Tag Archives: natural history

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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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.

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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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On a Mushroom Hunt

The British crops have been failing left, right and centre because of the all the warm and very, very wet weather we have had over this growing year. The fields and orchards have been chock full of mouldy, diseased-ridden peas, beans, apples, plums and pears. It’s been a great year for mould.

Mould is caused by fungi and luckily, this year has also been great for the fungi we like to eat: the mushrooms, so as long as they are doing well, we shall always have a good meal.

Tricholoma scalpuratum or yellowing knight

I am pretty new to mushroom hunting, but there are a few species that I already know and love, but faced with 120 000 species worldwide, of which 1841 are recognised as edible (though not necessarily by all). Luckily, I have a background in ecology and evolutionary biology and so I’m okay at identifying and classifying. However, the obvious problem here is that being okay is not good enough when it comes to mushrooms, as you may be rushing down to A & E with the family in an ambulance clutching your Collins Fungi Guide in your clammy palms.

Shaggy ink cap

Mushrooms have been held in high regard throughout history because, except for a few European species, they cannot be cultivated in any consistent way. There is no evidence that prehistoric man ate mushrooms, but they were certainly enjoyed in Ancient Egypt and Rome, indeed the Romans were the first to cultivate them. This art seemed to die out with them and it wasn’t resurrected until Victorian times. It’s strange to think that mushrooms were such an expensive ingredient that often had to be exchanged for oysters in many dishes. How times have changed.

Because mushrooms are notorious for their often narcotic and poisonous qualities, there were considered magic during the Middle Ages. Many an alchemist pored over the life cycle of fungi in an attempt to discover the secret of life itself – mushrooms had the amazing ability to create life from decay.

I could go through all the edible species of mushroom in Britain, but that would be rather boring so instead I thought I’d mention the ones I have found so far in this post and then add to it in further posts whenever I come across them.

Identifying Mushrooms

As I said, I am certainly no expert in fungus ID, but it is for this very reason that I take appropriate precautions.

First of all you need at least two good fungus guides: there is such variation within single species that there can be a lot of overlap between them and therefore potential misidentification. More than one book covers more variation. I think it is best to have one book with drawings and one with photographs. The two I use are the Collins Fungi Guide – which is very in-depth – and River Cottage Handbook No. 1: Mushrooms – which is much briefer but is full of hints and tips.

Aside from the mushroom you are interested in, you need to look for other things: are they single or in clumps, or even patterns? Where are they? Fields or woods? If they are in woods, are they on trees, if you what kind? Therefore it is very important that you know some of the trees: the main players are oak, beech and birch, so make sure you know them, or take along a tree guide with you too.

If I am not really sure at all, I take a photo of them where I found them and pick them with their bases intact so I can classify them later when I have time.

Jew’s ear or jelly fungus grows almost exclusively on elder

Do not be tempted to take any advice from old wives’ tales as they are almost always wrong. However, most poisonous species have three features that are worth bearing in mind: scales beneath the cap, a ring and a small sac at the stem’s base. Not all will have all three qualities, so not take this advice as read either. The important thing to remember is that if you are not completely sure, don’t eat it!

Over the last week or so I have come across shaggy inkcap, shaggy parasol, wood mushrooms, the rather anti-Semitically named Jew’s ear fungus and a huge host of , commonly called yellowing knight (though the one’s I found were not particularly yellow).

Two mushroom recipes

I cooked several dishes with our mushroom crop, but I shall just report two here.

Creamed mushrooms on toast

Simple, fast and will show off your mushrooms to their finest. It’s not for dieters.

Ingredients (per person)

1 double-handful of wild mushrooms

2 ounces of salted butter

1 garlic clove, finely chopped

1 tsp of chopped thyme leaves

salt and pepper

5 or 6 tbs double cream

freshly-grated nutmeg

one thick slice of hot buttered toast

Pick over the mushrooms, wiping away any soil with a damp cloth. Melt the butter in a frying pan and when it stops sizzling add the garlic and thyme and fry until the garlic is soft. Tip in the mushrooms and season with salt and pepper. Stir and fry until the mushrooms given up then evaporated their juice. Add the cream and stir, adding a little nutmeg. Serve immediately on toast. Poached egg is optional.

Dried Mushrooms

When you have a glut of mushrooms, it’s a good idea to preserve them in some way. This is a recipe from Elizabeth Raffauld’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper that turns mushrooms into a delicious, rich and dark seasoning. I’ll leave it to her to tell you how to make it (I have added the odd note in parentheses).

Mushrooms before drying

“Take the thickest large buttons you can get, peel them, cut off the root end but don’t wash them. Spread them separately on pewter dishes [or on baking trays] and set them in a slow oven to dry [around 60-70⁰C]. Let the liquor dry up into the mushrooms, it makes the powder stronger, and then continue in the oven till you find they will powder [they will snap easily].

Mushrooms after drying

Then beat them in a marble mortar [or a blender] and sift them through a fine sieve with a little Chyan [Cayenne] pepper and pounded mace. Bottle it and keep it in a dry closet.”

Mushrooms powdered

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