Please forgive my delay in getting this next installment to you….but the holidays caught up with me. With that said, a very Happy New Year to you all! Now on to my further adventures in North Yorkshire.
|The grouse room on
Grouse. It has such an English ring to it. Honestly, I had never really contemplated the bird before, except perhaps as it stared balefully at me from the whiskey label it adorns. Now, as my first visit to the Lodge approached, I needed to know how to cook this poor bird, and cook it well. And, as grouse season didn’t officially open until after I was already up at the Lodge, there wouldn’t be an opportunity for me to dash out to the butcher, retrieve one or two and experiment (besides, at up to £25 a bird early in the season, it would be an expensive proposition).
A friend of mine, a British man from a certain class who knows about shooting and how to prepare what he’s bagged, suggested I turn to my old faithful, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. His River Cottage Meat Book is a bible to all things fleshy and delicious and particularly British. Grouse is second to only the woodcock, he writes, as his favourite eating game bird. He suggests it should be hung from two to ten days to allow some of the gaminess to dissipate and then offers a traditional roast grouse recipe and accompaniments.
Knife bag and this meat bible tucked into my bags, I felt ready to fake my way through the grouse nights ahead.
During my first stay at the Lodge, Sir had invited four different groups of guests to come and shoot with him. Each group stayed two nights. The first night was a welcome dinner, the full day of shooting took place the next day, then the black tie dinner starring the grouse they had felled that day, and then another full day of shooting before the guests departed quickly after tea.
Welcome dinner, not a problem. A lobster Salad with Lamb’s Lettuce and Chives, Slow Roasted Shoulder of Lamb served with Almond Potatoes, Roasted Tomatoes and Leek Gratin, and Blackberry Soufflés for dessert. (Admittedly, the soufflés did give us cause to freak a bit, but in the end they reached optimum heights and tasted delicious.)
We would not be able to get our hands on a grouse until the following day, after the shooters had returned from the moors. The morning they were all heading out, the head gamekeeper, fully attired in Sir’s trademarked green and lavender plaid tweed, came in for his sausage buttie and we tried to glean some information from him. Through crooked teeth and a full mouth, he offered little. He hated the taste of grouse. No he never prepared it himself. His wife would sometimes, but always cut off the breasts and sautéed them separately, never roasting the entire bird.
Sir, cleanly scrubbed and also dressed in his tweed (with a lovely cashmere sweater in just the perfect shade of lavender that matched his pattern), sauntered into the kitchen, obviously excited at the thought of going to wipe out the entire young grouse population on his land. He asked Chef and I if we had ever prepared grouse before. Not able to lie, we both admitted we were grouse virgins, but eager for any suggestions he might have.
“A very hot oven for 12 minutes. No more. No less. They’ve got to be bloody!” Was all he had to say. This contradicted Mr. Fearnely-Whittenstall’s advice of 25-30 minutes. Hmmmmm.
So the day continued with chef and I not knowing what to expect and too embarrassed by our naiveté to even ask the gamekeeper if they would be plucking and preparing the birds for us, or should we steel ourselves for a gory evening of feathers and guts?
By 11am an enormous spread including hot soup, platters of meats, cheeses, salads, breads, fruitcake and more was ready for the Gurkha and Butler 2 to take out to the moors for shooting lunch. The female companions were likely sleeping in and not inclined to hit the hills as their men shot at unwitting birds, so they too were driven to that day’s shoot location for an elegant lunch. I never saw the set-up myself, but imagined long tables set up in the midst of a field of tall grass and wildflowers. Underneath a specially erected bamboo pavilion, white cloths cover the tables and chairs, complete with cushion, protect the delicate bottoms of the shooters and their wives. The platters, overflowing with the food we prepared, are displayed in the middle of the table, while the Gurkha and Butler 2 move silently around the table to ladle soup into china soup bowls and keep the crystal wine goblets full. Over to one side, near the bevy of Land Rovers, the gamekeepers, loaders, and beaters stand drinking tea from thermoses and gobbling up ham and cheese sandwiches. Their dogs get the leftovers.
While all of this is going on my heart started pounding as I further contemplated the grouse that were swiftly making their way towards our kitchen. It became clear that we weren’t going to see any birds until close to 6pm and that these birds wouldn’t be hung the requisite number of days (or any days) my Meat Bible suggested. Would they be disgusting?
