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Song birds for the pot

Little birds with polenta and other delicacies

Little birds with polenta … and a pork sausage for that ‘full’ feeling.Little birds with polenta … and a pork sausage for that ‘full’ feeling.Song birds shot or trapped in Italy end up in the kitchen. For centuries migrant birds were one of the few sources of protein in the Mediterranean region and as a result tradition regional song bird recipes abound. There is no longer a need for anyone to depend on this meat supplement - nowadays wild birds are a questionable delicacy for gourmets and hunters. The sale of wild birds in butchers’ shops or restaurants in now totally forbidden; thrushes and larks shot by hunters in season may only officially be taken home for consumption.

When CABS operations began in the 1980s many restaurants in Italy advertised openly traditional song bird dishes, although the sale of wild birds was banned even then. Legally shot thrushes and illegally killed Robins were also openly sold on the weekly markets. This has now come to an end thanks to 20 years intensive work by bird conservationists and the responsible authorities. Nowadays, even in Bergamo (Lombardy) where restaurants previously had huge turnovers from the sale of birds, they cannot be found. But under the counter sales of wild birds still continue. Good customers can always purchase plucked birds from the family butcher and, on early closing day or in the back rooms where only locals are admitted, certain taverns serve dishes that do not appear on the printed menu.

Each region has its own specialities. The birds are usually grilled or fried, in Sardinia boiled and preserved, in Tuscany flambéed, and in Veneto rolled in belly of pork. The best known dish, undoubtedly also the most popular for which the North Italian Lombardy region is famed, is Polenta ucelli - maize pudding with little birds. The birds are skewered and grilled in the pan with either lashings of butter or olive oil and served with polenta. A course consists as a rule of four birds with a total weight of only 50 grams (under two ounces). A pork sausage serves to still the remaining hunger. The birds are eaten whole except for the beak and feet.