Category Archives: history

A Trip to the Sarson’s Vinegar Factory

SARSONS-LOGO

A couple weeks ago I was invited by the iconic British condiment company, Sarson’s, to have a look around their factory and see the process of vinegar-making. They contacted me as they had noticed my little blog and thought I might be interested in seeing what they do because they make vinegar in the traditional way; and we’re all about tradition here at British Food: A History.

The word vinegar comes from the French words vin meaning wine of course, and aigre meaning sour or sharp, so when we talk about British malt vinegar, it’s actually a bit of a misnomer. What is in your bottle of Sarson’s used to be called alegar: sour ale! I think the word should be brought back (I’ll pop a note through to Mr and Mr Sarson).

Vinegar – aka ethanoic or acetic acid – is produced when specialist bacteria called acetobacteria metabolise normally deadly alcohol (ethanol) and harness energy from it. It takes a real specialist to use this killer chemical as a food source. Vinegar is, of course, an excellent preservative itself.

It is thought that vinegar and alcohol fermentation were discovered and refined in tandem, and the earliest example of vinegar-making goes right back to the ancient Babylonians who were brewing it from their beer and wine in 4000 BC! The ancient Romans refined methods somewhat, using wooden barrels to age and develop flavour.

The rear of the original London factory (Southwark Local Studies Library)

There are there are many types of vinegar, but malt vinegar, which is made from barley, is uniquely British, although these days it does travel a bit. Barley was a very important crop in Britain as it was grown to eat, but also to make ale. The average person in mediaeval England would drink around a litre of ale a day and it was the main source of calories for many (and much safer to drink than the water). Our love of ale meant there was plenty spare knocking about to transform into alegar. Sarson’s are the only company still making it in the traditional way and they have been producing it since 1794.

Before I had even arrived, I was greeted a delicious sweet and sour malt smell, and when the taxi pulled up outside the Manchester factory I was greeted again by the lovely folk who run the place. I donned my lab coat, safety glasses, hard hat and beard snood, and looking altogether pretty damn sexy I headed over the see the initial steps in the process.

I had always assumed that when malt vinegar was made, ale would be bought in and then fermented, but this is not the case! Sarson’s do the whole process from start to finish, including making the ale itself. It is truly made from scratch.

Barley grains

The first step is to lightly mill the barley so that the grains can crack open. It is then soaked in spring water and heated up in mash tuns: huge metal vats that constantly stir the barley and the water is collected. This process of mashing extracts the sugars.

Swishing away the sweetwort

I was allowed a little taste of the sugary liquid – or sweetwort – and couldn’t believe how sweet and delicious it was (when I got home, I looked in a few old books and found that home-made barley water was produced in essentially the same way).

The cooled sweetwort now enters the first round of fermentation: yeast is added so it can get to work anaerobically turning sugar into alcohol. This six-day process produces a barley ale that is a whopping 9.5% alcohol.

Now the alcohol can be converted into vinegar in the second round of fermentation. It was this part of the process that I found to be truly amazing: I assumed that to make a product and attain perfect consistency between batches, Sarson’s would have to seed the ale with a mother (or mother-of-vinegar to give her full title, a of plug acetobacteria) that had been carefully selected over years or even decades, to produce a unique strain (wine and beer makers do this with their yeasts). What Sarson’s actually do is simply add the shavings of the bark from the larch tree, which naturally harbours a community of acetobacteria species. This all happens in wooden tubs called acetifiers and it takes seven days for the larch bacteria to do their magic.

The huge physics-defying oak barrels!

For the last stage, the vinegar is stored in huge 40 000 litre barrels – some 100 years old – to be standardised to the correct strength (5% ethanoic acid).

Standardising the final product

The vinegar is heated up to kill the bacteria and it is piped through to the very noisy and exciting bottling room. I loved watching the bottles rattling around on the conveyor belts. It was as though I had literally stepped through the arch window on Playschool!

