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The Wheatear or ‘Sussex Ortolan’

I’m sorry to say that there’s no South Downs Way blog for July.  This is because, I’m very pleased to say, of an extremely busy few months!  We have really struggled to find any time when the three of us could excuse ourselves and head off into the hills.  We will be back on track soon I trust and will, as ever, update you on our progress.  We hope that you’ll stick with us despite this forced ‘leave of absence’. Just to show that we haven’t abandoned our duty completely, here is a related piece (see part 3) about something that was once considered one of the ‘Seven Good Things of Sussex’ and gave her a culinary legacy to compare with Cromer crabs or Colchester oysters.

The Wheatear or ‘Sussex Ortolan’

“The most delicious taste for a creature of one mouthful, for ‘tis little more, that can be imagin’d” DEFOE

Wheatears (small migratory birds) arrive on the south coast of England in March and stay until October after raising their broods, making one of the longest migratory journeys of any small bird.  ‘Wheatear’ is possibly the ‘sanitised’ version, or “Anglo-Saxon” as Beckett has it, of ‘white-rump’.  This name, whilst initially seeming a little coarse, is all the more appropriate when you see the bird flying away from you; a sight you are very likely to see as wheatears are known to lead threats away from their nests by making short flights in a wide circle.  Wheatears are ground nesting birds, sometimes making use of old rabbit holes for nest sites.  They have a habit of diving back into any shallow depression in the ground to evade predators.  It is this trait that allowed them to be caught in their hundreds across centuries past.

Apparently, wheatears were attracted to Sussex to feed on a particular fly, which in turn favoured Sussex thyme.  Mrs Beeton credits Thomas Pennant for this fact and I don’t know whether there is any truth in it.  What is certain is that from the 1600’s, if not before, right into the 20th century, wheatears, along with other songbirds, were highly valued for their flesh with many recipes written for their consumption.

Shepherds would supplement their meagre income with trapped wheatears.  John Dudeney (1782-1852) was one such Sussex shepherd who used his wheatear wages to buy books teaching himself first to read and later, among other subjects, mathematics, French, Latin and astronomy.  This allowed him to take the position of schoolmaster in Lewes where he went on to co-found the local Mechanics Institute.  His grandson, Henry Dudeney (1857-1930) himself a mathematician, married Alice Whiffin who, while famous in her lifetime for her works of fiction, gained notoriety posthumously with the publication of her diaries detailing her life in Lewes.

Every 25th July the wheatear season would start.  Horsehair snares attached to small stakes would be placed in the entrances of old rabbit holes or specially dug traps.  Any wheatear seeking shelter would be caught and the shepherd could then sell them to local hostelries for consumption.  The custom was that if a (hungry) person wanted to remove a wheatear from a shepherd’s trap then they were to leave money in its place.  James Hurdis (1763-1801) records in his poem, ‘The Favourite Village’, that he would release the birds from the traps he passed but still leave the coin to compensate the shepherd.  Arthur Beckett, in his work ‘The Spirit of the Downs’, claims to have done the same.

In 1788 the diarist John Byng (1743-1813), later 5th Viscount Torrington, and his friend Isaac Dalby (1744-1824), a self-taught mathematician, were touring in Sussex.  On the 17th August, when at Hastings, he records:

Within the castle, we seated ourselves for some time, delighted with the weather, the freshness of the sea-breeze and the cheerfulness of the scenery; till the shepherd came to survey his traps, when we paid him sevenpence for his capture of seven birds, whom we sat instantly to pluck in preparation of our dinner spit; and it wou’d have made others laugh to have seen us at our poulterers work”.

A few days later they arrived at Lewes and stayed at the White Hart, against Byng’s better judgement who favoured the Bear Inn in Cliffe High Street.  Byng was proved correct in his fears and did not enjoy it at the White Hart:  he was forced to share a bed with his travelling companion, found difficulty in getting a private dining room and was served potted wheatear, which he had no “appetite” or “liking” for.  After petitioning the house for a better room (which he was then sharing with his wife who had joined him at Lewes) his night was interrupted when the door “was forced upon by drunkards, which alarmed Mrs Byng exceedingly.”  As well it might.  A day trip to Brighton saw him eat many wheatears that were “dressed to perfection” before he had to return to the misery of the White Hart for one last time.  Taking his departure the following morning he began his journal entry “There cannot be an inn of worse description than is this White Hart”.