Chef and I got ambitious that first grouse dinner. We decided to make homemade game chips (which we discovered are exactly like fancy bagged potato chips and why would we make them in our dangerous, on-the-blink-fryer ever again?), horseradish popovers, braised red cabbage and apples, with a chocolate chestnut cake with cranberry, orange, and pistachio confit for dessert.
At some point in the afternoon Butler 1 came through the kitchen and asked what he should serve the bread sauce in. We weren’t planning on serving it. Neither of us knew what it was and from a cursory look at the recipe deemed it just gross. Tell me what you think:
1 small onion
1 bay leaf
125g slightly stale bread
salt and pepper
peel the onion and stud it with the cloves. add it to the milk and bay leaf and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat. Now add the bread chunks and allow to steep with a lid on for an hour. Finish just before serving by adding the butter and mushing it all together.
Now, this is the very essence of why British food had such an appalling reputation for so long! My take on why this sauce exists in the first place is that back in the beginning of British culinary delights, meat was very often not that good – certainly well past its expiry date. This sauce was the perfect sludge with which to cover up the less than delicate gamey flavours of the beasts and birds being served. Voila – Bread Sauce.
Anyway, so we got in the first of what would become many battles with Butler 1 on what Sir expected and how things were done at the Lodge and how things couldn’t change or evolve and how we didn’t know what we were doing and how they (the butlers) would be blamed if everything didn’t work out just perfectly. Usually these arguments ended with me saying something about how this kind of mindset was why the British were no longer the world power they once were and Butler 1 storming off to polish another gravy boat.
There would be no bread sauce for this first grouse dinner.
Around 6pm the tray of plucked and prepared (thank god!) grouse arrived. Blood pooled between the 15 carcasses which were still warm to the touch. I’m not normally squeamish and enjoying butchering as a rule, but these smelled of death the way no other flesh had to me before and as I inspected the first tiny little body I gagged. It also became quickly evident that the plucker had not done a thorough job. Tweezers and a kitchen blowtorch were required to finish removing all of the pin feathers and downy flyaways that remained. It was grizzly work, but Chef plugged her nose and got on with it and I seasoned them with salt and pepper, inserted a small patty of butter into their cavities, oiled the flesh and then covered them with a blanket of pancetta that would hopefully become gloriously crispy while keeping the measly amount of very lean flesh moist.
Test bird one went in a 450 degree oven. 12 minutes, as Sir prescribed. No peeking!
It came out with the pancetta dried up and curled away from the bird and absolutely bloody when we cut into it. We put it back in to see how long it needed before we could, in good conscience, send it to the table. We settled on 15 minutes total and a whole load of toothpicks to keep the pancetta nicely moulded to the body of the bird.
Fingers crossed we placed the oven-ready tray of birds in the walk in fridge while we continued with canapés, staff meal, lunch prep for the next day.
I can say that our first grouse dinner was a complete cock-up (as the Brits would say). I don’t know why we thought cooking popovers at the same time as we were trying to time the tricky grouse would be a good idea. I can’t tell you what we cooked as a first course, but I do remember looking around the kitchen at one point that night and being astonished at the stacks of pots and pans and general disarray we were leaving in our wake. We sent out the little roasted birds on their scalloped silver plates (Lodge crest engraved at the top, of course) garnished with lovely strands of red currents to try and disguise how the grouses’ legs splayed apart while cooking and now looked more like a woman at her gynaecologist’s office in stirrups than a black-tie dinner entree. It was most indiscreet, especially for this crowd. We thought that 15 minutes would be enough, but one guests sent his grouse back for further cooking and when the carcasses came back through the kitchen I feared that all of the guests would be suffering from some horrible bird disease after eating the essentially raw flesh of the birds we served. It’s a wonder no one was ill or that more didn’t send their uncooked grouse back to us.
But we survived the first night, and by our third grouse extravaganza had a guest come to the kitchen afterwards to tell us he had never had grouse cooked so perfectly. He had often eaten grouse at the home of Lady such and such – in these circles a renowned grouse cook – and even her’s didn’t match up with our efforts.
The key? 18 minutes at 450 degrees.