None for Me, Thank You!By
I’m not an adventurous eater by any means, but one evening in Arles, more to show off than anything else, I ordered oursins, the “fuzzy bears” of the sea. They arrived at the table, and I could hardly bear to breathe in: they smelled, well, like sea urchins. But I’d ordered them, so I ate them — and they were delicious.
Hoopoes smell worse. I won’t recite the notoriously scatological folk names this spectacularly plumed bird has been saddled with through history; let it suffice that the bacterium responsible for the stench is called Enterococcus faecalis. Enough said?
Here in Provence we find Hoopoes in the woods, the vineyards, and the clearings, as well as in parks with tall trees. They nest in many areas in our Department. It is in September and October that these birds make their return flight to Africa. At this season they are extremely fat, and their flesh makes a delicious meal; they are also less shy then than on their arrival in the spring.
Can’t be, but is. This species with its “well-known stercoraceous inclinations“ was a greatly appreciated seasonal treat in Mediterranean France. Pierre Belon, writing in the mid-sixteenth century, assures us (Hist. nat. oyseaux VI.x) that though no one wants to eat it,
properly seasoned and roasted, a Hoopoe has been found to be no less tasty than a Blackbird.
More than two hundred years on, the great Buffon weighs in in great detail on the Hoopoe’s qualities:
the migrant birds in Egypt are very fat and very good to eat. I say migrating Hoopoes, because in that same country there are resident birds often seen in the date orchards in the vicinity of Rosette, which one never eats. They are also found in great numbers in the city of Cairo, where they nest with full impunity on the terraces of the houses. One can imagine, in fact, that the Hoopoes living apart from man, in the inhabited countryside, are better to eat than those that live within a large city or along the major roads that lead to it: the former seek their sustenance, which is to say insects, in the mud, the gravel, the moist earth — in a word, at the breast of nature — instead of, like the latter, in the manifold filth that abounds wherever large numbers of people are gathered; this cannot fail to inspire disgust at the Hoopoe of the city and even to give its flesh an unpleasant odor…. That musk seems to be the reason, too, that even cats, normally so ravenous when it comes to birds, never touch these birds.
In his annotated edition of Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, Geoffroy St-Hilaire adds the helpful kitchen hint that “the most frequently recommended method to remove this musky taste is to cut off the bird’s head as soon as it has been killed.”
Maybe they’re like sea urchins.
We won’t get to taste them, but we’ll see plenty of Hoopoes in southern France next April!