Category Archives: Game

Woodcock

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I have been very lucky this game season with the range of species that have fallen into my lap. Last post I told you all about the snipe I managed to get from my butcher Mark Frost. Well he’s done it again and has managed to hold of half a dozen beautiful woodcock, the larger cousin to the snipe; almost as elusive and certainly no less delicious! Another rare treat for the patrons of The Buttery.

Woodcock and snipe are similar birds and likewise can be cooked in similar ways, so much of what can be said about cooking and eating snipe can be said about woodcock.

A while back I wrote a general entry about game. Read it here.

 

Woodcock in brief

Season: 1 Oct – 31 Jan (England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland)

Hanging time:  4 – 8 days

Weight: 300g

Roasting time:  20-30 minutes at 230⁰C

Breeding pairs in UK: 55 000 (increasing to 1.4 million in the winter)

Indigenous?: Yes

Habitat: Mainly woodland, but also heath and marshland

Collective noun: fall

woodcock-painting

Our second-smallest game bird is a mysterious little creature, spending most of its day hiding in the undergrowth in wooded areas. The only time you are likely to come across one is if you startle it during a walk in the woods, but even then you may just catch a glimpse one of skitting and zig-zagging toward another hiding place.

Then, suddenly, usually around the full moon before Hallowe’en there is a huge influx of migratory woodcock, using Britain as an overwintering spot, often being first spotted on beaches, exhausted. Seeing the birds apparently come from nowhere in this fashion and at this time must have added to their already ethereal reputation.

Having little understanding of migration, people thought woodcock went to the moon during spring and summer. Seeing them first on beaches made others believe that they hatched from mermaid’s purses (the desiccated egg cases of sharks).

Reclusive and well-camouflaged, they only venture from their hiding places to hunt their prey at dusk; and it is for this reason that woodcock are rarely found in butcher’s shop windows. It’s a lucky shooter that manages to bag a few woodcock, and they rarely go further than the hunter’s kitchen. I’m lucky in that my butcher is also a shooter!

A treat almost as rare as snipe, it is absolutely delicious t traditionally roasted  completely whole on a piece of toast, with just breast and leg  feathers removed. The trail (i.e., the innards) are then scooped out and served upon the toast. Ortolan and plover are cooked in the same way (though it is now illegal to eat ortolan).

Because they are eaten whole, they should not be hung for long, as those gamey aromas quickly turn into the aroma of decomposition. However, it is all personal taste – true gastronomes hang their woodcock or snipe by the feet until the innards of the birds start to drip through their bills.

Woodcock were not as rare a treat as they are today where they can only be legally shot during the months when the country is teeming with them and can only be shot. Guns were not light enough to shoot woodcock with any accuracy or success and so night nets were set up that caught the birds in great numbers so they could be sent to market still alive. This practice is now illegal (though, unfortunately not in all other European countries).

woodcock

Sourcing Woodcock

Woodcock are rarely found on sale, but I have spotted them in my butcher’s shop a couple of times in the last three or four years. I do remember seeing them once at a game stall in London’s Borough Market. Patience is a virtue and if you keep looking, you’ll eventually find one. On the open market, you’ll pay at the very least £15 per bird.

Alternatively, make friends with a hunter, or ask if you can help in a local hunt. I have never done this, but would love to.

 

Preparing woodcock for the table

Take a woodcocke, & reyse his legges and his wynges as an henne; this done, dyght the brayne.And here begynneth the feest from Pentecost unto mydsomer.

From The Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving), 1508

As already mentioned, woodcock need not be drawn. You can pluck them, but be careful as they have very thin skins that are easily torn. If you are keeping the head on, remove the eyes and skin the head if you like. To draw the birds it is best to use some sharp scissors to make an incision. Use your first two fingers to loosen the innards and pull them out. Keep the tiny livers if you like. Drawing woodcock is easier compared to other small game birds such as partridge.

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See the post on snipe for more details.

