Of dormouse and men and Roman delicacies

Like lizards, dormice have the trick of 'autotomy' — discarding their tail if it is grabbed by a predator.

This weekend, I will visit one of my sons in historic St Alban’s in Hertfordshire, England. 

The fares, Cork-Gatwick, are €40 return, thanks to Mr O’Leary, whose operation has recently become so user friendly that many who swore they’d never again fly Ryanair have been reconverted.

The park near my son’s home has two large ponds and a river path that continues for 20km. Many waterbird species are present, including great crested and little grebe, Canada and Greylag geese, and coots and waterhens galore. At the park’s Verulamium Museum one may see dormouse fattening jars and the baking pots in which the Romans, who built the town, prepared dormouse hors d’ouvres.

The fat, or edible, dormice (Glis glis) they ate must have been imported live from Italy. They were first released into the wild in Britain in 1902 by the eccentric Lord Rothschild (who drove a pony-cart pulled by a zebra) at his Hertfordshire estate. They spread over the Chiltern Hills, although not too far, perhaps because, being very fat, they found farther expansion hard going.

They are loveable creatures in appearance, although a nuisance at close quarters, especially when they colonise domestic attics and hop about all night, making a considerable din.

Largest of all dormice species, the body is 17cm long followed by a bushy tail of 12cm. Like miniature grey squirrels, they are silvery, with a white belly, big, endearing eyes and rounded, furry ears. In domestic locations, they enjoy eating electric cables, and stealing garden fruit.

There are some 30,000 in the wild. While they feed on nuts, berries, crab apples and buds — and sleep for most of the year — they also raid commercial fruit crops and strip bark from trees. The Romans would, no doubt, have put a stop such depredations by capturing them at harvest time, and kebabbing or sautéing them in white wine.

When stuffed with hedgerow fare and ready for bed, fat dormice certainly earn their name, doubling their weight from their usual 135gm after waking in springtime.

Hibernating underground, they sleep for upto nine months at a stretch. Before nodding off, they might well be delicious, cooked in the custom-made, individual, eggcup- style casseroles, with the lid tied down to hold in the juices, and a soupçon of garlic in virgin olive oil.

Like lizards, dormice have the trick of ‘autotomy’, ie discarding their tail if it is grabbed by a predator. The skin slips easily off the vertebrae, which later breaks off, and the animals grows an entirely new, furry appendage. In mammals, this strategy is said to be confined to certain species of mice, but I can vouch for the common gerbil’s ability to perform the trick, too.

One of my sons, as a toddler, came upon a gerbil’s tail protruding from its cage and, grabbing it, tried to extract the animal via the gap between the bars, a dreadful experience for the gerbil. The boy was left with the furry tail skin, while the animal scurried away. It later lost the vertebrae and grew a new tail.

Like gerbils, dormice are also kept as pets. Not only are they enchanting but, if you get tired of looking after your pet, you can eat it. This is something you cannot do with your Christmas cat or dog. Fat dormouse farming might be the way to go if the public was ‘educated’ to the taste.

The Romans fattened their dormice on chestnuts and fruit and served them a sweet sauce of honey and poppy seeds. Favourite foods of the Roman gourmet included snails fattened on milk until they could no longer retreat into their shells; “battery dormice” fattened in earthenware jars; oysters; hams and suckling pigs; peacocks, pheasants and geese; and chicken cooked in various ways, one of which required the bird to be drowned in red wine.

The writer Petronius provided a contemporary description of a famous banquet. Guests were offered ‘A hare tricked out with wings to look like a Pegasus, a wild sow with its belly full of live thrushes, quinces stuck with thorns to look like sea urchins, and roast pork carved into models of fish and song birds.’

On another occasion, The Emperor Vitellius dedicated to the goddess Minerva a mixture of pike liver, pheasants’ brains, peacocks’ brains, flamingo tongues and lamprey roe, after rejecting the flesh of several rare and expensive delicacies ‘collected in every corner of the Empire from the Parthian frontier to the Straits of Gibraltar’.


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