Thursday, February 26, 2009
At this time of year, even a shopping trip can be an ornithologist’s delight. The French have long been accused of eating all their small birds, and to a certain extent this has been the case. Nevertheless, France has come into line with general thinking and small songbirds are not slaughtered in the numbers that they were thirty years ago. Old habits (or cuisines) die hard however. As recently as 1996, a dying Francois Mitterand (the former French President) ordered a dish of ortalon as a final treat.
This lovely little songbird, a member of the bunting family, was considered the 'hautest' of haute cuisine, and as such its capture and cooking was shrouded in tradition and myth. I'll not sicken you with the details of the preparation, but for some bizarre reason, which seems to have no sensible explanation, the dish is eaten whilst the diner covers his head with a white cloth. Legend has it that a gluttonous priest, who was anxious that God should not recognise him, first practiced this. He must have missed the vital piece of information in his theological teaching that nothing can be hidden from God.
Fortunately, these barbarically arcane traditions only survive now amongst the very oldest French gourmands. In nearly ten years, I have never come across thrush pate or lark's tongues on a village meal menu. Thank God!
But to return to our shopping trips. We are almost guaranteed to see a couple of heron, usually in the same place...a field bounded by a swift running water channel that takes the snow melt from the mountains, and for the last two winters our cattle have been joined in their pastures by an influx of cattle egrets. They spend a few weeks with us every winter now, and the cows seem very unfazed by them. I wonder why they choose to share accommodation with such big animals? They're never seen with the sheep, or in a field of horses, cattle are obviously their soul mates. Very strange.
The colder, snowy foothills of the Pyrenees bring down the birds of prey at this time of year. There really does seem to be a buzzard on every telegraph pole. The red and black kites circle endlessly round, as they do in the summer, but in winter, they seem to be higher in the sky.
There's quite a few small birds around too, fieldfares swooping and swarming, and of course the starlings who seem able to survive anywhere. We were lucky enough to see a swarm one day as we were driving towards Narbonne. What I thought was someone burning old tyres was in fact a cloud of starlings performing an aerial ballet over the flat terrain of the Minervois vineyards.
We never see any gulls as we're too far from the coast. For this reason, we never see wild duck or geese. I do miss the geese. The eerie sound of a skein of pinkfoot heading inland on the North Norfolk coast (to drive farmers ballistic!)is one of those experiences you never forget however far away you travel.
Another visitor in the skies over us isn't a bird, but nearly as exciting, well to Captain Sensible of course. It's rather larger than a bird; in fact, the Airbus 380 is rather larger than any other plane. So frequently does it appear that I hardly bother to look up now when I hear it droning over en route to the mountains, where the crew test the cockpit instruments for magnetic interference. We actually saw it on its maiden test flight. Well, I saw it ... in the distance. The Captain didn't because he was driving at the time. I said nothing for fear of looking stupid (I have been known to confuse large birds with planes and vice versa due to my short-sightedness) so it wasn't until I saw it on the telly that night that I realised what I had been looking at.
"I saw that this morning on the road from Le Cuing" I said. I was not popular.