 

Roast woodcock

Woodcock is not always roasted, but because you often only get hold of just one, it’s the only way you can eat it really. I’ll not repeat myself; the way it is cooked and served is exactly the same as snipe, except for a few minor differences:

  1. Smear butter over the breasts, season and cover with streaky bacon to prevent the bird from drying out in the oven.
  2. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, depending upon how rare you want your bird. Slip the buttered toast under the bird for the final 10 minutes of roasting.

 

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Snipe

Last week I was very excited to hold of some snipe, a very rare treat indeed. I roasted them and got them on my menu. To eat them in the traditional way is, by our modern standards, rather macabre; they are cooked and roasted completely whole. Guts and brain are eaten.  It’s not for the faint-hearted, but, as is often the case, they make delicious eating. I was worried I had gone a little too far, but the people of Levenshulme did me proud.

So here’s a post all about snipe and how to roast and eat them in the traditional way.

A while back I wrote a general entry about game. Read it here.

 

Snipe in brief:

Season: 12 Aug – 31 Jan (England, Wales & Scotland); 1 Oct – 31 Jan (Northern Ireland)

Hanging time:  2-3 days

Weight: 150g

Roasting time:  10-15 minutes at 230⁰C

Breeding pairs in UK: 80 000

Indigenous?: Yes

Habitat: Mainly marshes and wetlands, but also heathland, moorland and water meadows

Collective noun: wisp (when in flight); walk (when on foot)

 

What is a snipe? Well Laurence Andrew, writing in his tome The noble lyfe and natures of man of bestes, serpentys, fowles and fishes… (c. 1527) has a pretty good stab and describing it (though I’m sure the snipe does not get its bill stuck in the mud Natural Selection would have something to say about that!):

Snyte [Snipe] is a byrde with a longe bylle & he putteth his byll in the erthe for to seke the worms in the grounde and they put their bylles in the earthe sometyme so depe that they can nat get it up agayne & thane they scratche theyr billes out agayn with theyr fete. This birde resteth betimes at nyght and they be erly abrode on the morning & they have swete flesshe to be eaten.

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Weighing in at an average of 150g, the snipe is our smallest legal game bird. They are not an introduced species like the pheasant, red legged partridge or rabbit, but indigenous to the UK and Ireland (where most reside). There are around 80 000 breeding pairs in the UK, but these numbers increase substantially when around one million individuals flock to the country to overwinter.

Normally, shooting indigenous species holds up a red light for conservation – and rightly so, it should always come first, but in this case the snipe have the upper hand because they are so damn tricky to shoot.

common-snipe

They are secretive, highly camouflaged birds that use their very long bills to probe mud and sand flats for tasty creatures to eat. When driven at a hunt they fly in zig zags and are quickly gone again, this is why a group of them is called a wisp. (It’s no surprise, then, that especially good sharp shooters in the armed forces became known as snipers.) These birds are almost self-managing in their difficulty to hunt!

As a food they are delicious, indeed they are considered the finest eating. They are wonderfully rich and tender, and although they are small, a little goes a long way. Winston Churchill once demanded ‘a brace of snipe washed down with a pint of port’ as a hangover cure whilst on a transatlantic flight to Washington DC. Their carcasses make excellent stock.

Not just the leg and breast meat are eaten, but also the brain and the trail – in other words, the innards of the bird, usually scooped out and spread on the slice of toast it was roasted upon.

Don’t be repulsed by this! Your first worry is probably that the guts will be full of the bird’s faeces, well worry not, the snipe (and its larger cousin, the woodcock) evacuates its bowel as soon as it takes flight. Your second worry, presumably, is that you are eating gory intestines, liver, heart etc. Again, nothing to worry about here either! It is all very soft, rich and tender like a lovely warm pâté.

The head is cut in half lengthways so that the brain can removed or sucked out.

This is ancient finger food.

 

Sourcing snipe

As you will have guessed, finding snipe for the table is tricky. I’ve only ever seen snipe three times in butcher’s shop windows so my advice is to make friends with someone who shoots, because only a few will have been shot on any single hunt, and therefore it’s unlikely there will be any surplus for the butcher to pick up. The chances are you’ll probably have to finish the business of hanging the bird(s) yourself.

