple of dozen live blackbirds and after the pie had been delivered to the banqueting hall cut the crust open for the birds to fly out — voila a great party piece – or that at least is thought to be the origins of that well-known nursery rhyme:

Sing a song of sixpence / Chantez une chanson de six sous
 A pocket full of rye / La poche pleine de seigle
 Four-and-twenty blackbirds / Vingt-quatre merles
 Backed in a pie / Cuits dans une tourte

While six sous have disappeared, blackbirds (Turdus Merula) appear to be almost ubiquitous and blackbird traditions are alive if not flourishing in France.

In Corsica for instance blackbirds are still a local delicacy and recipes such as pâté de merle or blackbird pate can still be found in books handed down from ancestral times.

There are more than 40,000,000 pairs of Turdus Merula scattered throughout Europe, so many in fact that we tend to take these jet black members of the thrush species for granted. Yet they are an interesting species if one delves a little deeper into their background.

Turdus Merula is one of nature’s rare success stories having adapted favourably to the dominating presence of man. There are now ten times as many of them living in urban gardens as there are in their native woodland habitat.

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Read our Grumpy Gardener Mike Alexander’s Gardening hints here

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They are omnivorous and domestic gardens provide them with both a near ideal environment in which to live and find food. It is actually only the male who is truly black and he is easily recognized with his bright orange beak and orange ring about the eyes. The female is a duller, mottled brown and without the bright coloured beak. They tend to mate for life and are fiercely territorial.

At this time of year when no breeding is taking place it is not uncommon to see groups of ten or more birds together. As soon as the weather warms and the nests are built then they will only be seen in ones and twos and the male will have a constant eye out for any contenders for his territory. This he will defend with a bow and run threat display which seldom ends in violence as the interloper generally tends to retreat rather than join combat.

They will start having a family in March and the females lay three to five bluish green eggs in a nest built from mud and vegetation. They will normally be a second brood later in the year and even a third if the season is a good one.

The blackbird – or merle in French — and its relationship to man has not always been as hospitable as it is today. Their use as party entertainment in French Royal Courts was fairly widespread in the 16th century and prompted the line four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie in Sing a Song of Sixpence. The birds were not actually cooked but placed in a pre-baked crust which was closed with a lid with the birds inside.

The entertainment described in the nursery rhyme was not restricted to blackbirds as frogs and rabbits were also used for live pie fillings. There is also a reference to dwarves being placed in pies and required to regale the guests with amusing poems — presumably not Sing a Song of Sixpence —  once released from their crusty prisons. That job description however is not seen very often in the Situations Vacant column these days.

Illustration from Sing a Song for Sixpence (1880) by Randolph Caldecott (d. 1886) (Credit: Wikipedia)

If you speak to older generations in rural France many will recall eating blackbirds in their youth. Do not be surprised therefore to find recipes for blackbird still current although not served as a pie.

Try for instance this Corsican website with blackbird and other recipes:
Bonne dégustation.

Here’s a brief video clip of a quiz programme citing the blackbird adage.

 

More bird recipes here

BECASSE A LA CACCIATORA
BROCHETTES DE MERLES FARCIS
MERLES EN SAUCE
MERLES SUR CANAPÉ DE POMMES DE TERRE
SALMIS DE MERLES VICOLAIS
TERRINE DE MERLES
BROCHETTES DE MERLES PANÉS
MERLES A L’AIL
MERLES AU RIZ
SALMIS DE PIGEONS RAMIERS

THE WOODCOCK cacciatora 
SKEWERS MERLES STUFFED 
WITH SAUCE MERLES 
MERLES ON COUCH POTATO 
stew MERLES VICOLAIS 
TERRINE MERLES 
SKEWERS MERLES BREADED 
MERLES A GARLIC 
RICE MERLES 
PIGEONS RAMIERS stew 

Story: Mike Alexander
editorial@french-news-online .com

 

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