To pickle pidgeons…

By Juliana Adelman

You may or may not have heard Catherine Cleary and I talking about 18th and 19th C Irish recipes on Myles Dungan’s History Show on Sunday night.  Being food fans and also curious, we decided to cook up some recipes found in the National Library of Ireland’s vast collection of manuscript recipe books.  It gave me a great excuse to look at these books, which have a kind of peripheral interest to my research on animal-human relationships (if you can call being slaughtered and eaten a kind of relationship…).  Anyway, much to our surprise the recipes were quite easy to follow and they all worked.  We did modify them using our judgment, but overall it wasn’t too difficult.  And most of them were actually delicious and well worth a try.  So I thought I’d share all the recipes below.  They are transcribed nearly as they appeared with some corrections of spelling to make them easier to understand.  If anyone is keen to try one, send an email and I can advise on how we modified it.  If you are interested in Irish food history, see Leslie A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and famine: a history of food in Ireland 1500-1920.

NLI MS 9563: Mrs Jane Bury’s Receipt Booke (c. 1700)

‘To make the best minse pye’

Take a neat’s tongue [that’s ox tongue] and boil and blanch it.  Cut it into thin slices and when it is cold mince it very small with 3 [epsilon symbol with line through it, some kind of measurement] of suet if tongue be very large if not 2 [epsilon] of suet, two pounds of currants one pound of raisins, stoned, and each of mace, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon in all the same, half a pound of sugar a spoonful of salt half a pint of sack [sweet sherry] some rose water some candied orange or citron mix all those well together & put into your coffin [a pie crust] being made thin and let them stand about an hour in the oven.

[These were actually the best mince pies.  We used butter instead of suet.  Tongue is delicious!  Really! A generous hand with the spices is good.  Also, we used rose syrup instead of rose water.  Tongue must be boiled for a good couple of hours (even up to 4), we did it for only about 1.5 hours and it was still a bit chewy.]

‘To make a whipt sillibub’

Take a pint of white wine & half a pound of good sugar & mingle it together then put it to a quart of thick raw cream and stir them together and squeeze a lemon into your wine before you put it to your cream, then take 3 or 4 strong branches of rosemary and whip it and as the froth rises take it off and put it to sillibub glasses or pots, but be sure you have taken all of it. [This works just fine.  It makes for a kind of wine-y desert and the rosemary branch adds a surprising amount of flavor.  And the cream does not curdle, to my surprise.  I think it would be nicer over fruit.]

NLI MS 5606 Mary Ponsonby, receipt book c. 1850

‘Oyster sausages’

Skin a loin of mutton weigh it & take the same weight in fresh mutton suet, pound ‘em well together & season ‘em with pepper, salt & allspice pounded very fine; then cut a good many oysters into little bits but not too small & mix em with your meat & wet them with the liquor of your oysters make ‘em into what shape you please, flower ‘em & fry ‘em in butter. [Mutton is hard to come by.  You can use minced lamb but you don’t need any suet.  And probably some fresh herbs would be nice. The oysters seem to hold the whole thing together, but it seems a waste of good shellfish…]

‘To Pickle Pidgeons’

Take your pigeons [wood pigeons, not city park ones], bone them whole, then throw them into boiling water to plump, then take and wipe them quite dry, season them with allspice, mace, white pepper and salt, put them into linen bags, boil them in a pickle of vinegar and water, a little allspice and some pepper, they must be kept in this pickle and by boiling it after they will keep a great while. [This was also really quite nice.  It was rather vinegary, and pigeon is very lean and might be nicer roasted.]

‘Potatoe pudding’

Take some potatoes,  boil and peel them, pass them through a hair sieve, add the rind of a lemon, and four ounces of butter, beat up two eggs, and the juice of two lemons, add all together and sweeten them to your taste, put them in a dish or bowl and bake them in a smart oven. [‘Some’ potatoes?  We used about 4 large ones.  ‘Sweeten them to your taste’?  We did a few generous tablespoons.  Potatoes should be floury and not waxy, and they need to be really really well mashed.  Bake in separate ramkins until brown on top.]

10 Responses to “To pickle pidgeons…”

  1. Póló Says:

    Heard ye. Fascinating item. Well done. It’s a great programme and it is broadening out all the time.

    You are putting ideas into my head in these recessionary times. I don’t keep hens but I do have a lot of pigeons visiting, and have been feeding them up for the last good while. My motives were purely altruistic, but …

  2. Juliana Says:

    Thanks Pol!

    As per the usual with these things I didn’t get to say half the things I planned, I thought I was going to be asked more specifics about the workings of the kitchen and kitchen staff, which I had spent loads of time reading about. I think I sort of missed the question where Myles expected me to talk about this and thought he was asking something else. Oh well.

    Be warned that pigeon season is almost over. Act quickly or miss your chance…


  3. puesoccurrences Says:

    Out of curiosity what did you do to time all of these?
    I need very specific instructions when I am cooking or it all ends up a mess! Maybe you can do a follow up piece on kitchen staff. I would be really interested to find out what you came up with.
    Great post,

  4. Juliana Says:

    Cooking times were a guess, really. As was oven temperature. But since both of these things were not very precise in 18th or 19th C either, I suspect that the recipes are quite forgiving. And we also used ‘Larousse Gastronomique’ (an abbreviated version in English) which is the best cookbook that anyone could ever want. It has it all: food history, recipes, obscure ingredients and dishes, cooking techniques. That was where we discovered that ox tongue should be soaked for 12 hours and then salted for 24. Neither of which we did. Next time…


  5. Ida Says:

    Tongue has gone out of fashion now, but was a common meat course up to the 1960s. It tastes, to my memory, like a cross between beef and ham, maybe because of the salt, and was considered to be a good meat to feed to invalids. Another meat dish my grandmother used to make was boiled pig’s head, stripped off the bone and pressed into a meat jelly, which congeals because of the gelatine in the skull. Really interesting radio, well done!

  6. Póló Says:


    Agreed. When I was small we always had tongue. It was a great favourite. I suspect it must also have been reasonably priced or we wouldn’t have had it. My (faulty) recollection of the taste heads in the corned beef direction.

    We nearly always had rabbit stew on a Saturday. It was the chicken of its day (and not pumped up with rubbish and water and antibiotics etc.). That was until the myxomatosis was imported in 1954.. It would break your heart to see rabbits staggering across railway lines and being run over by the train.

    I sure the farmers of the day had a different view, of course.

  7. Caoimhe Says:

    Have you seen the menu at Heston Blumenthal’s new restaurant, Dinner? It takes 18th and 19th c recipes and re-imagines them for the present day. Meat fruit, for instance!

  8. puesoccurrences Says:

    Hi Caoimhe,

    Thanks for that! I do recall seeing a show that Blumenthal did reproducing some of the weirder historic food items (I believe meat fruit was one of them!) but I didn’t realise it was going to be part of a restaurant. A reason to visit London!


    PS @pol and ida: will be curious if either of you get sentimental for tongue and head to the butcher’s…

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