Most game birds are sold in ‘braces’, i.e. pairs, usually a cock and hen, but snipe actually come in threes, or ‘fingers’, so-called because that’s how many you can hold between the fingers of one hand.

These tiny birds do not need to hang for long, just 2 or 3 days. If it is unseasonably warm or being hung indoors 1 or 2 days should do the trick.

 

Preparing snipe for the table

You are to observe: we never take anything out of a wood cock or snipe

James Doak’s Cookbook, circa 1760

Snipe are extremely easy to prepare if you are roasting them:

  1. Pluck away the leg and breast feathers. If you like, remove the skin from its head.
  2. Truss the snipe with its own beak, by pulling its head down to its side and spearing the legs with its long bill.

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Some recipes as you to remove the trail before you cook it (sometimes to be fried up with butter and smoked bacon). To do this, make a small incision in its vent and use a small tea or coffee spoon to remove the entrails.

Snipe can also be cooked just like any other bird if you prefer (but you are missing out on a real treat). Pluck the whole body, or peel away the skin, and cut away legs, head and feet.

 

Roast snipe, and how to eat it

Per person:

1 or 2 oven-ready snipe

1 or 2 pieces of toast, as large as the snipe

Butter

Salt and pepper

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To accompany:

Mashed potatoes or game chips

Roast vegetables

Gravy made from game stock

A sweet jelly such as redcurrant, quince or medlar jelly

 

  1. If your snipe have been kept in the fridge, remove them and let them get to room temperature, about 30-40 minutes.
  2. Preheat your oven as hot as it will go, 230⁰
  3. Spread a good knob of butter on the toast and lay the snipe on top. Smear two more small knobs over the snipes’ breasts. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Place the snipe on a roasting tin and roast for 10-12 minutes for medium-rare birds. If you are roasting several, make sure that you leave a good gap between each one so that heat can circulate around them.
  5. Remove from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes or so.
  6. The snipe can then be served to each guest with various accompaniments. I think it’s best if each guest carves their own snipe.
  7. Take the snipe off its toast and cut of its head. Use a chef’s knife the cut its head in half lengthways.
  8. Next, scoop out the snipe’s trail with a teaspoon and spread it over the toast.
  9. Remove the legs and cut away the breasts using a steak knife.
  10. Eating is fiddly, so use your fingers to get every piece of meat from the carcass.
  11. Don’t forget the brain – pick up the two halves of the head and use the beak from one half to extract the brain from the other half, then swap. Alternatively, suck the brain out.

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Fifth Course: Rich Pigeon Faggot with Mustard Sauce

Here’s the penultimate course of the Dinner Party Through Time and it brings us up to the Second World War. The recipe is not actually from the 1940s, but I thought it represented two very different aspects of food culture during this time. A normal faggot is a mixture of pork or lamb offal and offcuts wrapped in a little caul fat and baked. They are of course a national dish and, quite rightly, should be celebrated.

During WWII, meat was rationed, and families could spend up to just one shilling and tuppence on meat per person per week, which got you a little over a pound of meat each. Offal, however, was not rationed so housewives would supplement the ‘proper’ meat with offcuts. This meant that dishes such as faggots were eaten more often.

churchill war room

In contrast to this, Winton Churchill ate opulently in his war room, putting away course after course of delicious, rich and very expensive food and booze. Here’s a typical lunch menu:

Native Oysters

Petite Marmite

Roast Venison with Mushrooms

Ice Cream with Raspberries

Stilton, Apples, Grapes & Walnuts

…and to drink:

Pol Roger Champagne

Chardonnay

Claret

Port

Cognac

Don’t forget the coffee and cigars, of course.

He did not hide the fact he was living in this way, indeed people thought the man who was overseeing the war should be living in this way. I doubt that would happen today.

Anyway, I digress.

I thought making a very cheap and basic meal into something rich and indulgent would highlight these two diets perfectly.

It’s a very complicated affair, but it benefits from the fact that you can make it ahead of time and can freeze them – in fact the freezing process helps tenderise the rich pigeon filling.

