Pickled Birds - A Food Delicacy?

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Preserving Food

Pickling began as a way to preserve food for out-of-season use and for long journeys, especially by sea. Salt pork and salt beef were common staples for sailors before the days of steam engines. Although the process was originally used to preserve foods, pickling is frequently done because people enjoy the resulting flavour. Other home food preservation methods include canning, drying, fermentation, smoking and sugaring.
In the uk we are familiar now with pickled beetroot and onions.

Inuit and the Yaos

Other cultures have used pickling to preserve birds. The Inuit in Greenland used to collect sea birds in a sack, leave them hung up for weeks and then eat the result as a delicacy.  Perhaps the salt in the sea water on the birds acts as pickling solution?

The Yaos, with a population of 2.13 million, live in mountain communities scattered over 130 counties in five south China provinces. One of their favorite dishes is "pickled birds." The cleaned birds are blended with salt and rice flour, then sealed into airtight pots. Beef, mutton and other meat are also pickled this way and considered a banquet delicacy.

England in 1758

The Compleat Housewife or, Accomplished Gentlewoman’s Companion:
 by E. Smith in 1758 included a recipe for pickled sparrows. This suggested  cutting off the legs off the sparrows, pickling them in wine vinegar, and bringing them to the boil every month. When the bones have dissolved they are ready to eat.

In the uk in 2006 it seems unimaginable to think of pickled sparrows as a delicacy. But people that were near the edge of survival, like the Inuit in Greenland in the 1950’s or the average English person in 1758 had to use every resource that was available.


Not everyone who eats pickled birds is short of food.  In Cyprus the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recently appealed for support in lobbying the Cypriot Government to stop the killing of birds for pickling.  Blackcaps, and other songbirds such as robins and bee-eaters, are the main target, taken for ambelopoulia - an expensive local delicacy in which the whole bird is pickled. Other species unfortunate enough to be caught in the traps are killed and discarded.  The birds are pickled or grilled, and sold in tavernas for about  Euro 3.50 each. A diner will typically eat his way through a dozen or more ‘ambellopoulia’. The serving of these birds is illegal, but the law is not observed. Lovers of birds continue to lobby to end this practice.

Isle of Man

In 1676, the name Manx Shearwater was given to Puffinus puffinus by Francis Willoughby. The birds’  flight across the top of the water inspired its name. The birds nest in holes and burrows. Willoughby wrote in 1678 that:  "They feed their young wonderous fat. When they come to their full growth, they who are entrusted by the Lord of the island, draw them out of their coney holes; and that they may readily know, and keep an account of the number they take, they cut off one foot and reserve it, which gave occasion to the fable that the Puffins are single footed".

The annual cull took place each year during late summer. The birds were eaten both fresh and pickled. The oil from their bodies was used for preventing armour from rusting and was used as a source of lighting fuel before there was paraffin or electricity.


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