Then, to top it all off, they handed me my very own personalised bottle of malt vinegar!

Many thanks to Sarson’s for asking me to come to their place and let me be a nosey parker for an afternoon – I will certainly be paying the malt vinegar I put on my fish and chips in even higher regard from now on!

Next post, I’ll write a little bit about how we use – and used vinegar in the home.

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Forgotten Foods #7: Openarses

I’m continuing my mediaeval-themed posts with a somewhat infamous forgotten fruit: the openarse.

This unusual fruit is a member of the Rosaceae family which contains within its members familiar apples and pears as well as the less familiar, such as quinces, rosehips and sorbs; and like many of the cultivated varieties within this group, they made their way over here from Asia Minor. They quickly nestled themselves into the English mediaeval orchard, becoming an essential fruit crop.

The openarse looks superficially like a russet apple’s withered twin; all squat, rough and green-brown. Turn it over and you’ll see how it gained its name. The calyces, usually small and tightly puckered on the underside of an apple or pear, are very large and lobular, protruding somewhat, giving it a definite rusty sheriff badge appearance. They also sometimes called grannies’ arses. Nice.

According to Jane Grigson in her Fruit Book, the ‘English name openarse, gradually and politely, …was superceded by the French-derived medlar.’ That said, the French also call them dogs’ arses. Trust them to be more vulgar us!

During the mediaeval period, medlars were widely cultivated in England, reaching peak production in the 1600s. They were a useful fruit because they store well, ripening up quite a while after picking. At first, however, they are rock hard, sour and terribly astringent. Picked in late autumn (some say to wait after the first frost) and stored in a cool, dark place, they begin to soften and sweeten. This controlled decay – called bletting – converts starch to the fruit sugar fructose and reduces the acid and tannin levels dramatically. It’s quite nice to see the fruits bletting at different rates and times; some blet on the tree, some take weeks post picking. You can see how this steady supply of ripening fruit would have been extremely important to mediaeval people during winter (see this post on mediaeval feast and famine for more information).


A bletted medlar

The traditional way to eat the fruit is to squeeze your openarse between your fingers so that the pulp can be either picked or sucked out. The medlar was considered very good for digestion and so would be taken after a meal with port (science is revisiting these ideas and has provided some experimental evidence that it is indeed the case). The taste is pleasant, lying somewhere between tart apple and sweet prune. Because the medlar was generally eaten in this way, recipes don’t tend to appear in old cook books; the only common recipe is for medlar jelly (which will be the subject of the next post). However, I did find one for a medlar tart in Thomas Dawson’s 1596 book The Good Housewife’s Jewel:

To Make a Tart of Medlars

Take medlars that be rotten and stamp them. Then set them on a chafing dish with coals, and beat in two yolks of eggs, boiling it till it be somewhat thick. Then season them sugar, cinnamon and ginger and lay it in the paste.

Thomas Dawson was a contemporary of William Shakespeare, and an openarse can be found in a Shakespeare passage. From Romeo and Juliet:

Now will he sit under a medlar tree,

And wish his mistress were that kind of fruit

As maids call medlars, when they laugh alone.

O Romeo, that she were, O that she were

An open-arse and thou a pop’rin pear!

A pop’rin pear, by the way, looks rather like a cock and balls. O! the camp bawdiness of it! I’m going to have to lie down.

Amusingly, the prudish Victorians replaced ‘openarse’ with ‘et cetera’, which – if you didn’t know of the replacement – makes no sense at all and, more importantly, spoils the joke.

FYI: Chaucer mentions openarses in the Canterbury Tales, and the earliest known use of the word goes right back to the 10th Century!

Colour plate from unknown source

Sourcing Medlars

After reading this, I expect you are simply dying to get your hands on some openarse yourself. This will be tricky; they are no longer grown commercially, so you’ll either have to plant one yourself or find a feral tree. If you live in the south of England this may not be an impossible task as many villages grew them in public spaces.