I can’t pretend it’s my own recipe; it’s adapted from Gary Rhodes’ excellent New British Classics.

Unfortunately, no one took a photograph of them, so here’s a picture of a woodpigeon from the RSPB website:

woodpigeon_rsbp

This recipe makes 24 to 30 faggots.

For the faggots themselves:

6 pigeons

1.8 litres pigeon stock (see below)

2 chicken breasts

350g belly pork

150g back fat

150g chicken livers

2 shallots, finely chopped

2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

1 tsp thyme leaves, chopped

90ml brandy

120ml Madeira

2 egg whites, beaten

200ml double cream

Pigeon reduction (see below)

Salt and pepper

Caul fat, soaked overnight in salted water

Vegetable oil or lard for frying

Well ahead of time, remove the breasts from the pigeons (or ask your butcher to do it). Use the carcasses to make the pigeon stock (see below). Reduce around 400ml of the stock by three-quarters to use in the pigeon reduction (see even further below).

Coarsely mince the pigeon breasts, chicken breasts, pork, back fat and chicken livers twice.

Heat the shallots, garlic and thyme in a small saucepan along with the brandy and Madeira and boil down until almost dry. Mix this into the meat along with the egg whites, cream and pigeon reduction. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate.

Unfurl your caul fat and spread it on a chopping board, cutting it into approximate six by six centimetre squares. Take tablespoons of the faggot mixture and roll into balls and wrap each one up in a square of caul fat. Pat each one dry and fry in oil or lard to seal them and give them a nice golden colour. Arrange them in a flameproof tin or pan.

Warm the remainder of the stock and pour it over the faggots. Simmer them very gently in the stock for about 15 minutes and let them cool in the stock then freeze.

When you want to eat the faggots, defrost them and warm them up in the oven. Serve them up with the mustard sauce (again, see below) and some steamed cabbage and some mashed potato.

For the pigeon stock

2 tbs sunflower oil or lard

6 pigeon carcasses

2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, chopped

4 sticks celery, sliced

4 mushrooms, sliced

500ml of red wine or port

2 cloves of garlic

2 sprigs of thyme

10 juniper berries

5 tomatoes

Black peppercorns

Beef bones

Beef skirt

I’ve already written about how to make stock, so have a look at this post for some general hints and tips. Don’t worry, if you don’t have exactly the right amount or variety of stock veg. I often use bags of veg trimmings I sequester in my freezer exactly for this sort of thing.

Fry the pigeon carcasses in the oil until very well browned, then turn down the heat and add the onions, carrots, celery and mushrooms. Cook these until they are softened and browned. Tip the whole lot into your stockpot, deglazing the frying pan with a splash of the red wine or port. Add the remainder of the wine or port with all of the other ingredients plus enough water to cover.

Bring slowly to a bare simmer, keep the pot covered and on your smallest hob on the lowest heat and let it tick away for three hours. Strain, skim and reduce to a volume of 1.8 litres.

For the pigeon reduction:

2 good sprigs of thyme

4 juniper berries, crushed

1 garlic clove, chopped

120ml brandy

120ml port

the reduced pigeon stock

Place all of the ingredients except the reduced stock in a pan and reduce the liquid by three-quarters. Strain through a sieve and add the stock. Cool and keep in the fridge until needed.

For the mustard butter sauce

200g chilled, cubed butter

a small onion, sliced

2 bay leaves

1 star anise

12 black peppercorns

4 cardamom pods, cracked open

4 tbs white wine vinegar

8 tbs white wine

360ml chicken stock

4 tbs cream

salt and white pepper

2 tsp English mustard

Take a knobsworth of butter and gently cooked the onion and herbs and spices gently for around five minutes.

Now, lots of reducing: add the white wine vinegar, turn up the heat, and reduce by three-quarters. Next, add the wine and reduce by three-quarters. Finally add the stock and reduce that by three-quarters too.

