PETER FROST discovers glis glis the edible dormouse
Some years ago a fraternal delegation of British trade unionists were touring Tito’s Yugoslavia.
After an afternoon visiting farms and factories they had reached a castle in Slovenia.
The multicourse evening dinner was impressive, the folk music and dancing equally entertaining.
The actual meal, a meaty spicy stew Slovenian speciality, had been delicious. But what was the curious dark gamey meat?
The bones indicated a tiny animal but lack of a common language got in the way of a correct identification.
The best the young and rather embarrassed student acting as translator could manage was “mouse.” She reluctantly announced it with predictable and dire consequences to the spirit of international working-class solidarity.
Years later I was to discover just what that “mouse” was – strangely I discovered it in the fascinating natural history museum in Tring in Hertfordshire.
That Slovenian delicacy was the edible dormouse (glis glis). The Romans loved to eat them too. They kept them in terracotta jars with wheat and honey and the little animals stuffed themselves to twice their normal size ready for roasting.
When I lived in Hertfordshire edible dormice made their home in my loft. They played noisily among the boxes and papers but I never tried to cook them.
The animal, looking just like a miniature squirrel, had been introduced by the multimillionaire naturalist Lionel Walter, the second baron Rothschild, at his country seat at Tring Park.
Rothschild used his great wealth to collect and import rare and exotic species from all over the world in what was once his very own private museum.
The building was built in 1889 to house his huge collection of mounted specimens and first opened to the public in 1892. The Rothschild family gave the museum and its contents to the nation in 1937. Today it is a branch of the Natural History Museum and open to the public.
Walter loved messing about with nature. He bred hybrids between zebras and horses and you can see the result, a stuffed hybrid foal on display at the museum.
He was frequently seen driving a zebra-drawn carriage into the local town.
Another great, or perhaps tiny, obsession of this curious baron was flea circuses and the Tring museum has an amazing collection of these strange phenomena.
Rothschild introduced many live exotic birds and animals into his Tring estate and, not surprisingly, many escaped and are now living locally or in some cases all over Britain.
That’s why today you can find a healthy population of dormice anywhere up to a hundred miles from Tring Park. From the six animals brought to Britain in 1902 there are now thousands making a nuisance of themselves all over the home counties.
Although dormice are regarded as a pest the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 prohibits certain methods of killing and taking dormice, and removing them may require a licence. The law isn’t very clear on whether you can cook and eat them.
The edible dormouse is the largest of all dormice, being up to seven inches long plus its five-inch bushy tail. It weighs up to five ounces but can stuff itself to twice that weight before hibernation or cooking.
Like a lizard, the dormouse, when grabbed by the tail, can allow its skin to break easily and slide off the underlying bone, allowing it to escape. The exposed vertebrae then fall off and a stumpy tail regrows.
Edible dormice like to live among oak and beech woods. They particularly love old, well-established, apple orchards and feed mainly on berries, apples, and nuts. However, they are adaptable, and would also eat bark, leaves, and flowers.
They will also eat insects, beetles and other invertebrates, and even raid small birds’ nests for eggs.
Their primary predators are owls and foxes and also curious wild food fanatics who want to find out for themselves what the Romans and the Slovenians are making all that fuss about.
This article first published in the Morning Star, October 2013