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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

OLD NIC'S NOTEBOOK

A BIRD IN THE HAND . . .

Coo-ee! Or how to snipe posh pigeons


Iwas just turned 20, and earlier in the year I had quit teachers' training college in the genteel Cotswolds town of Cheltenham in rural western England. I was earning money by working part-time at a slaughterhouse as a skinner, helping out as a bouncer at a jazz club and fighting in two or three professional wrestling bouts a month.

By then I had already been on two expeditions to the Arctic, and my overriding ambition was to go back to the High North. Teaching in Britain? No thanks.

During that early '60s summer, from the end of April to late September, I was on Lundy Island, which lies splendidly isolated in the Bristol Channel that separates southwest England from my native Wales. There, I had been acting as a very underpaid assistant warden and helping out with seabird banding on Lundy's rugged cliffs.

At the time, Lundy was overrun with rabbits, and as the landowners and other islanders refused to let the rabbit pandemic myxomatosis do its horrendous work there (as it had throughout most of the rest of Britain), I was encouraged to shoot the cute rodents. I used a very accurate, single-shot .22-caliber rifle with a telescopic sight. Due to the crashing of waves on Lundy's rocky shores, the loud cries of seabirds and the frequently strong winds, the small crack of a .22 bullet did not alarm nesting birds. As well, the ammunition was far cheaper than for a shotgun. I shot on average 60 rabbits a week, selling most of them to a butcher in Bideford, on the mainland coast of Devon to the south.

Because of that disgusting disease myxomatosis, wild rabbits for the pot had become very scarce, so my Lundy ones were in demand. Also, those that I supplied were all cleanly shot with a single bullet instead of being peppered with lots of little lead pellets.

Island life was wonderful, but I was determined to somehow get back to the Arctic, and so I returned to Cheltenham where I could make more money.

There, I shared an apartment overlooking the stately promenade and its tall old elms (all now gone due to Dutch elm disease) with a jovial photographer named Dave. I still had the rifle, and I got permission from a few landowners in the Cotswolds to shoot the occasional hare -- as long as I also took out a few pigeons and grey squirrels (which I ate) and crows (which I didn't).

The grey squirrels, imported from North America, are regarded as vermin by British foresters, and I even got a small bounty from the government's Forestry Commission if I presented a tail. After eating the meat, I tanned the skins to make mittens.

One day I came back early to the apartment to be greeted by Dave, who jumped up, booming his delight at seeing me. He was a large, rather heavy-set chap who was usually very jovial and had lots of girlfriends -- none of whom seemed to take him seriously, and most of whom thought I was a bit, well, "wild" is the word the kinder ones used. Dave was entertaining a young lady.

"Ah, Marlene," he said, "let me introduce you to my friend Nic. Nic is an explorer you know, writes things and practices wrestling and judo and stuff; a marvelous cook!"

Dave hated cooking, and he thought that by praising me he could con me into doing most of the cooking for him. The girl looked rather surprised.

"Oh really, that's nice, what do you like to cook?" she asked in a rather posh accent.

I was about to say porridge, toast and fried eggs, but Dave interjected.

"Oh, he shoots you see, so we get jugged hare, pheasant, partridge, snipe -- nothing but the best!"

I gave him a dirty look. He wasn't supposed to accuse me of poaching just because there was a certain farmer who would slip me a pound for each fox I shot on his land so that he could hand its brush over and irritate those local gentry who chased after foxes, like as not through the farmer's fields, with horses and hounds.

"I'll tell you what," said Dave, clapping me on the shoulder and beaming at the girl, "Why don't you bring along a friend and Nic will cook dinner for us, won't you Nic?"

Before I could say anything, the girl accepted.

"What will you cook?" she asked

"Snipe" said Dave, still trying to impress. "It's the season you know."

Snipe are wonderful birds that like marshes, bogs and muddy lake shores. In Japan they used to be pretty common in rice paddies. When you flush them they fly very quickly in a rapid zig-zagging pattern. They have a very long bill and have bold brown, black and white markings.

