About dormice

The Guardian

The edible dormouse is the star of Giuseppe Carpaneto and Mauro Cristaldi’s 1995 study Dormice and Man: A Review of Past and Present Relations, published in the journal Hystrix. The two Rome-based scholars, Carpaneto at Terza University, Cristaldi at the University of Rome, savour 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 civilisations. “The ancient Greeks,” they write, “were not very interested in dormice because they did not eat them … Oribatius (fourth century AD), 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 AD) 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?-66AD) 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 southwestern-most 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 in (ciglirera), and dormouse litter (carfata).

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 moonlight”.

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 neighbours “ate roasted dormice after having thrown them into boiling water”.

Carpaneto and Cristaldi say that Lord Rothschild introduced the edible dormouse to England in 1902. (Other sources specify that this occurred in Tring, Hertfordshire – a neighbourhood where dormouse is now nearly impossible to find on a restaurant menu.) But 37 years earlier, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland documented the preparation of dormouse at a British tea party. Midway through the party, Alice “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”.

• Marc Abrahams is editor of the bimonthly Annals of Improbable Research and organiser of the Ig Nobel prize

New books from Oxford

From the recent OUP Classics list:

Re-issue of Horace Odes and Epodes by David West (ARLT vice-president)
Re-issue of Catullus edited and translated by Guy Lee
Also Lucretius and Suetonius.

There’s also Roman Europe 1000 BC  AD 400 edited by Edward Bispham in paperback for £18.99. The introduction is on line here.

Incidentally, the email notification that I subscribe to has this printed at the end, which is curious in view of the contents:

This message is confidential. You should not copy it or disclose its contents to anyone.

Sorry for breaking your confidence, OUP!