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Trail and kiviak

I often wonder how certain weird and wonderful eating habits started in life. Who was the first to think about it, was it accidental or did somebody specifically experimented when preparing certain foods?

Take snipe and woodcock, for instance. Did a shooter observe the birds evacuating their bowels on take-off and thought: “Ah, there’s no faeces in those guts so maybe we can eat it as well? Being such a small bird, it will add a lot to the dish.” Or maybe they thought the meat too dry and saw the alluring fatty entrails and decided to try something with the guts. The gizzards were perhaps too hard and bitter for they were discarded, and the rest mashed up, which they somehow started calling “trail” (from entrails I presume). The intestines, heart and liver are finely chopped up and blended with a glace (meaty gravy or stock from all sorts of ingredients such as bits and pieces of leftover meat, reduced red wine, blood and bone). This is then spread, along with the cut-up bird, on toast and relished as the best gamebird cuisine in the world! Marvellous!


Unbelievable accolades are ascribed to the woodcock as a culinary delicacy. Listen to this: “The woodcock is the finest of the dark-fleshed birds. Its delicious aroma, the volatility of its scent, and the succulence of its flesh, a woodcock is truly at its best when roasted under the eye of the hunter who killed it. The woodcock is the glory of the kitchen and one of the gamebirds most appreciated by the connoisseur. From a gastronomic point of view the woodcock is the gamebird most highly prized by gourmands.” (From The Hunter’s Library: Snipe and Woodcock, by the Frenchman Jean Pierre Denuc.)


Joseph Ache urges in his book on the gastronomy of woodcock that the chef should “ all events, not neglect the slightest detail (in preparation) for, like a beautiful woman, the woodcock deserves nothing but the best!”


Brilliant! The most beautiful woman under the eye of the hunter. Sounds like something I should aspire to eat. We don’t have woodcock in South Africa, and we don’t shoot snipe. Neither do I have the financial clout to fly to England and spend the required £40 on this exotic dish. Therefore, I’ve never had the dubious honour of eating this delicacy, but I know somebody who had eaten woodcock and snipe prepared as described above and he did not wax over-eloquently about the experience. However, he comes from Steelpoort and although he vociferously disputes the fact, I don’t know of many gourmands bred between the wag-’n-bietjies and blouhake of Steelpoort. So perhaps Bielie could be forgiven for not enjoying it, or perhaps Foepie hasn’t yet had the opportunity to educate him on the subject. Although, I’m not sure if I would have the stomach to grab the bird by the bill and suck out the brains either, or to go the Bear Grylls way and eat, well, whatever he eats. I do consider myself rather fortunate to have never been that hungry.


I also don’t eat afval and if that sort of thing qualifies you as a gourmand or connoisseur, I definitely don’t make the grade. A friend of mine’s wife has called me a trougher, which is a more fitting description of my epicurean attitude.



But perhaps the strangest delicacy I have ever heard of (not including East Asian countries, where they seem to relish anything that moves) is a dish made by the Thule Inuit from Greenland called kiviak. In her book on the indigenous people of Herbert Island, Marie Herbert (the names are coincidental, the island was not named after her) describes the process of making kiviak in great detail. Being the wife of an anthropologist, she spent a year living amongst the Eskimos and got to know them quite intimately. It’s a fascinating culture and well worth studying. The book was written in 1973 and I thought that maybe the custom was long forgotten, so I Googled it and by Jove, it’s still going strong today!


Kiviak is a traditional wintertime food that is made fromtiny seabirds called little auks, which are fermented in sealskins. Little auks (Alle alle) are minute (about seven inches or 175 mm long), shining blackand-white, ocean-dwelling birds that are exceedingly abundant in the Artic. They nest in enormous colonies on sea cliffs and glacial islands, also known as nunataks. These birds have almost no neck, short tails, and narrow, whirring wings.


One of the world’s most abundant single species of birds, they fly around their nesting sites like swarms of mosquitoes. When nesting, they are very noisy, with a high-pitched trilling and nasal laughing echo in a roaring chorus that can drive inexperienced collectors (i.e. kiviak auk catchers) rather dizzy. Marie Herbert described how the noise of the millions of birds rose to a crescendo as if hordes of spectators were wildly cheering and clapping some World Cup spectacle! Her head began to spin when she tried catching some little auks herself.


The Inuit hunters (men and women) sit hidden on the cliffs with a net attached to a long pole (similar to a butterfly net) and try to scoop them out the air. It cannot be too difficult, once you have mastered the daze of hundreds of milling birds around your head, learnt how to fold the net over the caught bird, and then to bring in the long pole without losing the bird.


To make the dish, you’ll need hundreds of little auks – between 500 and 700 – to fill a sealskin! The sealskin bag is prepared by carefully skinning it whole through the mouth, leaving as much of the fat behind as possible. The birds are used intact, with head, feet, feathers, and guts all going into the bag. Once filled, the skin is sewn up and, to shield it from the sun, placed under rocks to “ferment”! The birds are gathered, and the bags filled in summer, after which it is left for many months, only to be eaten in winter.


It is said that the fat slowly seeps through the feathers and skin of the birds and they are “pickled” whole. That it doesn’t putrefy immediately is perhaps understandable when considering Greenland’s temperatures, which are much lower than your fridge. For five months of the year (November to March), average temperatures are sub-zero. The story goes that Eskimos use fridges to keep their food defrosted!


Marie encountered a group of Eskimos indulging in this delicacy. Once the birds were “exhumed” from the sealskin bag, they were slipped out of their putrefied skin and the meat simply sucked off the bones. The gourmands were covered in glistening fat, the juice dripping from their mouths and chins! I watched a video clip of an Eskimo lady eating kiviak. She cleaned the bird, which reminded me very much of stripping the skin off doves, and then ripped the breast out before popping the whole raw fermented breast into her mouth!


Kiviak has been rated as one of the top-five smelliest foods in the world. The smell apparently compares well to a strong blue cheese... something I do eat. The literature states a case of several Inuit that died a few years ago having made kiviak from eider ducks. The fermenting brew apparently developed botulism. Perhaps it was simply a case of the wrong bird and had something to do with the difference in the diets of eider ducks and little auks. Early in the morning the little auks fly out at high altitudes to their feeding grounds where they prey on marine planktonic copepods (small crustaceans). Using their short wings, they manage to dive or swim down to something in excess of 100 feet. There they make use of their natural buoyancy to rapidly shoot in a zig-zag pattern back to the surface. It is surmised that the copepods edged against the light from below are easily visible and therefore better to catch. One study found that the “large” copepod Calanus glacialis makes up 90 % in both number and volume of the bird’s diet. With their extendible throat pouches bulging with zooplankton, they fly in low undulating bands back to their nesting cliffs.



Well, there you have it and here is the challenge. Let’s move on from our perfectly parboiled guinea-fowl dishes and create something totally new in this country. I have been told that perfection is boring anyway. How about wrapping your next bunch of quail in a fat rabbit skin and letting it mature for a couple of months in the deepfreeze.


Or queleas, as suggested by our intrepid Steelpoort epicure, well-known and muchappreciated gourmand, and connoisseur. They are a pest and excellent to eat, he says. And there is of course the delicate matter of choosing the right wine to pare with the dish. But I think I’ll bring the biltong for the next World Cup game and you can have the kiviak.