Snipe make excellent eating, but there was no way that I was going after them with my rifle, and although you could find them in the more expensive butcher shops, neither of us could afford them.

Dave's latest belle would be lucky if we could afford a chicken. But as I stood there mumbling, Dave hustled her off for a drive. He got home later that night, grinning all over.

"Delightful girl," he said, "and don't you think it was a brilliant idea of mine, to get her to bring a friend for you? And I even talked her into cadging a bottle of wine from her daddy's cellar. It's all set for next Friday. Dinner at 8 -- sounds more continental and sophisticated than 6. Don't worry about anything; I'll set the table."

"Where do you think I'm going to get snipe from?"

"Well, if it's not snipe, you could go and bag a couple of pheasant -- or woodcock, or something, couldn't you?"

"I'm not poaching," I said sulkily.

"You'll have to do something, the ladies will be expecting eats, and Marlene says she just adores snipe."

"Oh well, that's nice, but she'll probably have to make do with fish and chips!"

"Oh come on Nic, I'm counting on you! This one is important to me, and she says she enjoys my company because I have such odd and eccentric friends. She thinks it's very bohemian of me."

I had no intention of poaching, so what could I do? I didn't want to fork out all that money for snipe.

So what? A smallish bird with darkish meat. Ah, if nobody saw the head or the feet, a pigeon was reasonably close. Especially a nice plump wood pigeon. However, shooting wood pigeon with a rifle was irresponsible, because they were as likely as not up in a tree, and you don't shoot upwards with a rifle because even a little .22 can carry for a very long way and the bullet can come down with devastating effect. However, Cheltenham had lots and lots of feral pigeons, the descendants of rock doves. Various cultures have regarded these birds as food since very ancient times.

No, of course, I was not going to shoot in the town, so I bought a strong snapper-type mousetrap, drilled a hole in the corner and tied a string to it. Each day, when Dave went out, I would bait the trap with peanut butter and bread and set it on the window ledge outside, with the string tied to the radiator in the room.

In five days I had six pigeons, and although I worried a bit in case a neighbor might see a pigeon dangling by the neck -- or worse still, flapping about a bit if the mousetrap hadn't killed it cleanly -- our apartment was up in the attic of a high old Georgian house, and nobody saw.

When I gutted and plucked the birds, I made sure to get rid of the feet, heads and feathers. Then I hung the birds in the shade of a gable where their meat would age nicely and the crows couldn't get at them.

On the Thursday evening I bought a flagon of real country cider (not the awful lemonade stuff they call "cider" in Japan, but the apple-juice drink that can give a fellow a hangover like a mule kick). I marinated the birds in the cider, to which I'd added some herbs and a few cloves of crushed garlic. The next day I simmered them in the marinate until tender. You could buy mussels pretty cheaply back then, so I made a stuffing with brown rice, spices, mussels, finely chopped onions, parsley and a little chopped bacon, then roasted them in our oven until the skins were brown.

By the time the girls arrived, the birds were all ready and steaming on a platter, and Dave had set the table, candles and all.

I was certainly grateful for that, because in the dim light it would be less easy to discern that these birds were not snipe. As a whole, you see, although the English will eat wood pigeons, they turn their noses up at feral town pigeons, even high-class ones such as inhabit the stately burgh of Cheltenham with its plentiful green parks and gardens to forage in -- and lots of nice old ladies to plump them up with breadcrumbs.

"Oh, I've never had snipe cooked this way before," said Marlene.

"It's an old family recipe," said I. "Marinated in some rather rough wine. I was afraid you might not like the wild taste."

"Not at all, it's very good, and the meat is so tender."

"Have some more wine," said Dave -- generously serving her from the bottle she had snaffled from daddy.

"Next time," thought I, "I'll trap some sparrows and starlings and tell them they're baby quail."

Waste not, want not, after all.



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