They are lovely trees – they grow untamed, sprawling in any direction they choose. They grow slowly, but still produce quite a large crop, so even a small tree would provide you with a decent glut of openarse. This is definitely the fruit tree for the lazy gardener.

As for me, I know the whereabouts of an ignored medlar tree in Manchester, but I’m keeping quiet about it; I don’t want all and sundry picking at my openarses now do I!?

I’ll stop now.

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Mediæval Dining

Whether a large-scale affair, or a small but formal meal, mediaeval dining followed a strict regime, and class and rank were very important. Everyone ate together, but people could not sit anywhere and eat exactly want they wanted and food was not shared equally.

Before dinner was served, the dining area had to be prepared. Most of this work was done by some of lowest-ranking lads who worked hard fetching and carrying. They cut the thick sliced of rough bread to make trencher plates. They would wash, clean and polish cutlery and other tableware ready for the main meal of the day. Those that worked well may have gone on to become servers, carvers, or even butlers. Important men such as knights and other ‘henchmen’ were looked after and fed by the Court Commissariat.

Trestle tables were laid out (we still say we are laying the table day) and covered with a tablecloth and dressed with cutlery and other tableware. When William I dined, he would sit at his chair so the table could be laid over him and then dressed. He obviously liked it snug.

Mediaeval mealtimes as depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry

One task was to remove the cups and other drinking vessels from their lidded storage box. The lid was removed and the cleaned cups were arranged on it, the lid was then placed back on top of the box so they could easily be distributed. This was known as the cup board.

When the room was ready, diners would first wash their hands and then seat themselves appropriately. Typically there were three types of table. The lord and lady would sit with the most important people at the top table, then middle ranking tables for the middle class, and then the lowest junior tables for remainder of the people. Once seated, Grace would be heard and the food would be brought in, but no one could eat until the lord took a pinch of salt from his ceremonial salt cellar.

The first course contained the most substantial dishes such as meat and pies, and following that in the second course, there would be sweet tarts, comfits, small songbirds and other delicate dishes. We kept this tradition in general, except for the birds (though if the fancy takes you, see this snipe post).

Large banquets would have had impressive roasts, but day-to-day this did not happen. For example the mother of Edward IV, Princess Cecill generally served up rather austere boiled beef with the odd roast here and there. On Saturdays, she had fresh and salt fish and butter.

Everyone got some of the first course, but it was not a free-for-all. The top table got a choice of around six, the middle rankers four and the juniors two, and less of it; the lord may have got a whole chicken to himself, but the middle-rankers may just have a quarter to share between several. The lads that were still working hard got some bread and cheese as respite.

Once the meal got going, one might imagine a boisterous scene, but folk were expected to be polite, chatting in a restrained manner with no shouting, burping or farting. All quite sedate, except for the big feasts such as Christmas where tables were set up everywhere to accommodate the extra guests, even in sheds. Those lucky enough to be away from the prying eyes in the main hall could get very merry indeed.

Lovely picture of some Mediaeval dining, showing intricate use of the knife (if anyone knows where this picture is from, please let me know!)

It’s worth mentioning that the types of foods people were eating in England in 1400 didn’t really change that much up right until Tudor times. Many dishes stayed the same, as did the ingredients, although many were easier to get hold of by then. There are some dishes recognisable to us today, at least in name, such as blancer mange and gingerbread.

Setting the Table

Some Mediaeval cutlery (from All About History)

As mentioned above, folk sat at a trestle table covered with a tablecloth that was changed between courses. In front of you there would be a large rectangular piece of very hard bread used a plate called a trencher. There would also be a wooden bowl, used for the more sloppy and messy foods. However you did have to share this bowl between four.

By way of cutlery, only a spoon and knife were available. You usually brought your own personal cutlery. Forks, by the way, were work of the devil. Knives could be used to stab large pieces of meat so it could be torn by the incisors. This tearing of food meant that top incisors wore away so that the they met perfectly in middle, unlike we modern Westerners who all have overbites because most of our food is cut up!

