I've just been reminded of a story which Himself will tell to anyone who'll listen, about the day he ate Hedgehog.
John, aka, Storm Lizard, has put some lovely photos on of the animals who visit his garden...Hedgehogs included...and that triggered off the tale of eating the poor little creatures...
The part of England where Himself hails from is remote in many ways and still rather old-fashioned I suppose...the villages tend to be small and people used not to move far from their home places. And it was a county where the old type Gypsies would travel to for seasonal work on the farms...not really Travellers, in as much the Gypsy's were usually solitary people...elderly men who had spent their entire lives travelling from place to place with a bow-top caravan and a old horse and the inevitable Lurcher dog...
And they were welcomed by the local people...they'd mend buckets and sharpen knives and sell handmade clothes pins and work in the fields, picking potatoes or pulling Ragwort...helping with the harvest and being allowed to use their dog to take a rabbit for the supper.
When Himself was a little boy during the War years, there was a Gipsy man who would stay on the common ground in the middle of the village for several weeks at a time. He cooked over an open fire and was something of a magnet for the children in the neighbourhood who would sit next to his fire while there was a rabbit stew cooking and listen to his stories and watch him while he whittled clothes pins from wood he'd cut out of the hedge.
The day came when he had a special supper...a Hedgehog encased in clay, which was baking in the ashes of his fire. When it was cooked he broke the clay casing open and revealed a white meat...the assembled children were each given a little bit to eat...Himself says he remembers it tasted much like chicken.
I used to view the baking of Hedgehogs in clay with deep suspicion until I filched a book belonging to my parents called The Gorse and The Briar about two young men who lived the Gypsy life in the 1930's...they were taught how to encase a Hedgehog in thick clay and to bake it in the glowing ashes of the outdoor fire...eaten with fingers and accompanied by whole baked onions and boiled potatoes washed down with icy cold fresh milk...the milk was put into the nearest running water to cool it down and keep it fresh.
We never see those solitary men now with their plodding horses and a Lurcher running alongside an old Bow-Top...very occasionally it would be a couple...the old lady would make delicate lace by the yard and embroider linen hankies with flowers in each corner...she'd go from door to door in the villages they passed through and would be welcomed and greeted as an old friend. Even my Mother would buy a length of lace and give a fruit cake or some of Fathers old clothes...
The old Gypsy women were skilled at fortune telling...usually they'd read your palm but some carried a pack of Tarot cards or they'd ask for tea leaves in a cup...
Faces nut brown from years spent outdoors and gnarled and wrinkled hands adorned with silver rings...the old men wore silver earrings and had thick leather belts with a sharp knife tucked in and the ones I can recall spoke rapidly to each other in what must have been a variation of the old Romany language...
Father used to give work to a young Gypsy called Reuben who would turn up every summer around about harvest time...he had several little children and kept chickens in a coop underneath his 'van...he tethered his painted horses on long ropes at the side of the lane and they'd snicker whenever I walked past and toss their heads. Reuben's dog was a long haired Lurcher named Nell who could run like the wind...I remember falling in love with that dog when I was about nine or ten and so wishing for one of my own. Reuben was kind and patient with my endless questions about birds and nests and plants and flowers...he made me a rabbit hutch and gave me two rabbits to look after and I thought I was in heaven...
Reuben wore gold earrings in his ears and ate raw eggs and onions to keep the colds away...he knew where there were fox cubs and every badger sett and could name the high flying birds of prey and the smallest most insignificant flower...he'd stay for a few weeks and do some hedging and make hay cocks and then he'd be away again until the following summer.
We'll never see those people again...they've gone forever taking the secrets of whittling Hazel with an old knife and how to bake a Hedgehog...the beautiful embroidered hankies are made by machine in China...few make proper lace anymore, still less sell it carefully wound around a piece of smooth and polished wood found in the hedge...now we give our old clothes to a charity shop, we no longer save them to give to a grateful Gypsy woman for her man. There are no Reuben's to teach little girls about how to identify a Kestrel or to show them the place where the Fox cubs play...
Eating raw eggs will give you instant salmonella and I daresay raw onions would make your breath smell...
No-one uses pretty hankies anymore...we sneeze into a tissue instead and Bow Top caravans cost an enormous amount of money and are bought by the rich to put in their gardens...
Travelling men are not Gypsies...they no longer have the knowledge of their language and deal in scrap metal rather than working on farms...they eat pizza and chips and send out for a take-away and wouldn't be seen dead mending a bucket.
Himself has good memories of the old man who spent his winters on the common land with his horse and dog and his fire...I often think back to Reuben and his raw eggs eaten straight from the shell and his Nell who'd sit beside me with her head on my knee while I asked endless questions...