Wednesday, 9 December 2009


I love the autumn for lots of reasons, mainly food-related.  Best of all is game, all of it.  From the furry rabbits and hares and deer to the various feathered ex-birds that spring up in market stalls, butchers and on menus all over the place.  Grouse is the big one for game season, the one with the foodie reputation, the hype, the glamour and the star billing, there's column-inches in the press with forecasts for this season's shooting, stories about Grouse shoots on the moorlands spun various ways to fit the news outlet's particular stance on these things.  They don't get much more iconic than grouse, they're fantastic eating and there's a real sense of occasion about ordering one in a restaurant.  The real highlight of game season for me though, is the woodcock.

You don't see them on restaurant menus very much, which I'm sure contributes to making being sat at a dining table with nothing between me and a little cooked woodcock such a source of pleasure.  They're highly migratory little birds and although I think there is a residential population in the UK, a larger number migrate here at the start of autumn making most of the shooting.  This means a pretty unpredictable and erratic supply and on top of that if you do see one, they're very tricky little buggers to shoot.  Whatever the reasons, if the hunters think they've got their work cut out trying to find them and shoot them it's nothing compared to trying to find them and eat them in a London restaurant.

Woodcock's empty their bowels before they take off.  This gives me twinges of guilt, rather than shooting and eating them surely we should be encouraging every bird to do this, especially the sodding pigeons, but I don't dwell on it.  What it means is that you can roast the whole bird, guts and all.  Roasting it this way heightens the flavour of the flesh itself then after cooking you scoop its guts out - intestines and everything - into a hot pan with a little stock and perhaps some booze, before spreading the roughly chopped and mixed offal onto some fried bread.  I've seen various ways of doing this described: some say you should salvage just the liver from the pan after a minute's sizzling and that should be chopped and spread with the rest going towards sieving and saucing, others tell you to discard everything except the intestines(!) and chop that up for your pate.

The other interesting thing about roasting woodcock is that you leave the head on as well, you need to protect it with some tin-foil so that after cooking the head can be removed, split and the brains scooped out as a delicate little accompaniment.  Quite an undignified end, sitting in an oven with a little tin-foil hat on and your innards cooking inside you but I think it's worthwhile.

The best woodcock I've eaten is at St John restaurant.  As with everything else they do there's no distractions or superfluous extras, it says just "Woodcock" on the menu and that's just what you get:

Although I suppose the 'watercress up bum' could be considered a distraction.  You can see the pate on fried bread in there and the split head, they thoughtfully provide you with a little teaspoon so you can scrape out the brains:

I just remembered to get a closer snap of the half-skulls before polishing off the brains in the other half:

The bird itself tastes amazing, it's pretty strong on that gamey taste that some people find so off-putting, skirting the rotting-meat/putrescence suburbs of the flavour wheel but with a sweetness that balances and lifts the whole experience; the meat has a wonderful bloody mineral tang to its flavour and is very rich and dense.  The fried bread/pate combo is an extremely intense hit of offaly meaty goodness, just the right consistency - not too rough, not pureed - and with a gentle hint of some booze in there too.  The brains, well, they're just hilarious - they don't have a strong flavour of their own, they taste creamy and feel rather soft and fluffy initially, that gives way to some firmness and solidity in texture as you bite into them, very enjoyable.

It's a tricky art stopping game birds drying out too much in the cooking, they need a hot oven for a short amount of time and you usually see them sold with their breasts larded with strips of bacon to that end.  You'd expect somewhere like St John to have this down to a fine art and this was cooked to perfection, the pan juices from the gut-cooking obviously used to raise the dish a little further.  Game birds like this aren't cheap, grouse and woodcock have been in the £27-£30 bracket on the menus in London I've seen this season and they'll be higher than that if it's a bad season ('bad' from a hunting/eating point of view, I imagine for the grouse it's a 'pretty chuffed' season) but they're worth every penny and one of the things I love most about this time of the year.

Woodcock usually appear on menus towards the end of Nov through to the start of February, best bets in London are probably to give Rules a call or keep an eye on the St John menu at their website (it's updated twice a day)

photo of (live) woodcock courtesy of guizmo_68

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