Why you should care
Because crazy-food addiction can be stronger than law.
It was a foggy morning in 1986, and Giovanni Bianchi was hiding in the vineyards of Bergamo’s countryside in northern Italy, where he was aiming to shoot a few tasty robins, chaffinches, turtledoves and stone curlews for Sunday brunch. Clad in a military-green jacket for camouflage, Bianchi let his trap-bird begin to sing, and in flew a dozen of birds, lured by the call of their own kind. Boom, boom, boom. One at a time, the prey fell to the ground. With a huge grin, Bianchi placed his kill in a sack and headed home, his mouth watering at the thought of the lavish meal ahead.
“My wife loved to make polenta e osei, the iconic dish of cornmeal mush with little birds,” he says. They also feasted on so-called mumbulì — skewers of bacon, sage and bits of nightingale covered in melted butter. But the best way to eat sbehech, as locals call the birdies, was “straight” — with the heads, beaks, bones and tails cooked briefly in hot oil, and then popped into the mouth whole. “Oh, they were so crunchy and tasty,” Bianchi recalls, licking his lips.
To the desires of the palate, you just can’t resist.
At age 79, Bianchi — who started killing robins when he was 5 years old — still enjoys hunting. But since 1992, the premium little-bird delicacies have been banned by Italian law after his state adopted a strict European hunting regulation to safeguard endangered species and protect wildlife and migratory routes. “Today, if you accidentally kill a robin redbreast, it’s worse than if you shot at a man,” grumbles local hotelier Marco De Santis, who has a passion for hunting but rarely finds the time to indulge it. All the species that Bianchi loved to hunt are now off-limits, including sparrows, blackcaps, starlings, larks and woodpeckers. Other European countries, including France, Spain and Malta, whose citizens have been gulping down little birds since the Middle Ages, face the same EU-wide ban.
Italians have always had a knack for chomping on weird stuff: frogs, snails, pig blood, even cats. Polenta e osei was a sacred northern dish of hunted little-bird meat that fans called divine. The smaller the bird, the more succulent the meat. But today, hunters caught killing one of those little birds can get smacked with a fine of up to 3,000 euros ($3,200), and, if convicted, be sentenced to up to a year in jail — a stiffer penalty than many petty criminals face.
For the past 25 years, the hunting of these birds has been regulated — with limited kills — and allowed only in specified areas at certain times of the year. Permits are hard to get, and easy to lose. “We must thank crazy environmental and pro-animal lobbies for this folly,” says Bianchi, noting how the number of species that are permissible to hunt continues to narrow. Police follow the hunters relentlessly, he complains: “They dress up in green so we don’t see them, and hide behind shrubs. We always get ambushed.” The only fair fowl game at this point? Bigger birds like pheasants and thrushes — the ones Bianchi laments as being “not so tasty.” Angry hunters have joined forces with lobbies to try to get what they see as their “rights” restored. Thus far, they have had little luck.
The ban dealt a heavy blow to Bergamo’s local industry and restaurants, where polenta e osei was a top dish, not unlike pasta alla carbonara in Rome. The “bird dish” has since been transformed into a dessert. It’s really little more than a souvenir, but these days folks can buy a bird-shaped muffin, says tourist office chief Elena Finazzi. Called polenta e osei, it’s made of polenta-yellow spongecake mixed with rum and nuts, and topped with bits of chocolate twisted to resemble bird legs. “Instead of the real polenta e osei, we eat polenta e cunì”— i.e., rabbit, which can still be hunted — says Finazzi. “Little birds are off-limits, and you’ll never find them in Bergamo,” she says. “Tourists, on the other hand, are crazy about the cake.”
But if you must have the real deal, there are some “illegal” taverns in the countryside that serve the banned birds. You do need to know where to go, Bianchi says. Prohibition has driven the bird hunting underground, along with the restaurants that still dare to serve the gourmet treat. A single skewer of different bird meats costs 5 euros, and bookings must be made in advance (and in secret).
At dawn, teams of hunting friends venture to places where police are unlikely to go. When the steaming polenta e osei and mumbulì are ready, tavern owners lock their doors, and the feasts begin. These restaurants are not marked on any maps, and they change each weekend. The locations are passed along by word of mouth, and only to family and friends — locals’ lips seal up in the presence of outsiders. But for carnivores who go crazy for fried beaks — and don’t mind risking a year behind bars — it’s worth it. “To the desires of the palate, you just can’t resist,” Italians like to say.
Bianchi admits to having shot one or two redbreasts by mistake. Once dead, he protests, it would have been a pity to leave them on the grass.…