A British method for cooking dormouse, as pictured in an 1865 book. Drawing by John Tenniel.
by Alice Shirrell Kaswell
The edible dormouse (Myoxus glis) is the star of Giuseppe Carpaneto and Mauro Cristaldi’s 1994 study “Dormice and Man: A Review of Past and Present Relations.” The two Rome-based scholars—Carpaneto at Terza University, Cristaldi at the University of Rome—savor one of the tasty rodent’s two major historical roles. Though some scorned it an agricultural pest, many prized the critter for its succulence.
Carpaneto and Cristaldi suggest that dormouse cuisine and dormouse documentation owe much to the Romans, and almost nothing to earlier civilizations. “The ancient Greeks,” they write, “were not very interested in dormice because they did not eat them.... Oribatius (Fourth Century A.D.), a Byzantine author on medicine, wrote that their meat is untasty and purgative.”
Carpaneto and Cristaldi tell of how things changed once the Romans got cooking:
“A recipe was reported by the gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicus (First Century A.D.) in his work De Re Coquinaria: dormice were served with sophisticated sauces containing fish and spices (pepper, ‘laserpicium’ pine-seeds) often filled with pork meat and with dormouse entrails. Petronius (20?-66 A.D.) in his novel Satyricon described edible dormice served with honey and poppy-seeds during a luxurious dinner.”
The foodstuff became so well appreciated in Calabria, the southwesternmost part of the Italian mainland, that Calabrian dialects now have about 110 words for dormouse. There are also terms for related items, including dormouse-hunter (agglzjiraru), the jars for keeping dormice (ciglirera), and dormouse litter (carfata).
The earliest known drawing of a dormouse, done in 1607.
Modern dormouse hunting in Calabria is often done at night, by smoke-flushing the animals from their den, or by trapping or shooting. There can be a certain romance to this. The study remarks that “Nocturnal hunting consists of shooting at dormice walking on tree branches, silhouetted against the moon-light.”
In Corsican dormouse cooking, “the animals are eviscerated and burnt but not skinned in order to protect the fat layer between the skin and the muscles. Then they are roasted on a grate and the dripping fat gathered on slices of bread.”
Ukrainian chefs “used the fat of the Edible Dormouse in their cookery,” while the French and some of their neighbors “ate roasted dormice after having thrown them into boiling water.”
Carpaneto and Cristaldi say that Lord Rothschild introduced the edible dormouse into England in 1902. (Other sources specify that this occurred in Tring, Hertfordshire, a neighborhood where dormouse is now nearly impossible to find on a restaurant menu.) But some 37 years earlier, a curious book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland documented the preparation of dormouse at a British tea party. Midway through the party, a young visitor named Alice reportedly “got up in great disgust, and walked off; the Dormouse fell asleep instantly, and neither of the others took the least notice of her going, though she looked back once or twice, half hoping that they would call after her: the last time she saw them, they were trying to put the Dormouse into the teapot.”
“Dormice and Man: A Review of Past and Present Relations,” Giuseppe M. Carpaneto and Mauro Cristaldi, Hystrix, vol. 6, nos. 1-2, 1994, pp. 303-30.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1865.
“Carolus Linnaeus and the Edible Dormouse,” C. Violani and B. Zava, Hystrix, vol. 6, nos. 1-2, 1994, pp. 109-115. The authors report that:
Carolus Linnaeus was totally unacquainted with the Edible Dormouse Myoxus glis (L.), a species not found in Sweden : while describing Mus Rattus in the 10th Edition of the “Systema Naturae” (1758), the Swedish naturalist confessed his ignorance concerning the “Glis” of the ancients
ALSO SEE: The Dormouse Society
_____________________The article above is from the May-June 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!
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