Thursday, 24 January 2013

Serendipity and foul tasting seabirds

Serendipity* means a "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise" and it's always nice to make unexpected connections when reading a book.  I've just put down The Blackhouse by Peter May, another of his novels set on the Outer Hebridean Island of Lewis.  In this, guga hunting by the men of Ness, an area of Lewis to the north of the isle, looms large over the narrative.  What particularly piqued my interest was his description of the taste of the guga and, through this, the making of a serendipitous connection with a holiday we had in Tasmania in 2000.  To explain.................. 

First a little about the guga. It's the Gaelic word for a young gannet, the flesh of which is regarded as a delicacy in Ness today and, indeed, has been for many centuries.  In the autumn of each year, a group of 10 Nessmen set sail for Sula Sgeir, a remote and inhospitable rocky island far to the north, to kill a maximum of 2,000 young birds (restricted to 2,000 for conservation purposes and licensed by a specific Act of Parliament).  They set up residence for about two weeks in stone bothys. Working in pairs, the men take the fledglings from their nests with poles, catching them around the neck with a rope noose, then killing the birds with a blow to the head.  The birds are plucked and salted on site and loaded onto the return boat via a complicated wooden shute, as shown in this video clip.

The men bring home their catch to an eager crowd of customers and the demand is usually so great that the birds have to be rationed out to ensure that no-one goes without a taste of guga. And what about the taste?  Is it really worth all this effort?  It is considered a great delicacy by those who like it, with a texture similar to duck and the flavour of fish.  Take a look at this video clip and see how someone named Funny Gary reacted to his first taste of guga.  Yum!

And now the connection to Tasmania.  I haven't tasted guga but, on a visit to Stanley in 2000, I did try a local delicacy rather fancifully called the mutton bird.  And my reaction to that was exactly the same as Gary's.  The mutton bird is a short tailed shearwater which is ground nesting and is trapped in nets as they leave the nests after their overnight roost.  It is salted, boiled and then served with a stomach-turning layer of grease.  It really is foul: disgusting is a better word, revolting an even better one.  It has the texture of duck and the taste and mouth feel of cod liver oil.  It can only be a delicacy to the starving and those without taste buds.  If you have a chance to try it, don't.  Trust me on this.

Stanley, Tasmania.  For ever scorched on my mind by the taste of the mutton bird.
*(Those of us who like etymology will relish this comment from Wikipedia: The first noted use of "serendipity" in the English language was by Horace Walpole (1717–1797). In a letter to Horace Mann (dated 28 January 1754) he said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of". The name stems from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka (aka Ceylon), from Arabic Sarandib, which was adopted from Tamil "Seren deevu" or originally from Sanskrit Suvarnadweepa or golden island (some trace the etymology to Simhaladvipa which literally translates to "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island".)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is only the muttonbird chicks that are eaten, they are taken from their burrows, and they are not boiled but cooked in the oven or electric frypan, stuffed with seasoning or not, can be salted or not and they are delicious, traditionally served with plain bread without butter (as they are so greasy anyway) and home made tomato chutney. Not much eating on them, but they do taste like duck.