Faute de grives, on mange des merles

Photography by Mynette Laine; more winged stunners in her bird set.

This is part of a series on French idiomatic expressions that relate to food. Read the introductory Edible Idiom post, and browse the list of French idioms featured so far.

This week’s entry is really an adage more than an idiom. It goes, “Faute de grives, on mange des merles” and can also appear as, “Faute de grives, on se contente de merles.”

Literally translated as, “In want of thrushes, one eats (or settles for) blackbirds,” it means that one must find a way to make do with what’s available. In other words, beggars can’t be choosers.

Example, from the real-life greenmarket situation that inspired this post: “Vous n’avez plus de poires ? Tant pis, je vais vous prendre des pommes. Faute de grives, on mange des merles !” “You’re all out of pears? Never mind, I’ll have some apples. In want of thrushes, one eats blackbirds!”

Listen to the idiom and example read aloud:

The reasoning behind this is simple: la grive and le merle are closely related game birds*, but the former was traditionally held in higher regard by gastronomes, who deemed its flesh more delicate.

I’ve never tasted either, and judging by the steep decrease of recipes provided under “grive” in the two editions of the Larousse Gastronomique I own and cherish — from thirteen recipes in the 1938 edition to just four in 2007 –, they are less commonly consumed than they once were.

One explanation may be that French regulations now prohibit the sale of grives: hunters can eat or give away what they catch, but they aren’t allowed to sell them to restaurants or retailers. (The North American equivalents of the European thrush and blackbird are protected, and therefore can’t be hunted at all.)


* Being neither an ornithologist nor a hunter, I found it surprisingly difficult to make sense of the differences between grive, thrush, merle, and blackbird, and work out an accurate translation: they seem to be umbrella names for various birds that aren’t the same species when you change continents, and some sources suggest that one is a subspecies of the other — or vice versa, I’m confused. Also, thrush is the name of an oral yeast infection, and I wish I’d been warned before I began to search for pictures.

  • Thrush can be much worse than that! You must have had safe search on; count yourself lucky :)

    Popular bird names are tricky – European colonists gave the old familiar names to vaguely similar looking birds in other continents. Australian magpies aren’t much like English ones, Australian robins even less so.

  • kim

    In a popular Dutch children’s book (Otje by Annie M.G. Schmidt) the lead girl’s father is a chef in a small hotel. When he’s ordered to shoot some thrushes to prepare for his guests (I think they were French :) ) he flakes out and serves them chicken instead, claiming it’s the real deal. The guests kept raving about the exquisite taste of the birds and the girl’s birdy friends are saved.

    And thank you for the google warning :D

  • Thanks once again, Clothilde, for these little gems.

    Oddly enough, this is the first time I couldn’t think of a German equivalent right away.
    There is ‘In der allergrößten Not, schmeckt die Wurst auch ohne Brot.’ – ‘In direst need, sausage (charcuterie) is fine even without bread.’. It’s funny, but not quite fitting the image, is it?

    Have a nice third Advent weekend!

  • Malini

    I am reminded of the English nursery rhyme, where a pie is made with 4 and 20 blackbirds for a king. And when the pie is opened, the birds begin to sing … isn’t that a dainty dish to set before the king! I suppose if he was a more important king, or perhaps an emperor, he would have had a pie made of thrushes!

  • I really loved this idiom. I’m going to start using it! You never know how handy it may be in the States . . . given our current economic condition !

  • This is a great one. I’ll have to test it out on my produce guy later.

    Hahahaha! You have to be so careful what you search for. Disgusting.

  • OK, more warning! Thrush is also the name for an infection of a horse’s hoof.

  • I think this one is my favorite yet!

  • This one’s nice. But in Portuguese, here in Brazil, our version is not exactely related to food.
    “Quem não tem cão, caça com gato”
    “Who’s got no dog, hunts with a cat”
    (Ah, and I’m reading your first C&Z book, now! And I’m loving it! Congratulations!)

  • yourpapounet

    Charlotte is right. I looked it up, and found that, once again, all roads lead to food…

    “Thrush” is defined as “An infection of the frog of a horse’s foot, characterized by a foul-smelling discharge and often resulting from unhygienic stall conditions” (I hope I’m not spoiling anyone’s appetite right now…)
    What, thought I, a frog in a horse’s foot ? I looked it up… and there it was :
    “frog:a triangular mass of elastic, horny substance in the middle of the sole of the foot of a horse or related animal”
    This used to be called a “frush”, in fact, from the french word “fourchette” (a fork). Food again ! It probably became confused with the dialect word “frosh”, meaning “frog”, and this is why horses have a frog in the foot…
    Words are a never-ending source of pleasure, same as food…

  • Dawn in CA

    I doubt I’ll ever grow tired of these edible idioms! And your footnote made me laugh. If I spoke French half as well as you speak English, I would be thrilled!

  • Karen Schaffer

    Thank you for all these idiom posts. I’m really enjoying them.

    Have you ever heard one that goes something like, “Eat X with the rich and Y with the poor,” where X and Y are foods of some sort. The idea is that X is best at the point when it’s also most expensive (or maybe it’s never inexpensive but is worth paying for), whereas Y is at its best when it’s cheap and plentiful (like peaches, for instance). I thought I learned this as a French saying, but none of my French friends have recognized it. I also can’t remember what X and Y were. Any ideas?

  • EB

    Awesome idiom. Icky pics. I definitely think this one needs to be imported into the states.

  • Aiyana

    Tres interesant!


  • yourpapounet

    For Karen : indeed, you are thinking of “Il faut manger les petits pois avec les riches et les fraises avec les pauvres.”

    “petits pois” (garden peas)are good only when they’re prime, and so expensive, so it’s better to eat those bought by wealthy people.

    “fraises” (strawberries) are good essentially in the season of plenty, when they are cheaper, so there’s no risk eating those bought by the poor.

    Note that sometimes it’s “cerises” (cherries) instead of “fraises”.

  • franko

    am i the only person wondering if it’s true that people used to actually EAT blackbirds?? blech!

  • Tarfman

    Cath the Canberra Cook is right: Thrush can be much worse than an oral yeast infection, enough to turn you into a vegetarian in fact! In which case, one could rework this saying into: “In want of thrushes, one settles for fungi” ;)

  • Claire

    Just an ORAL yeast infection? Oh, no, it could have been MUCH worse than that…

  • FrenchJan

    The photo of the bird under your title is a thrush; a blackbird is of the same family but all it’s feathers are black and it has a yellow beak.

    (Incidentally, the female blackbird is not dissimilar in appearance from the thrush, but has darker markings!!)

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