Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Baked in a Pie

Μην αφήνετε κότσυφας σας ταΐσουν με το ρόδι ή θα πεθάνει! — Tragoudos Sankotsiphas

"Sing a Song of Sixpence" is a well-known nursery rhyme, thought to date from the 18th century. But the origins, like that of most nursery rhymes, is probably far older. In Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" (written probably in 1602), Sir Toby Belch exhorts a clown: "Come on; there is sixpence for you: let's have a song" (Act II, Scene iii). "Bonduca" by Beaumont and Fletcher (1614), contains the line "Whoa, here's a stir now! Sing a song o' sixpence!"

Sing a song of sixpence,
A pocket full of rye.
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 king was in his counting house,
Counting out his money;
The queen was in the parlour,
Eating bread and honey.

The maid was in the garden,
Hanging out the clothes;
When down came a blackbird
And pecked off her nose.

Many interpretations have been suggested for this rhyme. A known 16th-century amusement was to place live birds in a pie. An Italian cookbook from 1549 described such a recipe: "make pies so that birds may be alive in them and flie out when it is cut up".

The Common Blackbird was seen as a sacred, though destructive bird, in Classical Greek folklore, and was said to die if it consumed pomegranate. Some of you readers may appreciate the irony of this fact to the author. Like many other small birds, it has in the past been trapped in rural areas as an easily available addition to the diet.

Be that as it may, I would never be satisfied until I concocted a literal blackbird pie and compared it with the literary version. I am here to tell you that it was a resounding success: so much so as to warrant the shooting of two dozen blackbirds and all the attendant preparation.

Late fall is a good time for this and it has become my tradition to make this dish once a year and share it with friends who come dressed in medieval garb for the occasion. I dare say the pie would be every bit as good—at least gastronomically—without the theatricals, but, in my opinion, food is for the soul as much as for the body, and I prefer to consume mine with the attendant ritual wherever possible—when it comes to blackird pie, for me that means medieval costume and the singing of madrigals. I do not proselytize, but you might want to try it my way and let me know how it went.

In the inimitable style of Mrs. Beeton, first catch your blackbirds. I find that the best place to do that is on wide-open ploughed land in proximity of tall trees. I guess that blackbirds like roosting on the trees and keeping their field under surveillance. The fact is that, when they are disturbed, they will take flight and nine times out of ten they will make for their trees. This allows you to place yourself strategically so that you can intercept their flight. If you acquire the knack, you will be shooting two, three or more blackbirds with each shell you fire.

I use #8 shot, which I think is an ideal compromise between killing capacity and density of the rose, provided you use the right choking. At thirty to forty yards you should aim to bring down at least three birds per shell, on average. At a pinch, #6 shot will do, but you will probably be shooting longer to fill your bag. For hunting, shot size must be chosen not only for the range, but also for the game. The shot must reach the target with enough energy to penetrate to a depth sufficient to kill the game.

Number 8 shot loses its velocity very quickly due to its low sectional density and ballistic coefficient, but it will give you a nice high-density pattern at ranges up to 40 yards. Small shot like that will have lost all appreciable energy by 100 yards. You will want a cylinder choke on your shotgun barrels for the maximum possible spread. You should get a useable rose of about 50 inches or so at about 35 to 40 yards with a cylinder choke. Placing your shot carefully should allow you to bag two to three birds per shell at that range.

The way I clean a blackbird is quick: the breast is the only edible part. I stand on the wings as close to the joints as possible. Then I grab the legs and pull on them, the breast will come completely out. It will not have feathers on it and the guts will be left behind. Now, with a sharp boning knife, all you have to do is cut down on either side of the sternum to free the breast fillets. You can prepare two dozen blackbirds in under an hour with a little practice, and with two dozen to prepare you'll get plenty of that.

Place your breast fillets in a stoneware basin and cover with good full-bodied red wine, a couple of small fistfulls of juniper berries lightly crushed, a couple of handfuls of dry but not fossilized bay leaves, two or three dozen cloves of garlic with the skins still on but bashed, three onions thinly sliced, a couple of small fistfulls of peppercorns which you will have toasted until they start popping in a small cast iron skillet, a couple of dozen cloves toasted together with the peppercorns, three large carrots finely sliced, a goodly bunch of celery coarsly chopped and two small fistfulls of coarse sea salt or kosher salt. Irrorate with a goodly drizzle of decent olive oil, this will help tenderize the flesh. Let the breasts marinate in a fridge or cool place for three days.

