The woodcock: Good but gory eating (©JASON THOMPSON CC BY 2.0)
I ate grouse for the first time last month. Three of us shared two grouse, which had been hung for probably too long, made to a Simon Hopkinson recipe: with toast, bread sauce, breadcrumbs fried in grouse grease (bread in all three states of being), and watercress. Despite eating less than half a grouse I felt weighed down, dopey and woozy for hours afterwards. I grew concerned. Does grouse have a sedative effect? Does some chemical get produced with aged game which makes your brain slow down? Or was it just the carb triple threat? The rich roasted-bone smell clung to the kitchen and wafted around the hall like a charnel house.
People who are game aficionados tend to want to eat things which are funky, well-developed, strong-tasting, even slightly off-putting. Another example is the woodcock, a tiny, beautiful bird, which, if cooked in the traditional English style, is roasted whole, for a very brief time, and served with head and feet on. The organs liquefy: you scrape them out and spread them on toast. (This is possible because the woodcock is fortunate enough to evacuate the cloaca on takeoff.) You’re encouraged to crack the skull open and also eat the brain, although I’ve never personally done that. I also prefer — rather than eat tepid organs — to scrape them into a pan and cook them through while the meat rests, which makes me a wuss. Sadly — just to be disgusting for a moment — the meat is best when it is not cooked and not raw, but somewhere in between.
Households disagree on woodcock. One of my parents is very keen; the other not so much. One of them fantasises about holding a woodcock dinner party but fears not knowing enough people who would enjoy it. (Certain aged woodcock linger in the freezer waiting for this dinner party.) As Julia Drysdale, in her 1987 Classic Game Cookery, who “likes [her] woodcock very bloody”, says: “Think of the sacrilege of wasting one on a nonbeliever!” The Club National de Bécassiers (the French national society of woodcock-hunters, for such a thing exists), by contrast, is extremely firm on the point that a woodcock needs to be cooked for a long time: “Leave the game to simmer for a long time so it will reveal its delicate treasures . . . The fashion of eating bleeding game is disastrous.” The Larousse Gastronomique allows for both opinions, but ultimately backs the Bécassiers: “There are some people who hold that woodcock is difficult to digest, indeed harmful to health . . . even toxic.”
Neglected in all of this is the pheasant, which you are far more likely to encounter. If you do a quick poll of your nearest gourmands it seems hardly any of them rejoice at the idea of eating pheasant, despite it being far easier to get and cheaper. Mostly the pheasant has a reputation for being dry, tough and sinewy, and to a degree the dryness is inevitable — these are birds with very little fat, that spend most of their time running around, fighting each other, narrowly avoiding (or not always avoiding) getting hit by cars, before a guaranteed stressful demise. (But it is free range! Kind of.) There is no romance or mysticism to the pheasant the way there is to the woodcock or the hare. In any case, if you get a pheasant, you have an animal of unpredictable size, age, fattiness and gender lurking in your freezer for an unknown period of time.
However, the ur-gourmand Brillat-Saverin prized pheasants highly: “The pheasant is an enigma to which only experts have the key, and they alone can savour it in all its excellence . . . its flesh is tender, sublime and highly flavoured.” This sounds extravagant praise, but his pheasants would probably have been wilder and therefore gamier than those of today. He is firm on hanging: “The ideal moment is when the pheasant begins to decompose. Then its aroma develops in an oily essence which requires a little fermentation to reach perfection.”
Was he on to something? The pheasant recipe named after him actually does very well if you give it more attention, moisture and time, and also more acid. The classic Normandy recipe of pheasants jointed and cooked with apples, cider and crème fraiche is a good example. Hot and sour Vietnamese and Thai-style soups work well — cut the pheasant up, simmer with fish sauce, lemongrass, chilli, lime juice and lime leaves. Canh chua, with chopped pineapple and tomato added to the broth, is ridiculously savoury and delicious. Georgian-style walnut sauce is very good with it too: it’s creamy and forgiving.
But my favourite way is a bit more of a palaver: the Iranian pomegranate and walnut stew khoresh-e fesenjan. Most often it’s made with chicken but pheasant or duck are also traditional. I think it is best with pheasant. The stronger flavour and juices of the pheasant work with the punchy sweet-sourness of the pomegranate molasses and the savouriness of the walnuts. The smaller pieces of meat, from the skinner, more stressed-out pheasant, seem correctly sized — the main point of this recipe is the delicious walnut sauce. It’s a terrifically autumnal dish too. There are a few slightly different methods but here is a simple one: sauté two sliced onions until they’re deeply caramelised. Meanwhile, roughly chop 300g of walnuts in a blender (or you can leave it running until it’s practically a paste). Add your jointed pheasant and mix so it is topped with the onion. Pour over the walnuts. Add 250ml of pomegranate molasses — thanks to Ottolenghi, we can get this in almost any supermarket now. Bring carefully to a simmer and cook for 15 minutes, making sure it doesn’t catch and burn. Turn the heat down very, very low and cook for another hour or hour and a half. Stir it every so often. It’s ready when the sauce has thickened and darkened and the meat comes easily off the bones.
Delicious — unless you need to look your food in the face, or, in the case of woodcock, the brain.