THE SUSSEX ORTOLAN
By Elizabeth Wright
We’ve all probably heard of Lark Pudding or Blackbird Pie, both were considered great delicacies in the past, but English Ortolan Pie, what was in that? Daniel Defoe wrote, ‘The most delicious taste for a creature of one mouthful, for ‘tis little more, than can be imagin’d.’
From the 1600s, and possibly before, many songbirds were highly valued for their flesh with hundreds of recipes written about their consumption. One of the most popular little birds was the Wheatear, a relative of the Robin, which was, and is, a passing migrant, arriving on the South Downs from March onwards. Their plumage is of a soft grey and white with black wings, the male having a thick black band below the eye, giving it the appearance of a masked bandit. They were also known by peculiar local names such as ‘Snorters,’ ‘Fallowsmith’ and Stone-Chucker;’ its south country name was supposed to come from its alleged habit of feeding on ears of wheat, although that idea has long since been dismissed. Not only were they caught for food but, because their song could be compared to that of a canary, many were kept as cage pets.
But their greatest value was as a table delicacy, where each bird was wrapped in vine leaves and roasted, earning from French gourmets the title of ‘English Ortolan,’ the flavour of this bird it was said to resemble. Writers in the 16th Century suggested that the Wheatear was ‘so rapturously dwelt upon, with such an air of rolling a fat, delicious morsel in the mouth, and smacking the lips after deglutition, and stroking a well satisfied stomach, that one is led to think that the happiness of the great, the wise and the good of that age, was centred on their bellies, and that they looked upon the eating of Wheatears as the highest pleasure man could know…’
In the ‘Complete History of Sussex’ published in 1730, it states ‘Although Eastborn [Eastbourne] or Eborn is found in our maps and villares,’ its only claim to the attention of its readers was on account of its being ‘the chief place of catching the delicious birds, called Wheat-Ears, which must resemble to French Ortolans!’
As the South Downs was the summer home of Wheatears, the trapping of these birds became highly profitable for local shepherds, who were ideally placed to take advantage of the demand for their consumption. In the late 1700s, between July and September, by using specialised horsehair snares attached to small stakes set in shallow trenches, commonly called ‘coops,’ they could make far more money from a few weeks of wheatear catching than from a whole year of shepherding. It was not unusual for a shepherd and his lad to look after as many as 700 traps. These birds became an important part of regional fare, and an individual Downland shepherd could easily catch 80 or 90 dozen birds a day. In the early 1800s, just in the vicinity of Eastbourne, trappers brought in 1,840 dozen migrating birds a year. John Dudeney, (1782-1852) a Sussex shepherd, when working at Westside Farm, Rottingdean said, “I caught great numbers of wheatears during the season for taking them, which lasted from July to the end of August. The most I ever caught in one day was thirteen dozen. From what I have heard from old shepherds, it cannot be doubted that they were caught in much greater numbers a century ago than of late. I have heard of immense number being taken in one day by a shepherd of East Dean, near Beachy Head. I think they said he took nearly a hundred dozen; so many he could not thread them on crow quills in the usual manner, but took off his round-frock [smock] and made a sack of it to pop them into, and his wife did the same with her petticoat. This must have been when there was a great flight.”
Dudeney sold his wheatears at 2s 6d or 3s a dozen and used this money to buy books. During lonely days tending his flock on Newmarket Hill, he taught himself to read, learn French, Hebrew and Latin then went on to learn about mathematics and astronomy, eventually moving on to become a schoolmaster at Lewes.
Wheatears were regularly on the menu at hotels in Brighton and other coastal towns where the birds could be delivered fresh to poulterers who ‘dressed them to perfection.’ London remained a challenge to supply as Old Thomas Fuller, in his ‘Worthies of England’ writing on Sussex, says, “Wheatears are birds peculiar to this county, hardly found out of it. It is so called because fattened when wheat is ripe, whereon it feeds, being no bigger than a lark, which it equals in firmness of flesh; the worst is, that being only seasonable in the heat of summer and naturally larded with lumps of fat, it is soon subject to corrupt, so that, though abounding within forty miles of London, the poulterers there have no mind to meddle with them, which no care in carriage can keep from putrefaction.” However in 1842 it is recorded that, in one day, 60 dozen wheatears were sent to the capital by the Eastbourne coach.
Wheatear pie played an important part in the life of William Wilson, an early lord of the Manor of Eastbourne. On Good Friday 1658, Oliver Cromwell, being aware of Wilson’s ‘attachment to the Royal cause’ sent a detachment of Dragoons, commanded by Lieutenant Hopkins, to check out his house, Compton Place. An old document recorded that ‘When the Roundheads arrived they were hospitably received by Wilson’s wife, at whose orders a large wheatear pie was placed before the party. The officer, it being quite a novelty to him, was equally amazed and delighted and merrily insisted that all his military companions should taste of the rare repast, which they did with much jollity…..While they were feasting, Mrs. Wilson went up to her husband, then sick in bed, who desired her to bring him a file of letters out of his closet. He took off one or more and ordered her instantly to burn them and stir the ashes and then call up the officer…..’ A search found nothing incriminating and the officer said to Mrs. Wilson, “For had I found anything – cordite to the information given in against him, my orders were to have him taken away.”
Immediately after the Restoration, Charles II created the head of the Wilson family a Baronet and subsequently wheatears formed a conspicuous quartering in the Wilson coat-of-arms. The King, having ‘a great fondness for wheatears,’ was then freely supplied by Wilson with these birds ‘for His Majesty’s table.’
By the mid 1800s the practice began to die out because wheatears had become less plentiful and many farmers began to stop their shepherds from catching the birds because they felt that the men were ‘neglecting their flocks by setting and tending snares.’ More land was drawn in for cultivation and in the late 1800s it was finally made illegal to take birds in this way.
“…When the sever’d cloud of airy day
Flits through the blue expanse…
The timorous wheatear, fearful of the shade,
Trips to the hostile shelter of the clod,
And where she sought protection finds a snare,
…Seized by the spring
She flutters for lost liberty in vain,
A costly morsel, destined for the board
Of well-fed luxury, if no kind friend,
No gentle passenger the noose dissolve,
And give her to her free-born wing again.”
By Sussex poet
Elizabeth Wright, 42 Midhurst Road, Hampden Park, Eastbourne, East Sussex, BN22 9HJ.