Meanwhile place all the bones and legs that you have salvaged from the carcasses, and which you will have rinsed well, in a pressure cooker together with chicken necks and carcasses, and beef gristle for its gelatinous goodness (else a couple of pig's trotters or a calf's foot), and cover with water. Bring to the boil and cook at very low heat for about an hour and a half. When the pot has cooled sufficiently, open it and strain off the broth: discard the bones.

When the breasts have marinated sufficiently, remove them from the basin in which they have marinated and pat them dry with a clean cloth or paper towelling. Add the marinade to the previously made broth and simmer until reduced to abour two pints or little more. This will take quite some simmering. When the liquid has reduced sufficiently, stir into it a lump of beurre manié (butter worked together with flour) about the size of two hen's eggs and go lightly with the flour. Continue simmering while stirring, until thickened to the consistency of light cream.

In a large tinned copper or cast iron skillet, heat some butter, olive oil and a dollop or two of good bacon grease until quite hot. Sauté the previously floured breast fillets in batches, adding more fat as necessary. When the breasts have all been done, sauté two pounds of firm sliced button mushrooms and splash with white wine, scraping with a wooden spatula to deglaze the pan. Season lightly and set aside with the breasts.

Now, all that remains is to make the pastry and assemble the pie. The best pastry for this will be a fairly stiff shortcrust made with butter and lard.

One part of butter and one part of lard are rubbed into four parts of plain flour to create a loose mixture that is then bound using a small amount of iced water, rolled out, then shaped and placed in a pie dish to create the top and bottom the pie. The butter serves to give the pastry a rich flavor, whilst the lard ensures optimum texture.

You will probably need at least eight cups of flour and two each of butter and lard for four and twenty blackbirds to be accomodated in a pie—be generous since any excess will be transformed into biscuits and so will not go to waste. Your pie dish will need to be 16-18 inches in diameter, and the resultant pie will feed at least twelve good trenchermen or women.

When you have lined the pie dish with the pastry (about half an inch thick), paint the inside all over generously with softened butter, then fill the pie with the breasts and the mushrooms and pour over the broth and marinating liquor which you will previously have strained and reduced, to just cover the meat. Sprinkle over the lot a good glass of fine malt whiskey. When the pie is filled the breasts should just be covered in the thickened juice. Now place the lid on the pie, having first moistend the edges of the base with milk to allow the pastry to bond together. Impress the edge all round with the tines of a fork neatly and decorate the lid with shaped offcuts of leftover pastry. Now glaze the top of the pie carefully by painting on egg yolks beaten with a little milk. This will give you a glossy finish and a mouth-watering golden hue.

Any surplus pastry may be rolled out and shaped into biscuits which you will glaze and bake in the oven together with the pie. Hand these round as an appetizer with the preliminary drinks. If you are inclined to make them sweet, you may sprinkle them with sugar before baking and strew them with good fennel seeds.

Bake your pie in a medium oven for about an hour and a quarter, or until nicely golden. Be sure not to let it darken excessively or the pastry will lose its fine flavor and become bitter.

The pie will need to cool down to barely lukewarm or even to room temperature to be eaten. Do not be tempted to eat it too hot, for it will not be very good. Do not refrigerate any leftover pie if you will be eating it within the next day, but simply cover with a clean white cloth and place in a cool larder. It is my belief that decent food should never see the inside of a refrigerator—you may well not share this view.

You may serve a good Chianti wine or a Claret with your pie, and your guests will not complain—some may prefer Port wine and others a dark winter ale, and you should aim to satisfy their whims, and they will thank tou for it. Remember that you will be counting on their good cheer and gratitude to sing madrigals and provide a jolly atmosphere. Serve anything you like after the pie—I leave the choice to you—but feed your guests little more than fennel biscuits and wine before it, so that they may have a keen edge to their appetite, the better to enjoy the fruits of your considerable labor.

The Common Blackbird (Turdus merula) is a species of true thrush, and, in common with other passerine birds, parasites are common. Most Common Blackbirds harbour intestinal parasites (most frequently Isospora and Capillaria species), as well as haematozoan parasites (Leucocytozoon, Plasmodium, Haemoproteus and Trypanosoma species).

This, of course, is true for a great many game species as well. Follow my instructions carefully during preparation and you should come to no harm: I have lived on wild fowl and game for years and have a clean bill of health.

However I can take no responsibility for what you eat, and, as a disclaimer, I advise you to seek competent veterinary and medical advice—or in any case to assume responsibility for your own actions. We live in a sanitized world where much of what is considered "clean" is contaminated and vice versa. Follow your own convictions and inform yourself carefully. Forearmed is forewarned, and vice versa.