Turn the heat down low, stir in the cream and whisk in the remainder of the butter a few pieces at a time. Season with salt and white pepper, strain and stir in the mustard. Pour into a warmed sauce boat or jug.

 

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The Glorious Twelfth

red grouse

Today is the Glorious Twelfth! The day in the countryside calendar that many await, for it is the beginning of game season.

I know it may seem a little unsavoury to look forward to the shooting of thousands of birds and mammals, but it is so woven into the tradition of country life, that it seems a rather romantic pursuit. Not one that I have been privy to of course, as it is a posh person’s game.

Technically, the 12th of August is the opening of the game season for the red grouse, though a couple of other game species can also be legally hunted from this day (see the list of game species, below).

There are two broad types of game: furred and feathered, i.e. mammals and birds. Fish are considered game too, but they do not follow the same laws as the others.

On a typical hunt for grouse and other game birds, there is a basic set up of beaters that walk in a loose line across a heath, in the case of grouse, or scrub in the case of pheasant, beating the vegetation in order to scare the birds so that they fly up and away toward gunmen to be shot. The bird is then retrieved by a gun dog such as a springer spaniel. I’m over-simplifying this, of course, but that is the basic process.

quarry

 A hunter after her quarry (Lax-A)

The hunt is such a huge event and requires such a large amount of organisation, that single hunts often cost up to £50 000 per day, raking £50 million into the local economies of Scotland and Northern England each year.

How Glorious is it?

The Glorious Twelfth is controversial, with the game industry and conservationists constantly at loggerheads, but the fact is that the Moorland Association has protected many at risk species in the British Isles such as the golden plover and lapwing. They put a lot of effort into the management of heathlands by selectively burning areas and reducing the numbers of predators such as foxes and weasels. It is here that the Moorland Association has been hit with the most criticism; conservationists say they should not be culling predators so that we can have more grouse for posh men to shoot. It’s a fair point.

Then, on the really dark side are the accusations of the killing of some of our most rare birds of prey like the hen harrier.

So on one hand predator animals are often persecuted, whereas on the other, well-behaved waders are looked after.

I view the situation the same I do zoos. I know they do good work for the conservation of animals and habitats, yet I can’t help but feel sad every time I see a poor old bored elephant, or a majestic tiger walking laps around its pen. They are part of our heritage, like it or not, but they can do good work.

The Game Act, 1831

This Act of Parliament was brought in to protect game birds by bringing in closed hunting seasons, and imposed game licences (hares and deer have their own Acts, which follow similar principles). Some species were protected completely, such as the common bustard (now extinct in the UK, but there are attempts to reintroduce it).

The Game Act was brought in to replace the outdated ide of their being Royal Forests, brought in during the 11th Century during the reign of William I, where it was illegal to hunt game unless you had permission from the king. As the centuries rolled on, the laws slackened more and more until they were pretty much useless.

At the time of writing the Act, hares were not given a closed season as they were a pest. The imposing capercaillie was not included in the Act as it was extinct in the UK at the time, being reintroduced to Scotland in the 1837.

Game seasons

Feathered game is further subdivided into two groups: game birds and waterfowl & waders. Some of the species are familiar and other are not, and of the ones I have tried, all taste delicious (unless they’ve been hung for too long, then they are decidedly rank).

Game Birds

Red grouse, ptarmigan                 August 12 – December 10

Black grouse                                    August 20 – December 10

Partridge (grey and red-legged)  September 1 – February 1

Pheasant                                           October 1 – February 1

As laid out in law, it is illegal to shoot wild birds between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. In England and Wales, game cannot be killed on Sundays or Christmas Day. If the 12th of August lands on a Sunday, the season will officially begin the next day.

I have never come across a ptarmigan to buy, so if anyone knows how I can nab one, do let me know.

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Game birds are often sold as a brace – a male & female. Partridges in this case

Wildfowl &Waders

Snipe                                                  August 12 – January 31

Ducks & Geese                                 September 1 – January 31 (inland); til Feb 20 at low tide

Golden plover, coot & moorhen   September 1 – January 31

Woodcock                                         October 1 – January 31

Several species of duck and goose can be legally hunted, though many in reality, are ignored by hunters, or shot in very small numbers, such as: gadwall, goldeneye, pintail, shovelers and tufted ducks, though pintails have been spotted in my butcher’s shop before now. You are much more likely to see mallard, wigeon and teal.

