Culinary heritage of Roman hunters – tradition of preparing dishes from dormouse meat

The restaurant menus can sometimes surprise us with some unexplored types of game, culinary speaking. Among these types of meat, dormouse meat is certainly of rare gastronomic value.

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Delicacies made of game are simply hard to resist, especially in the winter months, when the smell of various stews, pörkölts or roasts beckons you to an extraordinary feast. One of such dishes is that made from dormouse meat which is nowadays prepared only in Croatia and very few know how to prepare it.

Hunting big game represented prestige or a sign of class affiliation, especially during the era of imperial Austria-Hungary. However, in the Croatian region of Slavonia, dormice were a food source for the poor. The tradition of dormouse hunting has been mainly preserved in the regions of Gorski Kotar and Lika. They have an old saying: “The beech wood is smooth, the dormouse meat is sweet”. However, apart from the forests of continental Croatia, they also hunt dormice in the central part of Brač and Hvar island. Along with the salted fish, the dormouse was a main course of the family feasts in the winter months.

The dormice usually inhabit older forests, where there are a lot of natural holes, and oftentimes, they populate hunters' houses or lodges. Dormouse hunting in the northern part of Croatia, Lika and Gorski Kotar is allowed before their winter sleep period, or from September 16th  to November 30th, whereas the dormouse hunt on the Adriatic islands happens in the summer months, from the end of July until the holiday of Nativity of Mary, celebrated on September 8th. They hunt them with special traps and natural bait.

There are several species of dormice in Croatia, but the most commonly hunted is the grey dormouse, which can grow up to thirty centimetres. They belong to the rodent family. Due to a decrease in forest volume and climate changes which affect the sufficiency of food necessary for this tiny game, the number of dormice is alarmingly smaller and therefore, it is quite rare to find them on the restaurant menus. Apart from being food, they were also once hunted for grease, since dormouse grease is known in folk medicine as a successful remedy for healing wounds.

First written accounts of recipes from dormouse meat date back to the Roman era, and were preserved to this day. While they are a rare find in cuisines of the world, in Croatia you can still taste them. They prepare them in stews, as roasts or salted. In the latter version, the preparation is similar as the preparation of sardines. The meat was salted and kept in barrels, preserving them for the winter. They were one of the main food sources, apart from the salted fish, in the cold winter months, when you could not have lived off of fishing alone.

When the dormouse is prepared as a roast, it is sprinkled with corn flour, which gives it a nice cover and additionally accentuates the sweetness of the meat. According to tradition, the meat got a special flavour whilst it was being cleaned. After gutting the dormouse, the hunters used to burn the fur with an open flame, which gave the dormouse an exceptional flavour.

Dormouse roast or grilled dormouse was appreciated even by Romans, who marinated it with honey and dried fruits. Nowadays you can try it most often in a stew, served with polenta or gnocchi. If you get lucky with the right year, with proper forest management, and a few dormice get caught, be well aware that you have the opportunity to try an antique delicacy which is nowadays, sadly, on the verge of culinary extinction.