Richard III’s exhumed skull clearly showing how Mediaeval teeth ‘fit’ much better than today (pic: University of Leicester)

If you got into a bit of a mess with all this wrenching of food with your gnashers, you would have to wipe your mouth on the tablecloth because napkins were not invented until the late fourteenth century! When they were introduced, they were large folded pieces of cloth laid over one shoulder.

At the end of the meal, the bowls, trenchers and other unwanted foods were redistributed to the poor by the almoner.

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Mediæval Feast, Mediæval Famine

The Mediaeval Period is a vast expanse, lasting around one thousand years from the fifth century to the fifteenth, and so encompasses a substantial slice of history. It is flanked on one side by the Classical Period, the end of Roman occupation ended that one; at the other, the start of the Modern Age marked by the fall of the Plantagenet dynasty, the rise of the Tudors and the Age of Discovery. Being bookended like this, the Mediaeval Period is also sometimes called the Middle Ages.

A 13th Century farming scene:  Le Régime des princes, 1279.

During this period, technology and agriculture advanced greatly, but everyone was at the mercy of the elements and entire harvests were often lost creating famine. The knowledge and skill required of the mediaeval farmer was therefore ‘vital and important’; a close eye had to be kept on the seasons, weather and general climate. Planning and forethought were essential, especially when things did not go to plan, for nothing could be grown in the winter months, so the community (which may just have been a single household) depended upon the stores built up over the summer and autumn. They were slaves to the calendar.

Wet, cold weather in spring and summer could spell disaster later in the year if food, especially grain, was not rationed and stored properly; what was grown was grown, and when autumn hit no plants could be cultivated from seed. Fighting off damp and vermin was important too; not just because it was food for the people, but for livestock too. Whole stores have been destroyed by mould. The best way to take down a village or town was to destroy the grain stores.

A modern reproduction of a mediaeval grain store (Village de l’An Mil)

Efficiency was also key: corn and other cereal crops (such as oats in more northern climes) were collected and stored, poultry such geese would eat fallen grains difficult for people to pick, and would hopefully fatten. These birds – and other livestock – would all be slaughtered, the offal being eaten immediately with most of the meat preserved in salt and smoked in chimneys. Only the animals required for breeding the next year would be kept, but in poor years even these beasts had to be killed. This had huge repercussions; not only would there be no breeding stock next spring, but also no oxen to plough the fields to plant the corn. With few crops, people were essentially reduced to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, trapping wild animals and foraging for pignuts, berries and leaves. Famine and its associated diseases followed, especially when one throws in the Black Death in the latter centuries of this period.

Life for most was relentlessly gruelling and cruel, especially in the first Anglo-Saxon half of the period and no one was exempt; of course, it was peasants and slaves who would be the first to feel the effects of this, those ranked higher were better protected, but as a town generally ate the food it produced itself, effects quickly trickled down.

Things did improve in England when William the Conqueror/Bastard hopped over the channel with his Norman mates; an unprecedented amount of food and wine was imported from Normandy, France and other countries. Of course, only the Norman high-rankers benefitted. A major blow to the common man was the Conqueror’s implementation of strict hunting laws. Only the king, nobles, and those given special permission could hunt in the forests, anyone caug were punished severely, even in very lean times (for more information on this topic see this previous post).

Mediaeval Feast

A noble mediaeval feast, notice the dogs have free reign!

In times of plenty great feasts were held, especially by the kings and nobles of the age; one had to show ones wealth, and the best way to do this was by displaying how productive your land was with huge amounts of meat, poultry, game and fish. In this period it was all about quantity and quality.

In the twelfth century, the first crusades opened up a whole new world of excitement and opulence for the rich, as exotic fruits and spices were brought back from the Holy Land along the newly-formed spice routes, adding a whole new dimension to high-class feasting.

