The Birds!

I've never been fond of magpies. In fact I think I hate them. Which is a terrible thing to admit and irrational to boot. They are harmless birds after all. Yes, just harmless birds that like to perch on my garden fence. One, two, oh look three, four, look just sitting there, staring. I can see them across the patio. Staring with black beady eyes. Watching me through the window. Staring, flapping their wings, five, six. Clattering, the machine gun clattering caw. Pecking my fence, staring, black eyes beady, dark like their souls, cawing, staring, seven, eight. What are they doing here? Why are they staring? Black piercing eyes, malevolent, piercing. Crapping. They are now crapping on my fence. Nine, ten, cawing, laughing, shrieking, flapping, staring, black eyes, their terrible, terrible black eyes, oh the incessant clatter that penetrates my heart. My God! There's meat hanging from their cruel, gnarled beaks! Flesh! Staring, black, seething, evil eyes! And they're shitting! They are shitting all over my patio! My God! Paper bag! Must. Get. Paper. Bag.

Like I said I hate magpies. Mainly because of the noise they make and for the mess they create all over my patio and garden fence. And yes because to my mind, they have evil, evil eyes. But rather than letting them reduce me to a blubbering mess, I often find myself grimacing at the kitchen window, plotting their demise yet puzzling over the practical (and not to mention legal) implications. All whilst washing up. And of course as I am always thinking with my stomach, I have often wondered that once they were dispatched, what would they actually taste like? So I decided to embark on a thorough investigation, to look into the matter deeply, to find out what it truly means to live off the land and to carefully consider from a dietary point of view, the impact that sociocultural evolution has had on our lifestyles in this country. Yes I went on Twitter and asked "Can you shoot and eat magpies?"

Out of all the replies that came back my way, it was Lara Newman's response that caught my eye. That is Lara of Sheen Suppers who tweeted "I'll ask my mate Timmy, he goes shooting all the time" and it caught my eye mainly because Timmy is far too sweet a name to associate with anyone who blasts birds out of the sky. But as it happened (and this was after some fervent email correspondence) I discovered that Timmy who was originally Suffolk born and bred, knew what he was talking about when it came to these matters. By definition, It is perfectly legal to shoot magpies under general license on private land and with proper permission but as Timmy pointed out, magpies are scavengers and fond of carrion and therefore would not make for delectable eating. This news disheartened me somewhat. "Bollocks", I think was the term that rang through my head but Lara then sent me a message that Timmy would be more that happy to get some other birds to try out that would be unusual but okay to eat. From there, things kind of snowballed. Next thing I knew, Lara and I were planning a day's cookathon at my house where Timmy would supply rooks, jackdaws, pigeons and a tiny little jay along with rabbit and hare. Funny how these kind of things can spring up out of innocuous enquiries on the Internet but for evermore, 2nd October 2010 shall be known as 'Dodgy Meat Day' in our household, mainly because the lines between feral and game had been blurred. And also because of the fluffy, cutesy, 'Bambi' nature of these animals, the whole enterprise did have a slightly dodgy feel to it.

Lara turned up nice and early that day with the rabbit, hare and jay already in tow, Timmy was coming along later that afternoon with the rest of The Birds! We had a good idea of what we wanted to do with Hazel and Bigwig, I decided on hare stew, Lara had a rabbit terrine recipe she wanted to try out and luckily Timmy had already taken care of skinning and gutting the animals. But there was still a hesitant air about the kitchen to get cracking as we chatted over a cup of tea. The kids had already been dispatched (and by that I mean they were off with their grandparents for the afternoon), Mrs FU was busy making a chocolate mousse for dessert and I sensed that Lara really didn't want to have a go at jointing them so I decided to have a go. Despite this being my first time, it was fairly easy really, just like jointing a chicken although the hare was tough going in places. Once that was done we were off. The stew was fairly generic, I fried the hare pieces quickly in a big pot with some onions and then added flour, vegetables, red wine, chicken stock, thyme, bay, some juniper berries and left it simmering on the hob. Lara's terrine quickly took shape and was soon scooped into Grandpa Brezina's tin, placed into a bain marie and popped into the oven. Suddenly the kitchen was filled with heavenly smells and it was time to crack open the cider and ponder what to do with the jay*.

Before we knew it there was a knock on the door and I opened it to find Timmy standing there beaming and carrying a massive tray covered in newspaper with girlfriend Kimmy (yes Kimmy) peeping over his broad shoulders. We marched back into the kitchen and the tray was promptly plonked onto the side. I took a peek underneath the paper to find 4 rooks, 4 jackdaws and 2 pigeons, all neatly plucked, prepared and ready to go. OK Tim explained which was which, I didn't ascertain this all by myself. No, I was far too busy gorping at them with a stupid smile on my face. I looked up to see Timmy looking at me. "So what are we going to do with these then?" and with the same shit-eating grin, I replied "I have no idea". Timmy professed that pigeon was his favourite and would eat them simply roasted all the time so that took care of that, we'd roast the pigeon. Lara stepped into the breach saying she would have a go at making rook pie, that dainty dish to put before the King. Which left me prodding away at the jackdaw. They were quite small, similar in size to quails and they got me thinking about a Moro recipe I've tried out before, cumin marinated quails breasts in flat breads. Would breast of jackdaw have the same delicate flavour? There was only one way to find out.

