18 February 2011

Thrushes for tea

"Guess what I am going to eat today", my Spanish friend asked me yesterday, her face a curious mixture of triumph and embarrassment.  "Pajaritos - zorzales!"

She was obviously anticipating my exclamation of horror, and explained that she only ate thrushes once a year, as a special treat.  She likes them skewered and roasted en la chimenea (in the chimney).  Hunting thrushes and other caza menor (birds and rabbits) is an important source of income for the many unemployed men in the area, along with other produce freely obtainable in the campo, like espárragos (wild asparagus), tagarninas (edible thistles) and caracoles (snails).

Thrushes have been trapped for food for thousands of years.  The practice is still widespread around the Mediterranean, and is not illegal, provided you have a licence.  On the contrary, there is a whole tourist industry built around it, with thrush-hunting expeditions available throughout the season (mid November till the end of February).  Although becoming scarce in Britain, the songthrush is not an endangered species.  There is some debate about the effect hunting has on numbers; habitat loss and changing agricultural practices probably have a greater effect overall.  There are several groups campaigning for the total abolition of songbird hunting across Europe, such as CABS, the Committee Against Bird Slaughter.

In the hungry years of the 20th century, songbirds were an important source of protein for the people of Alcalá.  The thrushes my friend enjoys are shot with guns; she explained that she tries to spit out all the pellets but occasionally swallows one by accident. But there are other ways to catch them.  Juan Leiva in his "Evocaciones alcalainas" describes how as a child he and his friends would go down to the Prado before daybreak to smear the tree branches with a sticky resin called liría, or birdlime, which the birds' feet stick to when they perch.  This practice, although banned by the European Union, is still common in Valencia where it is known as parany.

There are hundreds of recipes on the internet for thrushes - grilled on skewers, cooked with rice, roasted with almond sauce, etc etc.  There is even a Ruta Gastronomica de los Pajaritos in Sevilla.  It is, when you think about it, irrational to enjoy eating a chicken or partridge but gag at the thought of eating a songbird.  But this is one instance where I am quite happy to remain an irrational guiri.

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