For some reason, it seems like a good time to talk about game . . . the kind that inhabits a grouse moor. It’s autumnal, more or less fat-free, organic, sustainable and currently very Covid-friendly. Recent virus spikes, and the government’s Rule of Six response to them, means that although (at the time of writing) it’s now a criminal offence to linger on a pavement to greet a group of six friends, you can wander about a grouse moor with a gun in the company of 29 other toffs and still be completely legal. As a reader of the FT pointed out: “If I understand the UK government’s rule correctly, it is illegal for 7 children to feed ducks but legal for 30 men to shoot the ducks.”
Of course, grouse moors have to be managed, gamekeepers need their jobs and so on, but if “an ordinary shooting weekend” is now the only way to keep up with one’s social acquaintances, it’s logical to suppose that a surfeit of dead game might well result. In other words, one of the unforeseen consequences of this rather inflammatory directive will be a large amount of duck, grouse, pheasant, or even woodcock, appearing in one’s larder. So, what to do with it all?
Before it became a seasonal sport, legend has it that the pheasant arrived in Europe along with the Golden Fleece—brought back by Jason and the Argonauts when they returned from the Caucasus. From there this astonishingly flamboyant bird (and his more dowdy hen) came with the Romans to the UK and eventually made its way to America, perhaps on the pilgrim ships. A larder full of pheasant, with all its autumnal implications, should send you straight back to its Caucasian origins—specifically to the excellent Georgian recipe chakhokhbili—braised meat with walnuts, oranges, grapes and pomegranate seeds. (There’s a good recipe for Georgian pheasant in The Cookbook of the United Nations, edited by Barbara Kraus and published in 1964. It appears alongside “Baked Fish a la Moscow” and a Soviet “Health Salad.”)
Those whose culinary hearts still beat in tune with Europe might consult Elizabeth David’s marvellous recipe Faisan à la Cauchoise, pheasant cooked with calvados and cream and served with a “dish of diced sweet apple, previously fried golden in butter and kept warm in the oven: 2 apples will be sufficient for one pheasant”. “This is, I think,” David writes, “the best of the many versions of pheasant with apples and calvados, usually called faisan normand.” You can find it in her book French Provincial Cooking (1960).
A good rule of thumb is that if a recipe is good for a pheasant, it’ll be good for a grouse too; in both cases, young birds are better for roasting, older ones for the casserole. In possession of a young grouse, you might follow Eliza Acton’s sage advice (from Modern Cookery for Private Families, 1855) for roasting game birds—put a piece of buttered toast under the roasting bird in the dripping pan about 10 minutes before the roasting is complete. Acton claims that the toast “will afford a superior relish even to the birds themselves”.
You could employ this method with partridge too but given the historic decline of this bird, along with so much else, in the British Isles, it might be wise to stick to pheasant. A pheasant would also go beautifully in Perdrix aux Choux, the recipe described in 1893 by George Saintsbury, the Victorian writer, historian and wine connoisseur, in his book Fur Feather and Fin. This is one of the two recipes according to Saintsbury, that are the best ways to cook a partridge (the other is English partridge pudding, like a steak and kidney pudding but combining steak with partridge). Perdrix aux choux makes use of an older bird braised with savoy cabbage and a little bacon with “spicing at discretion”. (You can also use this recipe with grouse and wood pigeon.)
In the Sixties an intriguing series of cook strips appeared in the Observer. They were drawn by Len Deighton who, before he became famous for thrillers such as The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, was both a chef and a graphic artist (he drew the first UK cover for Kerouac’s On the Road). The strips later became a book called Len Deighton’s Action Cook Book and carried a quote on the cover by Michael Caine. “Len was a great cook . . . I learned a lot about food from playing Harry Palmer . . .” Indeed, if you look carefully at Harry Palmer’s kitchen in The Ipcress File, you’ll see one of Deighton’s Observer cook strips pinned to the wall.
As you might expect from an Action cookbook, Deighton has an informative, albeit brief, section on game, including simple notes on cooking 15 different types of game bird and recipes for casseroled partridge, bread sauce, and a roast partridge that would make the perfect autumn supper for a now isolated person who has spent the day socialising in a moorland setting.
Roast pheasant, grouse or partridge
Based on the recipe in “Len Deighton’s Action Cookbook”
Pluck, singe, draw and truss the bird (or buy prepared).
Preheat the oven to 200c.
Wipe your chosen bird inside and out. Dust with salt and pepper.
Dot with butter.
Put in a roasting dish and cover with rashers of bacon or pork fat.
Roast for 30mins.
Remove the bacon.
Dust with a light sprinkle of seasoned flour and return to the oven for a further five minutes.
Take the bird from the pan and leave to rest. Meanwhile, drain the fat off the roasting pan, add a little stock to the pan and bubble over heat to make a gravy.
Serve the bird with a garnish of watercress and lemon slices, the gravy and a bowl of bread sauce.