The grouse is a truly wild species. Their numbers rise and fall by the year.
I learned to load for my grandfather when he would have us crawl in silence and on all fours to a pond on his shoot to catch the early evening flighting mallard. Mallard shot inland taste best as they have no trace of fish and mud. For him to take down two birds with one cartridge was not unusual. Imagine then my surprise to meet wild fowlers who had shot over 100 duck on the Thames Estuary early one morning. I asked them about how they would be eating their quarry. One man looked at me as if I was crazy – ‘Eat a wild duck? No mate, I just like shooting them’.
Game shooting has been special to me since my early teenage years in 1960’s Wales and yet, all these years later, I have never been on a grouse moor to shoot. The grouse is a truly wild species. Their numbers rise and fall by the year. Their diet is mainly heather shoots and the best grouse come off managed moorland such as in Yorkshire and Scotland. Grouse shooting is for the very rich – at £180 a brace to shoot them, days can cost several thousands of pounds. The season begins in style on the ‘Glorious Twelfth’ – August 12th – and ends on December 10th (or in Northern Ireland, November 30th – possibly because their grouse moors are less popular and the bird numbers can be smaller per season). By mid-November the birds may be good sport, but their taste has become too strong.
The 2014/15 grouse season is well underway and the reports are of good bird numbers. Game dealers like London’s famous Allen’s of Mayfair are charging £15 a brace of birds – ask nicely and they’ll sell them undrawn, with head and feet intact. Allen’s buy their grouse from shoots in Yorkshire and expects to sell 2-3,000 brace of birds in a typical season. Unlike pheasant where a brace is a hen and a cock bird, with grouse and partridge it means a pair. You need one grouse per person and most on sale will be Red Grouse – the most common, if grouse can ever be common. Black Grouse, Capercaillie and Ptarmigan which live on higher ground are of the same family, but far rarer birds to source.
There are probably moors in northern Europe where the grouse can be shot – there certainly are in North America where they were originally mistaken for partridge. Their flight in hurried coveys is similar, but partridge were not introduced to the USA until after mention had been made of grouse by the largest Native American tribe, the Chippewa, whose lands spanned what we now know as the US and Canadian borders.
Allen’s of Mayfair is historic London and the firm is butcher to many of London’s top restaurants and clubs. I spied an invoice on the counter for the famous Saville Club when I was there recently – 10 brace to be collected by 12 noon. Being best enjoyed simply prepared, those birds would have been for the lunchtime service.
Grouse live mainly on new growth heather shoots so moorland is burned to encourage new growth. For perfect eating the new season birds are essential – September through to mid-November has them at their peak.
Do no more than this. Draw the birds if you bought them intact. Remove head and feathered feet. Bard with back fat – I am not for using green bacon or pancetta as both are cured and the salt can draw precious moisture from the breast. Trim out the wish bone to make carving the breast more elegant when cooked. This is a chef’s trick learned in France and it works for all birds, farmyard or wild.
Some say stuff the cavity with berries like bilberries (Vaccinium myrtillus), airelles or cranberries as if to exaggerate their wild status. I prefer a lightly crushed clove of garlic and a few juniper berries.
Roast in a pre-heated oven at 180°C for 15 minutes. Remove, from oven, carve away the legs and roast on for further 5 minutes maximum. Richard Olney, writing in his ‘Time Life Good Cook’ series takes trouble to mention how grouse legs are bitter and best kept for sauce.
Allow to rest for 5-10 minutes before carving the breasts – one bird, so two breasts, per person. Again I salute the chefs who say game skin is best removed as it too can be bitter.
Grouse are best hung intact and in the feather for 4-7 days after shooting. The hanging allows the bacteria to bring forward the full flavour of the meat. Fresh shot game birds, including grouse are pointless to the serious diner. The fuss made of having fresh shot grouse expressed to central London by light ‘plane, helicopter and train to be on lunchtime menu’s on August 12th is a pointless PR stunt. By August 20th they will eat better.
To enjoy grouse to the full, serve with a rich sauce based on a game or poultry and Port reduction – mashing the grouse livers into the sauce enriches it further. Breadcrumbs gently fried in butter add a texture too when served alongside the meat. A serving of a berry based confit or jelly (Rowan, Airelle, Black Cherry) is good. Savoy cabbage, rolled like a cigar and finely sliced before steaming sits well alongside grouse, as does roasted beetroot, or ‘punched neeps’ made from diced potato, carrot and swede which has been steamed, mashed with butter, seasoned with pepper and finished in the oven for 15 minutes.
In one of the Royal households when they de-camp to Scotland, I learn of how grouse was on the dinner menu every night bar Sundays. A favourite preparation was roasting the birds in a blistering hot oven for 12 minutes. Theirs were wrapped in streaky bacon so this was removed after the 12 minutes and the skin brushed with melted butter and whisky to roast on for a further 2 minutes to brown. The birds were then rested for 15 minutes before carving and serving on a croute spread with mashed grouse livers, butter and whisky.
Alongside were the classics like bread sauce, fried breadcrumbs, watercress, bacon rolls. Potato chips and peas (late season in Scotland) were also served.
As wild as the Grouse are, alongside Grey Leg English Partridge and Woodcock, none are being reared for release like Pheasant and Red Leg Partridge. They are more exclusive and special for that.
Grouse are to be celebrated at table for just another few weeks.