Thursday, 15 December 2011

Larking About - Sepia Saturday

What better way to start than:
Hail to thee, blithe spirit
Skylark with a caterpillar in its beak
 (By Daniel Pettersson - CC A-S A 2.5 Sweden License)

Percy Bysshe Shelly’s first line of his poem ‘To a Skylark’ is known all around the world.

In Britain the skylark numbers have fallen dramatically and I can’t remember seeing or hearing one in the last twenty years. It seems unbelievable that once they were considered a delicacy and appeared in Christmas feasts. Larks, commonly consumed with bones intact, historically were considered as wholesome, delicate, and light game. They were used in a number of dishes, for example, they were stewed, broiled, or used as filling in meat pies. Lark's tongues were particularly highly valued. Shrinking habitats made lark meat rare and hard to come by, though it can still be found in restaurants in Italy and elsewhere in Southern Europe.

For the cooks among you there is an ancient recipe for larks:
·        Pound the flesh of two larks in a mortar; add some butter, some chopped samphire, some breadcrumbs soaked in milk, some Malaga raisins, and some crushed juniper berries.
·        Stuff a third lark with the mixture and roast it on a spit covered with samphire leaves and a strip of fat bacon.
·        Serve on a crouton soaked in gin, and then toasted and buttered
(Samphire is the name given to a number of edible plants that grow in coastal areas. It is mentioned by Shakespeare in King Lear: Half-way down Hangs one that gathers samphire; dreadful trade! [Act IV, Scene VI]. This refers to the dangers involved in collecting rock samphire on sea cliffs.)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, 'lark women' were a common sight in the streets of Leipzig, Germany. They sold finger food to the people from baskets hanging from their arms. Larks or skylarks were the major ingredient of the food. Larks were said to have an aphrodisiac effect – even Casanova ordered them from Leipzig.

The big lark business in Leipzig came to a sudden end, when the Saxon King prohibited the killing of skylarks in 1876, due to public protests. A Leipzig baker then invented a sweet alternative, now known as the "Leipziger Lerche" (Leipzig Lark). This short pastry cake contains marzipan, almonds and strawberry jam, its appearance resembling that of the original lark pies. The Leipzig Lark is now a favorite Leipzig souvenir. And lark women are only seen as guides for guest in the streets of Leipzig...
Lark women in front of Gohlis Palace, Leipzig
(Photo: LTM - Keuhne)

Should you be one of those who likes birds for a Christmas feast then perhaps you would like the pie sent to King George III by James, Earl of Lonsdale. It contained contained 9 geese, 2 tame ducks, 2 turkeys, 4 fowls, 6 pigeons, 6 wild ducks, 3 teals, 2 starlings, 12 partridges, 15 woodcocks, 2 Guinea fowls, 3 snipes, 6 plovers, 3 water-hens, 1 wild goose, 1 curlew, 46 yellow-hammers, 15 sparrows, 15 chaffinches, 2 larks, 4 thrushes, 12 fieldfares, 6 blackbirds, 20 rabbits, 1 leg of veal, half a ham, 3 bushels flour, and 2 stones of butter. It weighed 22 stones, was carried to London in a two horse wagon, and if it was not as dainty as the celebrated pie containing four-and-twenty blackbirds, which, when the pie was opened, began to sing, it was, at all events, a ‘dish to set before the king.’

George III became King in 1760, around 100 years after the poet and politician Edmund Waller had written.

The Lark

The lark, that shuns on lofty boughs to build
Her annual nest, lies silent in the field.
But if the promise of a cloudy day,
Aurora smiling, bids her rise and play,
Then straight she shews, ‘twas not for want of voice,
Or power to climb, she made so low a choice:
Singing she mounts, her airy wings are stretch’d
T’wards heav’n, as if from heav’n her notes she fetch’d

I’ve larked around long enough with only two photos to show, it’s time for you to fly off and check other festive fare at Sepia Saturday


Karen S. said...

Oh Bob, I just know you had fun putting this together...and your larking has been delightful,(your humor is wonderful!) and you'll have to fly over to see mine too, (once I let it out of the nest) as for the King's incredible pie...oh I'll stick to a few less larking, flying or other things called blackbirds or pigeons..although, Alan's pie fare post got me a bit excited too, I searched about pigeon pie (people really eat it,and it's rich and costly!) and THEN! I discovered another excellent Sheperd's Pie recipe and made it last night! Yes, thank you it tasted even better than what I had in England...!!! ;) pigeon was used in preparing it either! ha ha

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Bob .. great historical notes .. and I love your Dishes fit for King or Queen ..

The pies back then were amazing .. or tall tales that have stood the test of time ..

Lovely post - thoroughly enjoyed the poetry, natural history and foodie info ... Glad the Lark Ladies are still around albeit in a different guise .. their little cakes I bet are gorgeous ..

Cheers - Hilary

PS - Great A - Z reflections over on Lee's blog ..

Postcardy said...

I didn't know larks were once popular as a food. I could never eat a bird with bones intact.

Kat Mortensen said...

Aphrodisiac, eh? Too bad I would never eat them. Nice, well-researched post.

L. D. Burgus said...

Oh yes, another strange thing that people gladly ate with glee. We shoot doves here in Iowa and I don't understand why when they have all the pheasant, turkey, and chickens they want to eat. A small bird would be work intensive with little food to show for in the end. Fun post.

Little Nell said...

You’re right about the skylarks being rarely heard these days I think. I always think of them singing over the WW1 battlefields.

I’d never heard of lark ladies - not in this context anyway, and I resisted the urge to make a pun about ‘finger food’. Great post Bob!

Linda said...

Poor skylark, I didn't know it was a popular course on anyone's menu! I'm thinking of that old tune, "Skylark" right now.

viridian said...

Great post - i'd like to try the sweet pastry cake.

Christine H. said...

What a fascinating post. I didn't know about the Lark Women. It would seem to me to be so much trouble to pluck a small bird like that for the tiny amount of meat that results. Must have been worthwhile or they wouldn't have done it.

Howard said...

I hope King Georges pie gave him constipation. Excellent post Bob, the picture of the skylark is lovely. I don't recall ever seeing one in the wild.

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I couldn't fancy eating a skylark - the bones would give me as much of a problem as many fish do. Samphire, though, I love samphire.

Tattered and Lost said...

And I thought a 3 berry pie was heavy!

Oh my but that multi animal/bird pie sounds awful. Glad it's not a recipe to survive.

Liz Stratton said...

I always know I'll learn something new when I drop by! Leipzig Lark sounds like a huge improvement.

Mike Brubaker said...

One of my favorite pieces of music is Ralph Vaughn Williams' The Lark Ascending. It would be a great loss if the world could no longer hear his inspiration of the real lark.

And thank you for your kind remarks on my post this week. It was partly inspired by the many good writers like yourself that I've met on Sepia Saturday.

Jinksy said...

I'm always game for a lark- but not a cooked one!

Oregon Gifts of Comfort and Joy said...

You have done it again, Bob ... what a masterpiece post. I knew nothing about larks except that they are birds before reading this.

Thanks, and Merry Christmas!

Kathy M.


After reading your description of King George III's pie, I feel the sudden urge to...