In the early Anglo-Saxon period, and in smaller towns and for Christian feasts and celebrations, feasts tended to be a community-wide affair, with everyone eating together in a great hall. There was a strict system where one sat, however, the top table being reserved for the special guests.

Most feasts followed the same basic pattern; several courses each made up of several dishes, with everyone collecting food from the tables at which they were sat. Large flat squares of hardened bread called trenchers were used as plates, which were then given to the poor to eat afterwards (it was also much cheaper to make disposable bread plates than to buy or produce earthenware ones.)

The first course started with the archetypal roast boar’s head, it was often extravagantly decorated with brightly coloured pastry pieces as well as silver and gold leaf. It was symbolic of a time gone past – the head of the beast killed for the night’s feast, and was not generally eaten. Served alongside the head was brawn, a kind of terrine made from a pig’s head, and mustard. I have made brawn myself and it is very delicious; it’s amazing how much meat there is on a pig’s head!

Immediately after the boar’s head and brawn, the large roasted animals were brought in: pigs, mutton, kid, swan, venison and ‘noble’ game such as hare.

The second course was made up of the smaller and lesser animals: chickens, rabbits, songbirds and bitterns for example, and meat broths.

The third course was essentially the same as the third, but included fish and and more dainty dishes, like eggs in jelly, custard tarts, marzipan and comfits.

There would also be many pies, some small and some huge, and some that were there just for show; the most famous being the ‘four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie’. It was common to put live animals in huge pastry cases so that when it was cut open, they would fly (or crawl) out much to the guests’ amusement. Such solettes, or subtleties, were part of many feasts. Great feasts had a whole course made up of dishes that were simply there to be looked at!

The planning and manpower required to carry off these huge events, the food served would be dependent upon season. My next few posts are going to about mediaeval food – hope you enjoy!

References:

Curye on Inglyche (1985), Eds. Constance B Hieatt & Sharon Butler, Oxford University Press

Food in England (1954) by Dorothy Hartley, Little Brown & Company

A History of English Food (1998) by Clarissa Dickson-Wright

 

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Forgotten Foods #6: Pease Bread

I often frequent the excellent vegan cooperatively-run supermarket Unicorn in Chorlton, south Manchester, to fill my food cupboards both at home and at the restaurant. One day, a couple of months ago, I spotted a very mediaeval ingredient: green pea flour. I had come across ‘peasemeal’ in several old books, but didn’t expect to ever see it for sale. (Another popular mediaeval ingredient is almond milk, used particularly on fasting days; it’s funny how these old ingredients are having a comeback as health foods.)

One of the mediaeval small-holder’s most important crops was his pea crop – they were not eaten as young sweet garden peas, but were left in the pods to mature and dry. The peas became starchy and packed with protein; an excellent nutritional source for the winter months. We use those dried peas today for mushy peas or split peas. Then, they were mainly used in pease porridge/pottage.

The pease were often ground to make peasemeal to thicken stews, and to make bread for cattle. People only ate it themselves in times of winter famine, and this peasebread was hated by all.

Peasebread and peasemeal stopped being produced in most of the UK, but it did live on until the mid-20th Century in the very North of Scotland and Orkneys, where very few crops can be grown in abundance (rye and oats are the only others really). Folk enjoyed pease scones, bannocks (flatbreads) and breads, but it was still associated with poverty.

Peasemeal is considered easy to digest, partially due to its lack of gluten, and is high in protein and carbohydrates. I quite like how some of these mediaeval ingredients are being re-examined during a time of vegan and paleo-dieting. It is strange to think how the poor were eating healthy vegetables with little fat, red meat, salt and sugar, considered then to have no nutritional value. Meanwhile, the bunged-up rich were chowing down almost entirely on meat, spice, white bread and sugar, in the belief they were eating properly. I bet their bedchambers sank in the morning.

