Live ‘black­bird pie’ thank­fully no longer in fash­ion


THE tra­di­tion of eat­ing small song­birds is widely prac­ticed world­wide but thank­fully it is a thing of the past in Ire­land.

The amount of meat on a small song­bird like a Robin is ob­vi­ously tiny; big­ger wild birds like Wood­pi­geons yield more to chew on.

Black­birds were once eaten though their meat is said to be rather bit­ter. Black­bird pie is im­mor­talised in the nurs­ery rhyme

‘Sing a Song of Six­pence’: Sing a song of six­pence/Four and twenty black­birds/Baked in a pie/ When the pie was opened/The birds be­gan to sing/ Wasn’t that a dainty dish/To set be­fore the king.

The ref­er­ences to singing ‘a song of six­pence’ and hav­ing ‘a pocket full of rye’ are sub­ject to dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions by those with a schol­arly in­ter­est in such mat­ters. In­ter­pre­ta­tion of the ‘four and twenty black­birds’ baked in a pie ap­pears to be more straight­for­ward and owes its ori­gin to an en­tremet dat­ing back to the Mid­dle Ages.

In six­teenth cen­tury French cui­sine, an en­tremet was a dish served be­tween courses as a nov­elty item for the en­ter­tain­ment of the no­bil­ity and up­per classes. The ‘four and twenty black­birds’ were in the pie but rather than be­ing ‘ baked’ they were alive. Fur­ther­more, ‘ black­bird’ was pos­si­bly a generic term mean­ing small song­birds in gen­eral rather than specif­i­cally re­fer­ring to the mem­ber of the thrush fam­ily that is one of our most com­mon gar­den birds.

A big, wide pie was baked for a royal ban­quet and over it a large dome of pas­try was placed with a col­lec­tion of live song­birds housed un­der the crust. The cre­ation was car­ried to the ta­ble, the outer crust of the pie was opened and to the de­light of the as­sem­bled guests the birds flew out call­ing as they es­caped from their con­fine­ment within the outer pas­try cas­ing.

Putting all the live birds un­der the pas­try shell must have been chal­leng­ing for the kitchen staff. One or two birds would be man­age­able but hav­ing ‘four and twenty’ was push­ing things to the ex­treme.

The prac­tice has now fallen out of fash­ion and would, in any event, be in­com­pat­i­ble good kitchen hy­giene and a raft of mod­ern en­vi­ron­men­tal health and safety reg­u­la­tions.

The mod­ern take on the me­dieval idea is to have a huge mockup card­board cake wheeled in with a suit­ably at­tired, young, at­trac­tive woman crouch­ing and hid­ing within be­fore stand­ing up and bursting forth at the ap­pointed mo­ment of sur­prise.

The male Black­bird has a nar­row yel­low eye-ring in ad­di­tion to its yel­low bill. Black­birds were once eaten though their meat is said to be rather bit­ter.

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