In the later part of the 1800’s wheatear trapping become industrial in nature with parts of the Downs taking on the appearance of ploughed fields because of the sheer numbers of wheatear traps dug there.  W.H. Hudson (1841-1922), a naturalist who helped to found the RSPB, relates a story in his work “Nature in Downland” of an East Dean shepherd and shepherdess who abandoned their flock to process a hundred dozen wheatears that they caught in a single day.  The couple had to remove their smock and petticoats respectively in order to carry the birds home.  If, as legend states, it was in Sussex that ‘Little Bo Peep lost her sheep’ it is all too easy to understand why: obviously it was between July and September and she was busy trapping wheatears.

Hurdis was probably ahead of his time in his desire to save the birds from their traps, but the public appetite for the eating of songbirds did gradually begin to wane.  Hudson, writing almost a century after Hurdis’s death, was disgusted by “Britons with the Italian’s debased passion of a songbird’s flesh” and questioned in his writing why such a “pretty and interesting bird” should be “killed merely to enable London stockbrokers, sporting men, and other gorgeous persons who visit the coast, accompanied by ladies with yellow hair, to feed every day on ‘ortolans’ at big Brighton hotels.”

Gradually the practice began to die out.  Shepherds ceased to set their traps.  E. V. Lucas, in his ‘Highways and Byways in Sussex’, first published 1904, attributes this to three reasons:  smaller flights of wheatears – possibly due to more Downland being put to the plough; “protection of the bird by law” and; the “refusal of farmers to allow their men any longer to neglect the flocks by setting and tending snares.”  With the shepherds no longer setting their traps it fell to the bird-catchers, according to Hudson, from the “Brighton Slums” to satisfy demand.  Hudson took to patrolling the Downs to personally discourage the law breakers and encouraged others to do the same.

As tastes moved away from the gun and gut and towards the camera and conservation so the sporting gentleman with his gun and the shepherd with his snare were replaced by another, the naturalist with his notebook.  Whereupon wheatear trapping passed from the cookery books into the history books.

 


 

A Trice of Wheatears – Recipes

By Robin Thorpe, Cellarman and Wild Cook

NOTE: Wheatears are now much less plentiful than the old days, plus it is illegal to trap them or interfere with their nests, so I substituted free-range pheasant breasts, though quail would work well!

  1. Potted Wheatear

Slice the meat into quarter-inch slices, season with salt, pepper and mace and bake in butter gas mark 4 for 30 minutes

Place in ramekins and cover with clarified butter. Serve with crusty bread.

 

  1. Wheatear on a Spit

Cut meat into chunks, place in a bowl with salt, pepper, lemon juice and Downland herbs. (I used Thyme and marjoram)

Place in fridge for 30-60 minutes.

Place on wooden skewers (I made some from ash) with colourful vegetables of your choice (I used red and yellow peppers)

Baste with butter & oil and grill until done.

  1. Baked Wheatear

I trussed a whole pheasant breast, as you would a lark, stuffed with chopped garlic, butter and Downland herbs.

Dip your wheatear shaped meat portion in seasoned: flour, then beaten egg, then breadcrumbs. Repeat the 3 stage dip, shaking lightly after each dip.

Place on a plate in the fridge or cook straight away – in a small non-stick pan with a generous level of bubbling butter, over a low heat, till all sides are a crispy golden brown; for approx. 15 minutes, until done.

It’s a bit like a chicken kiev, though I’ve named this one ‘Cocking Chicken’ after that glorious day on the Downs!  Serve the above with a light salad, fresh local new potatoes with a wild mint butter.

Enjoy.

 


Bibliography

Montaque L., The Housewife. Being a most useful assistant in all domestic concerns, whether in a town or country situation, London, J Dixwell, 1785.

Briggs R., The art of English cookery, London, G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1788.

Beaton I., The Book of Household Management, London, S. O. Beaton, 1861.

Lucas E. V., Highways & Byways in Sussex, Macmillan, London, 1935 revised edition.

Beckett A., The Spirit of the Downs, London, Methuen & Co., 1909.

Wymer N., Companion into Sussex, Spur, 1972 revised edition.

Hudson, W. H., Nature in Downland, Macdonald Futura Publishers, 1981 edition,

Samuelson M.K., Sussex Recipe Book: With a few excursions into Kent, Lewes, Southover Press, 2005.

Cocker M., and Mabey R., Birds Britannica, Chatto & Windus, 2005.

Souden D. (ed.), Byng’s Tours: The Journals of the Hon. John Byng 1781-1792, National Trust classics, 1991.

Walker H. (ed.), Food on the Move: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1996, Oxford Symposium, 1997.

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_Dudeney

Kettner, Kettner’s Book of the Table, Dulau and Co., 1877.

Shoberl F, The Natural History of Birds, John Harris, 1836.

Borrer W, The Birds of Sussex, R. H. Porter, 1891.

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