Luckily Timmy was more than happy to cut the birds up for us and I was fairly impressed by his butchery skills. Making a deft slice here and there, he quickly teased the breasts out of the jackdaw with his fingers (oo-er missus) and before I knew it I had six burgundy patties to play around with (again, oo-er). Timmy then also did the same with the rook, also de-boning their legs in the same confident, casual manner and Lara set to work on her pie. Timmy then asked what did we want to do with the muntjac? The muntjac? What kind of bird is a muntjac? Slowly and carefully, Timmy explained that muntjac was a breed of deer from Asia that had been introduced to this isle in the 1920's. Small in stature but with a propensity to breed like the bunny rabbit that was cooking away in the oven, the muntjac population exploded and by and large it is the most common species of deer to be found in this country. Seeing as we were going 'wild' for the day, Timmy brought along a saddle of muntjac, albeit shop bought for us to try out. The meat factor to this feast was starting to tip the scales and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn't have that much in the way of vegetables to serve up.

Again Timmy gave us a bit of a masterclass in carving up the saddle, preparing various cuts so that we ended up steaks, chops, medallions and a rather classy looking french trimmed rack. We decided not to mess around too much with the muntjac, just to simple season the meat, pan fry the steaks and roast the rack. Like I said, there was a fair amount of food to get through but having drunk a couple of ciders, my appetite was gearing up so I wasn't too worried. Then there was another knock on the door.

So I went to the door and found Iain, Lara's other half, walking up the path in his plus fours, looking like this:

Striding triumphantly, Iain (or Maino as he is also known) was clutching in one hand a brace of duck and in the other a huge Canada Goose. His arrival wasn't unexpected but things were starting to get faintly ridiculous. Having been on a shoot somewhere in Surrey, Maino decided that he should share some of the spoils of the day. I took the goose from him and wandered back into the kitchen scratching the back of my head. Normally clutching the elongated neck of a dead bird would have perturbed me somewhat but all I that had running through my mind was 'bloody hell, I think all we've got in the fridge is some spring greens'. After some discussion, we all agreed that Maino's contribution was a step too far and that we wouldn't cook his birds that day which I hope didn't disappoint him too much. And I don't think it did as he soon relaxed into a glass of wine whilst Timmy ferociously went about the business of plucking the goose in the corner of the room. I should dispel images of blurred arms and feathers flying around the place here, he did keep the goose in a black plastic bag whilst doing so but I couldn't help but marvel at how regular Timmy made this all seem. Throughout the day, going about the business of preparing all of these animals did highlight to me how easy it is to remove yourself from this aspect of the food chain. I know I make light of most things when I blog but getting up close and personal to it all, I did garner a strong respect for these wild creatures, it did make me feel more grateful. Possibly a rather pious note to bring up there but I would recommend cooking totally from field to plate. Certainly makes you think the next time you traipse along the meat aisle eyeing up row upon row of plastic containers.

And now I am pontificating. So how did it come out? What did it taste like? Should you all rush out to buy rook? Well thankfully there were some more mouths to feed as the grandparents returned with the dustbin lids by 7 o'clock and were up for staying around to try our experiments. The twins by the way took one sniff at the ducks lying on the floor by the back door and declared with big yawns, they were ready for beddy byes. Once we put everything out on the table there didn't seem to be quite as much as I expected but everyone tucked in with relish, giving the spring greens that I had steamed a wide berth. The highlight for me was the muntjac, especially the medallions which I pan fried quite quickly, keeping them medium-rare. The meat was so tender and succulent, a real treat. The hare stew went down well too as it had been on the hob for a good couple of hours the flesh just fell from the bone. With the aromatic blend of juniper and bay, the hare meat had quite a delicate flavour which was surprising as I have read that it can be very gamey. Lara's pie, complete with homemade pastry was fantastic. The dark meat was similar to pigeon although slightly more dense in texture. And her terrine was very good too, rich and nutty but probably could have done with pressing overnight in the fridge to get solid clean slices. But still a very good recipe which you find at the bottom. The pigeon that was roasted with bacon rashers over the top was nice but I think they had been left in the oven just a tad too long so had toughened up, a reminder that game really doesn't need that much cooking. And my jackdaw cumin breast baked in flat breads? Well to honest, in my opinion they tasted a bit crap really suffering again from too long in the oven and podgy dough that had over proved. I was after tender, spicy morsels meat in a crisp bread casing. I got the opposite. Tough and sponge. But never mind, it was all in the name of experimentation. All in all though it really was a fun day of cooking in kitchen, rounded off by far too much wine in my instance.

