Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye. Four and twenty blackbirds, baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing…
While many childhood nursery rhymes are more fanciful than truthful, this one, at least, has a bit of accuracy; in the 19th century, songbirds were, in fact, baked into pies … at least, they were in Leipzig, Germany.
The first surprise surrounding the “original” Leipziger Lerche, or songbird pie, is that it isn’t actually the original – at least, not historically speaking. When you pick up a Leipziger Lerche today, you’re given a small pie with shortcrust dough, a marzipan filling, and a cross made in the top. You won’t find a tiny songbird inside it, but you used to. To understand why, it’s important to brush up on your German: lerche is the German word for lark.
Larks were once the linchpin of Leipzig’s culinary prowess, a region with a gastronomical history that dates back hundreds of years.
The tradition of consuming larks came to Germany in the Middle Ages by way of Italy via France, according to an article published in 1987 in Ernährungsforschung by H. Pilz. By the mid-18th century, they were considered a cosmopolitan delicacy throughout Europe, but perhaps nowhere more than in Leipzig.
Several 18th century German cookbooks give indications on how to prepare the larks, such as the Brandenburische Cookbook, which offers a variety of choices, including pan-fried in schmaltz with diced apples, ginger, pepper, and sugar, or simmered in beef stock with raisins and beer. Susanna Egerins’ cookbook proposes stuffing larks with bacon, livers, and mace before cooking with butter and bay.
As important as the seasoning was, nothing was as crucial to the success of the dish as the lark itself. An 18th century cookbook written by Elsholzius asserted terroir – that the larks’ flavor changed depending on where they lived and what they ate. While larks were prized throughout Germany and Saxony, it was believed that in Leipzig and nearby Halle the birds reached their ideal fattiness and richness for consumption. The cookbook claims that these particular larks needed no butter to be perfectly succulent. In fact, the book also claims that as early as 1666, local larks had become so popular as to be deemed a sort of national German food, sent en masse from Leipzig to the large German cities to be enjoyed by the noblest of their residents.
Leipzig larks became so popular that some sources show over 404,000 larks were sold in the year 1720 alone within Leipzig, with over 1 million more being caught in the surrounding area and sent to other German cities and towns or even as far as Spain and Russia. Lerchenfrauen – literally, lark women – were a common sight, peddling their wares out of baskets in Leipzig’s Salzgässchen Street.
But where demand is high, supply tends to dwindle.
One Leipziger recorded the day, August 27, 1860, in his memoirs, as the day when a terrific thunderstorm would pelt its hail against many buildings, gardens, and avenues … and the lerche. He calls it “the date of the death of the Leipziger Lerchen” (Sterbetag der Leipziger Lerchen).
“From this day, on the menus of inns, that once so popular dish of Leipziger Lerche with sauerkraut was no longer to be found,” the Leipziger wrote.
While larks were becoming less common in Leipzig, it wasn’t until 1876 that they were removed from local lore altogether, when King Albert I of Saxony made it illegal to hunt the songbirds in the region.
Although larks became illegal to cook and serve after this point, Pilz notes that an early 19th century cookbook still listed several recipes for lerche, including larks with garlic, larks with mashed potatoes and horseradish, braised larks, larks cooked on a spit, larks stuffed with truffles and served with a truffle sauce, larks with sausage ragout, larks with ham ragout, larks stuffed with goose liver, and larks with rice. There is also a reference to the dish known as Leipziger Lerche, but more details on this traditional recipe are tricky to come by.
Even the Saxony Baker’s Guild doesn’t have an original recipe for the true and original Leipziger Lerche. “Unfortunately, we do not have an original recipe of Leipziger Lerchen,” Stefenie Hübner of the Landesinnungsverband Saxonia des Bäckerhandwerks (Saxony Baker’s Guild) informed me. “It must have been a pie in which the birds were baked in dough. Other sources say that the birds were filled and their wings were tied together with ribbons.”
Whether the larks were able to sing once the pie was opened is debatable. What is certain is that this local favorite was now strictly prohibited, and it is likely that this once-popular dish would have become completely obsolete in modern times had it not been for one important influence on local cuisine in the late 17th century.
It was in 1695 that Leipzig’s first coffeehouses began to grow in popularity. Leipzigers grew to love the brew, brought to Saxony by way of Arab countries, and they would spend hours in coffeehouses, sipping coffee and snacking on a variety of cakes and treats developed by local bakers to offset the bitterness of the drink. It seemed only natural, at the time, to create a sweet version of their much beloved savory recipe – and that’s exactly where the “original” Leipziger Lerche of today comes in.
The Leipziger Lerche varies a bit depending on where you buy it, but the concept is the same everywhere: a shortcrust base filled with marzipan and topped with two strips of shortbread dough which, Hübner informed me, symbolize the ties that were used to hold the wings of the songbird together.
Some versions of the modern pastry also include red jam or dried fruit in the center, according to the baker’s guild, which, according to some sources, symbolize either the heart or the blood of the bird.
The modern Leipziger Lerche are a favorite of many, particularly due to their long shelf life, but no matter where I went, there was mystery still surrounding this pastry. While it was commonly known that this sweet version of the delicacy was invented to replace the savory version, no one knew who had created the original Leipziger Lerche.
Today, there are dozens of vendors of “original” Leipziger Lerchen in Leipzig, and the name itself has been protected by the Baker’s Guild since 2004. To be “original,” a Leipziger Lerche must be made with almond marzipan, but several other versions exist, including ones flavored with chocolate or pistachio. Peter Rößler, the manager of the Café Kandler, a 25-year-old bakery producing Lerche, says that they make a Christmas spiced version at the holidays, but most of the time, they stick to the original.
At between 600 and 700 pieces baked per day, the Lerche is definitely one of the stars of the menu of this coffee shop. Rößler says that it’s a delicacy enjoyed both by visitors and by locals.
“Leipziger Lerche is not a tourist attraction,” Rößler says. “Of course, tourists purchase Leipziger Lerche a lot, but it has a very long history and tradition and belongs to Leipzig, so the people of Leipzig enjoy it as well.”
Today’s lerche can be purchased as-is or in individually-wrapped boxes, one more reminder of the original, shipped from the small Saxonian city of Leipzig across Europe in boxes containing a dozen tiny songbirds.
Emily Monaco is a born-and-raised New Yorker based in Paris. After many years of trying, she has come to the conclusion that she will likely never be French. She writes about her experiences with Franglais and food on her blog, tomatokumato.com. Follow her on Twitter @emiglia.