Geese are a bit tricky to get hold of, unless you know someone personally that hunts, and the reason for this is that whilst geese can be shot, it is illegal to sell them. I presume this rule is an incentive to hunters to shoot the numbers they need. Legal game species are: white-fronted (England & Wales only), pink-footed, greylag and Canada geese.

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A brace of mallard

The furred game can also be split into two broad groups: ground game and deer.

Ground Game

This is basically your small and furry game species:

Rabbit & brown hare                      January 1 – December 31

Mountain hare (Scotland only)  August 1 – February 28/29

Rabbit and brown hare have no closed season, this is because at the time of the Game Act, they were both considered pests. These days, everyone considers rabbits to be a pest, but the hare does get an effective closed season from March to May, due to their fall in numbers in recent times.

brown hares - telegraph

Boxing brown hare (Telegraph)

Deer

There are six species of deer inhabiting the UK: red, sika, fallow, roe, Chinese water deer and muntjac. The seasons get pretty complicated here, but generally the open season runs from August to April for males (bucks & stags) and November to March for females (hinds & does). The exception being muntjac that have no closed season

Pests

There are a few pest species that can also be eaten such as rabbits, woodpigeons and grey squirrels. In the past rooks were eaten, though this is very uncommon these days.

So there you go, a whistle-stop tour of hunting in the UK. In the coming months I’ll be posting some game-related posts as I hunt around my local butchers’ shops for some delicious seasonal treats.

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Forgotten Foods #1: The House Sparrow

The very cute Passer domesticus

I do like to see a social group of tweeting house sparrows getting into fights, taking a nice dust bath, or whatever; they are so watchable. They are one of my favourite birds. Once extremely common in Britain, their numbers have dropped sharply in last few years and nobody really seems to know why. In the past they were plentiful and were commonly served up at the dinner table. In fact many songbirds were counted as legal game and were very popular indeed. Here’s a delicious-sounding recipe from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper for sparrow dumplings:

Mix half a pint of good milk with three eggs, a little salt, and as much flour as will make a thick batter. Put a lump of butter rolled in pepper and salt in every sparrow, mix them in the batter and tie them in a cloth, boil them one hour and a half. pour melted butter over them and serve it up.

Over the pond in New York, the plague of house sparrows became very bad indeed: Without question the most deplorable event in the history of American ornithology was the introduction of the English Sparrow said WL Dawson in 1903. Something had to be done! The people of the ever-trendy The New York Times encouraged folk to help rid the place of the pests, and not to let good protein go to waste, they tried to make them appear as an attractive and sought-after meat:

English Sparrows are being properly appreciated. Hundreds of them are now caught by enterprising people for sale to certain restaurants where reed birds are in demand. A German woman on Third Avenue has three traps set every day, and she catches probably seventy five a week. They are cooked and served to her boarders the same as reed birds and are declared quite as great a delicacy. This German woman bastes them, leaving the little wooden skewer in the bird when served. They are cooked with a bit of bacon. She tempts them with oats, and after the catch they are fed a while with boiled oaten meal. She sprinkles oaten meal in the back yard also, and thereby fattens the free birds. … So soon as it becomes known that the Sparrow is a table bird their number will rapidly grow less.
People don’t like to experiment, but when it is discovered that the Sparrow has been declared good by those upon whom they have been tried, no boarding house meal will be deemed in good form unless a dish of fat Sparrows adorns it. Sparrow pie is a delicacy fit to set before a king.

Unfortunately, I don’t know the date of the article – if anyone knows, please let me know.

I am not that well-travelled compared to many, but here in America, and in the African countries I have visited, the house sparrow is just everywhere. To do your part to rid these continents of the ubiquitious little bastards, may I suggest getting your hands on the Dodson Sparrow Trap:

 

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