Thanks to Lara, Maino, Timmy and Kimmy for coming over and Timmy especially for getting us the dodgy meat. We should do it again but I am not sure about hedgehog Timmy, I really, really couldn't.

Rabbit and nut terrine

Serves 10

50g sultanas

50ml Armagnac

1 tbs duck fat

3 shallots, chopped

300g boneless rabbit, cubed

300g boneless pork shoulder, coarsely minced

200g chicken livers, trimmed and coarsely minced

pinch of ground cinnamon

pinch of chilli flakes

100ml double cream

50ml white port (or gooseberry vodka in our case)

50g almonds

50g pistachio nuts

50g hazelnuts

salt and pepper


Preheat the oven to 180C/350F. Put the sultanas in a bowl, pour in the Armagnac, top up with warm water and leave to soak. Melt the duck fat in a frying pan. Add the shallots and cook over a low heat, stirring occasionally for about 5 minutes until softened and translucent. Add the rabbit and cook, stirring frequently for 5-10 minutes until light golden brown. Remove pan from the heat.

Mix the rabbit and shallots with the pork and chicken livers in a bowl and stir in the cinnamon, chilli, cream and port. Season with salt and pepper. Drain the sultanas and stir them into the mixture with the nuts. Spoon the mixture into a terrine and cover. Put the terrine into a roasting tin, pour in boiling water to come up about halfway up the side and bake for 2 hours. Serve Cold.

*The jay was very much the subject of debate being the size of a budgerigar and Timmy had concerns about its diet out in the wild. Like the magpie, it is also a bit of a grubby scavenger but he took it's tiny breasts out anyway and we used them for the flat breads. Of course when baking them I forgot which was which so there was a Russian roulette element when it came to serving them. Maino and Kimmy lucked out but as far as I know they still live.


Kavey said…
I'm still holding out for my magpie pie. One day. If you can get your hands on magpie I shall be happy to come over and assist in making the little blighters into pie.

x x x
Nick Baines said…
I love game, but hate magpies too. They are unquestionably evil. I like the fact the terrine looks like a giant gamey weetabix. I fancy giving this a go. Those Jackdaw breasts also look incredible, will have to hunt some down.
meemalee said…
Incredible! What a bloody cool day - I am uber-jealous. I love the weird meats, me.

ps Timm-eh!
Lisa Cookwitch said…
Kavey, you are a brave woman. Given what magpies eat...I am not that brave.

Mr Food Urchin sir, that was a day that just kept on - and on - giving!
Wow - fascinating stuff, Dan, and what an extravaganza. Fortune favours the brave, or something...

Great post. Great day. Well done!
Neil Davey said…
Cracking post, mate. Funny and informative, brilliant stuff.
Kavey said…
Lisa, not so much brave as somewhat hooked on idea of magpie pie. It's purely the name of it that makes me so want to try it!
BeccaRothwell said…
It's certainly re-assuring to know I'm not the only one who has been known to watch wild birds and think of the kitchen. When we were poor students a few friends and I had a ponder about whether there was anyway we could legally and feasibly catch and dispatch one of the campus geese for our Fake Christmas meal, but no-one seemed really that up for it in the end.

Sounds like a wonderfully varied meaty day. I really must try more wild meat; the only problem is the boyfriend doesn't approve of the "bambi" nature of it all.

Brilliant post and I am as jealous as everyone else who commented!
What a series of dainty dishes to set before a king/Food Urchin. Looks brilliant. Assume you will soon be stalking the streets of Essex in plus fours and a tweed jacket, taking pot shots at any remotely edible looking bit of wildlife/unattended pet? Magpie and guinea pig rissoles, cats stuffed with starlings – the possibilities are endless.
gastrogeek said…
excellent stuff! I can just picture you in your Elmer Fudd get up shooting the bejesus out of those pesky pigeons and badgers.
Food Urchin said…
Kavey - I am not sure Kavey, magpies eat dead things, rotten dead things.

Nick - How many giant gamey weetabix can you eat?

MiMi - t'was a cool day, perhaps we'll do it again some day, I'll ask Timm-eh

Lisa - I'm trying to tell her THEY EAT DEAD THINGS but she won't listen

aforkfulofspaghetti - Thanks Helen, not sure about brave but thanks (touched?)

Neil - cheers sir, yes informative, I like to think so

Kavey - see Lisa? see?

Becca - in my student days it was always the ducks at the local park pond, I used to dream, salivate over them.

Gin and crumpets - the possibilities are endless, they striding the streets of Essex dressed as you suggest will either get me a shoeing or arrested.

gastrogeek - I'll get that pwesky wabbit!
Lisa Cookwitch said…
Having seen some Magpies today, and stared at them until I made them uncomfortable...nah. Still not a thing I'd eat. I bet they'd be all bitter and, well, bitter.

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