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Two birds in the hand

By The Twig - Well Seasoned, May 5 2017 10:00AM

One food that has virtually disappeared from the British diet in living memory is rook.


Rooks were once eaten in large numbers in Britain and especially on Rook Sunday - the Sunday closest to 13 May - when it was common to raid rooks' nests for fledgling birds (also called "squabs" or "branchers"), which start to leave the nest in late spring. The young birds were the main ingredient in rook pie, a celebrated delicacy in parts of the country. The practice has all but died out now although you will very occasionally still find rook for sale in high end butchers and game dealers.


These members of the crow family are very sociable and you'll most often see (and hear) them nesting in their hundreds in tall trees to the side of open farmland. Rooks have thinner beaks and a light, bare face whereas crows have black beaks and faces, but if you have trouble identifying them, remember the country saying that "a crow in a crowd is a rook and a rook on its own is a crow."


Since we're talking about birds we don't usually eat, it's worth a mention of one other this month. In April we saw the start of the season for an ingredient that has one of the shortest periods of availability - asparagus, which is around for just 8 weeks. Well, this month we can go one better.


The season for wild gulls eggs usually kicks off in the last week of April and runs until mid-May – just three weeks - until the birds begin sitting on their nests. A tiny (and shrinking) army of just 25 government-licensed collectors is be permitted to raid the cliffs of our coastline, taking a single egg from each nest of black headed gulls.


Before you scramble out of the front door to get hold of a box of gulls eggs, there are a few reasons why you might not be too concerned about this particular foodie season.


First, despite their beautiful appearance, gulls eggs don't actually taste that different. Whilst aficionados will tell you that they are creamier and gamier that hens eggs, the truth is that unless you have pretty refined taste buds, you won't have an eggy epiphany when you crack open the speckled shell of a gull's egg.


Secondly, from an ethical perspective, some conservationists (including the RSPB) have expressed concerns over the possible impact of the collection on the gull population, which has, in the recent past been in decline. Numbers do now appear to be on the increase again and the RSPB's concerns mainly relate to unauthorised collection by people who cause damage to the nesting sites.


Tim Maddams - the Ethical Foodie blogger for the Ecologist magazine recently told me there is "No shortage of gulls - in fact probably the opposite due to human wastefulness. [It's a] sustainable harvest that helps reduce numbers." However, the species remains on the Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) Amber list as a species with "unfavourable conservation status", so definitely one to keep an eye on.


Finally, and possibly most importantly, they are wallet-scarringly expensive. A single egg will set you back up to fifteen pounds in London's trendiest food quarters. Now, given the hard work required to collect them, it's not necessarily bad value for money as such, but they are unlikely to be your choice for a quick omelette, especially if you've got guests round. This is perhaps why every year a good proportion of the eggs collected are eaten not at home but in the poshest restaurants and at special Gulls Egg Dinners held in London's swankiest gentlemen's clubs (and why I've chosen a picture of hen's eggs to accompany this piece...)


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