I had to have a go at the derided peasebread, just to see how bad it was. I did cheat a little bit and mixed the peasemeal with some strong bread flour. It was pretty straight-forward to make, though the dough was very sticky was hard to knead. The resulting bread was dense and a little crumbly, but had a delicious sweet pea flavour, with hints of roasted peanut butter. Probably too dry to eat on its own, it was great toasted, buttered and dunked in soup.

So, here’s my recipe for peasebread. It made two flattened cobs.

(Notice all my liquid measurements are in grams rather than millilitres; for greater accuracy, it’s much easier to weigh your liquids, a tip from Elizabeth David.)

250g green pea flour

250g strong white bread flour

10g salt

10g instant yeast

30g sunflower or olive oil, or softened butter or lard

330g hand-hot water

In a wide mixing bowl mix together the two flours. To one side of the bowl place the salt, and place the yeast to the opposite side. Make a well in the centre and pour in the oil/fat and the water. Mix with your hands to form a dough. Leave to settle for ten minutes.

Spread a little oil on a work surface and knead until smooth. This is pretty tricky because it is so sticky, so use a dough scraper to help.

Oil a bowl and place in the dough inside and cover. Leave to rise until it has doubled in size, about 2 hours. Knock back the dough, divide into two pieces and form in to two taught, round cobs. To do this, roll into balls with oiled/floured hands, then tuck in the dough underneath whilst turning the ball, tautening the surface. Place on greased baking trays, flour generously and cut a cross in the centre. Cover with large plastic bags and leave to rise again for about an hour.

Place the cobs in a cold oven, then set the temperature to 230⁰C and bake for 40 minutes. Cool on a rack.

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Forgotten Foods #5: Parsley Root

Every now and again I write a post on forgotten foods, and here is one vegetable that was used widely in Medieval times, but has fallen very much out of use in this country: parsley root.

We are all very familiar with the culinary uses of parsley leaves, but the root has been much ignored in Britain of late. Parsley root is what celeriac is to celery and it is still commonly used in northern Germany (hence its other name ‘Hamburg’ parsley), Croatia, Bulgaria, Poland and Russia. It is an essential element in a truly authentic borscht.

Parsley root pops up every now and again in Medieval recipes but it popped up rather more recently in Manchester from my fruit and veg suppliers Organic North. I assume it’s started to appear here because of the recent influx of Eastern European folk to the UK and demand is high!

In our old cook books, it only seems to crop up as an ingredient in pottages and the like, but seems to have been used extensively by local physicians in all sorts of tinctures to cure dropsy and scarlet fever, as well as in bladder and kidney ‘teas’ because of its supposed diuretic properties. It turns out that parsley root is very good for the liver, so they might have been on to something there.

parsley-roots

Parsley root (Photo: Harvest to Table)

Parsley roots are a pale creamy-white, like a parsnip, but less yellow, and are thin and slender like a carrot. They lack that woody part to their roots that large parsnips have, being tender all the way up like a carrot. They taste predominately of parsley, but also of celeriac and parsnip.

They can be eaten raw in salads or as part of a coleslaw; the organic ones I got hold of made my tongue go a little numb after eating a raw one!

Cooked, they can be used like any root vegetable in soups. Apparently, they roast very well and make excellent chips. Their slight earthiness marries well with fish especially shellfish. I found a great-looking recipe for scallops in parsley root milk by American chef Karen Brooks – one to try next!

If you are unsuccessful in your search to find your own parsley roots, don’t worry because they are very easy to grow, taking just 3 months from seed to harvest. They overwinter well and can be dug up, replanted in a pot, and popped on a windowsill where the leaves will regrow to give you a personal supply of forced parsley herb.

 

Roast Parsley Root Soup

The best ways to enjoy any root vegetable is to either roast it or turn it into soup. Here’s a perfect combination of the two from my chef Matt, I particularly like that – the onion aside – all the vegetables are from the parsley family, so they all work together very well, never taking focus away from our star ingredient.

parsley root soup

3 tbs olive oil

1 medium onion, sliced

6 fine parsley roots, peeled and chopped into 1cm slices

1 carrot, prepared just as the parsley root

2 celery sticks, roughly chopped

2 or 3 sprigs of thyme

2 fresh bay leaves

Salt and pepper

1 litre light vegetable stock or water

A splash of white wine or white vermouth (optional)

Chopped parsley root leaves or celery leaves to garnish.

