The glorious twelfth (or, in the case of this year, the thirteenth, Since UK law says that the start of the season cannot fall on a Sunday), the day grouse become 'fair game' for the year and still the busiest day in the shooting calendar.
It is a date revered by hunters and game lovers alike, with Tom Parker-Bowles proclaiming, 'that first taste of young grouse is one of the sweetest of the year, made all the better by the interminable wait. It's superior even to the first thrusting spears of asparagus or the native oyster's wobbling folds.' Seasonal, local, a little bit special, and somewhat of an acquired taste; on paper pretty much the perfect 'foodie' food.
Until now the charms of the little heather-munching birds had passed me by. I suppose I saw it more as treat for the Barbour jacket and Land Rover set, rather than something that you could grab from Tescos on the way home for a quick post-work dinner. But that was all soon to change when the Ewing and I spent the afternoon in Oxford last week.
One of the very best things about Oxford is the covered market; from flowers to a fry up, from barbers to butchers, all human life is here under one roof. I love visiting, as it always involves leaving laden down with the most amazing goodies. Depending on the seasons I have picked up perfect little bloomy pyramids of goats cheese, wonderfully ripe black figs, bitter radicchio, flaky meat pies, plump Oxford sausages and some of the stickiest lardy cake you will ever encounter.
This trip proved to be no different; as soon as I saw the little blue/grey grouse sitting in the window of M Feller the butcher, I was sold. We also grabbed a couple of wood pigeons, a bit of a bargain at two quid a pop. A good thing, too, as our brace of 'grice' came to £27 quid, the price you pay for a bird in the first week of the shooting season. (Wait until September to see the prices drop, or even later in the year for older birds more suited to autumnal braises and stews.)
And so the next afternoon, on the hottest day of the year thus far, I found myself grappling with a bag of slightly sticky, slightly bloody carcasses. My biggest fear as I unwrapped them was that they would still contain their slippery innards; luckily they had been (mostly, save a few missed squelchy bits) gutted, but I still wasn't fully prepared for the gruesome looking, hairy claws tucked up inside their bodies. Ordinarily I'm not too phased by blood and gore, I actually quite like the feeling of raw meat, but I did find myself pulling a variety of comedy grimaces as I decided whether or not to cut the feet off. In the end they had to go, as well as all the stray feathers that were randomly sprouting up through the purple skin.
As well as the the blood and claws there was also the matter of the smell. Exacerbated no doubt by the stifling heat of the kitchen, the musky, rich aroma was pretty hard to handle. Apparently it comes from the birds heather-rich diet. Who knew the innocuous looking moorland shrub could be quite so overwhelming? Apparently the spruce grouse who, unsurprisingly, subsists on a diet of coniferous evergreens, tastes a little like a pine-scented air freshener. An rather less than appetising thought.
Undeterred I stuck a sprig of fresh rosemary in the bird's cavities, slathered some butter on the breasts and covered them both in a rasher of streaky bacon. (Purists may scoff at this addition, but bacon makes everything better, right?) Then, following the advice from the butcher, I whacked them in a hot oven for half an hour along with the leftover pigeon carcasses (I had removed the breasts) to help make the gravy. (Grouse is a very lean bird, and overcooking it will leave you with grey, dry and stringy meat.)
With the birds out the oven and resting under a tent of tinfoil, it was time to make the gravy. I tipped the remaining contents of the roasting tin into a pan, added a dollop of cranberry sauce, a glug of white wine and some chicken stock, before reducing it down and straining it to make a nice, glossy sauce for the grouse.
To go with the birds I decided to keep it simple. Traditional accompaniments seem to revolve around crispy potato 'game chips' and variations of the humble loaf; toasted breadcrumbs, slices of toast, often spread with the bird's offal or fois gras, and bread sauce being the most common. As the idea of a rich, hot sauce usually seen on the Christmas dinner table, didn't seem to appealing, and I couldn't face any more heat in the already stifling kitchen, I decided to go with some cheats game chips, and sent the Ewing to the shops get a bag of kettle crisps. To finish a bunch of locally grown watercress, again from the Covered Market.
I wish I could say it was some sort of epiphany, but sitting at the dinner table feeling hot and fractious, noticing little bits of grouse guts still splattered up my forearms, I felt more like a school child being made to finish their chewy meat and lumpy custard. The grouse itself was perfectly cooked; red at the bone, nicely rested and with soft and juicy meat and great gravy, it was just difficult for me to properly enjoy the flavour as the pervasive aroma, sadly not damped by roasting and covering in bacon, proved a little too much.
Luckily the Ewing was far more easily pleased and happily tucked in red in tooth and claw, proclaiming it quite delicious and even managing to eat the rest of mine (once I had disrobed it from its crispy bacon coat). And me, well, I still had a pile of crisps and a bottle of red to enjoy.