Puffin has long disappeared from English culinary repertoire. The birds are now a protected species in the UK, and emotions run high when it comes to eating them abroad. In 2008, television show The F Word followed Gordon Ramsay to Iceland, where he learned to hunt puffins using traditional methods and sampled raw puffin heart. In response, UK media regulator Ofcom received 42 complaints.
There were no such sensibilities back in the Georgian era. People had been enjoying pickled puffin, without scruple, for centuries. In fact, the British taste for puffin dated back to the Middle Ages. With much of its life spent in and on the water, medieval theologians classified the seabird as a fish. As a result it could be enjoyed on fasting days and throughout the period of Lent, when eating meat was prohibited.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, pickled puffin became a very fashionable food. Over the centuries, the inclusion of puffin meat at state banquets and royal feasts – such as the coronation dinner of King James II – had elevated the dish’s status to that of gastronomic delicacy. Pickling was a practical way of preparing and serving the bird. Not only did it help to preserve the meat, but it also went some way to mask the powerful fishy taste.
For those without a steady supply of fresh puffin, or who could not afford to buy the pickled meat, pigeon meat was an economical alternative:
Bone yr pigeons begining at the neck. Take every bone out without breaking the skin. Then stuf the cram with a little sweet herbs & nutmeg. Sew them up, throw them into a pan of boyling water & let them boyle a little. Then have some strong mutton greavy with a cut onion, some blades of mace, half a pint of vinigar, a few bay leaves. Put the pigeons in. Let them boyle till the are done, then take them out & lay lay them in a cro[k]. Boyle the lqr a little longer. When cold, put to the pigeons, cover them close. If you keep them any time, boyle the pickle again & put it to them when cold.