 

First preheat the oven to 200°C and then heat the oil in a sturdy roasting tin over a hob. Tumble in the onion, parsley roots, carrot, celery, thyme and bay leaves. Season with salt and pepper then turn the vegetables over in the pan until evenly coated with the oil. Once things have picked up a little colour, place the tin in the oven for around 20 minutes, stirring at half time.

When the vegetables are cooked though place them in a saucepan with the stock or water. Deglaze the pan with the wine or vermouth, if using, otherwise use a little water and tip all those nice burnt bits into the saucepan.

Bring the soup up to a bare simmer and cook until things are very soft. Allow to cool a little bit before fishing out the herbs and blitzing in a blender.

Check your seasoning, reheat and serve in bowls with some chopped parsley or celery leaves.

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Woodcock

img-20161120-wa0001

I have been very lucky this game season with the range of species that have fallen into my lap. Last post I told you all about the snipe I managed to get from my butcher Mark Frost. Well he’s done it again and has managed to hold of half a dozen beautiful woodcock, the larger cousin to the snipe; almost as elusive and certainly no less delicious! Another rare treat for the patrons of The Buttery.

Woodcock and snipe are similar birds and likewise can be cooked in similar ways, so much of what can be said about cooking and eating snipe can be said about woodcock.

A while back I wrote a general entry about game. Read it here.

 

Woodcock in brief

Season: 1 Oct – 31 Jan (England, Wales, Scotland & Northern Ireland)

Hanging time:  4 – 8 days

Weight: 300g

Roasting time:  20-30 minutes at 230⁰C

Breeding pairs in UK: 55 000 (increasing to 1.4 million in the winter)

Indigenous?: Yes

Habitat: Mainly woodland, but also heath and marshland

Collective noun: fall

woodcock-painting

Our second-smallest game bird is a mysterious little creature, spending most of its day hiding in the undergrowth in wooded areas. The only time you are likely to come across one is if you startle it during a walk in the woods, but even then you may just catch a glimpse one of skitting and zig-zagging toward another hiding place.

Then, suddenly, usually around the full moon before Hallowe’en there is a huge influx of migratory woodcock, using Britain as an overwintering spot, often being first spotted on beaches, exhausted. Seeing the birds apparently come from nowhere in this fashion and at this time must have added to their already ethereal reputation.

Having little understanding of migration, people thought woodcock went to the moon during spring and summer. Seeing them first on beaches made others believe that they hatched from mermaid’s purses (the desiccated egg cases of sharks).

Reclusive and well-camouflaged, they only venture from their hiding places to hunt their prey at dusk; and it is for this reason that woodcock are rarely found in butcher’s shop windows. It’s a lucky shooter that manages to bag a few woodcock, and they rarely go further than the hunter’s kitchen. I’m lucky in that my butcher is also a shooter!

A treat almost as rare as snipe, it is absolutely delicious t traditionally roasted  completely whole on a piece of toast, with just breast and leg  feathers removed. The trail (i.e., the innards) are then scooped out and served upon the toast. Ortolan and plover are cooked in the same way (though it is now illegal to eat ortolan).

Because they are eaten whole, they should not be hung for long, as those gamey aromas quickly turn into the aroma of decomposition. However, it is all personal taste – true gastronomes hang their woodcock or snipe by the feet until the innards of the birds start to drip through their bills.

Woodcock were not as rare a treat as they are today where they can only be legally shot during the months when the country is teeming with them and can only be shot. Guns were not light enough to shoot woodcock with any accuracy or success and so night nets were set up that caught the birds in great numbers so they could be sent to market still alive. This practice is now illegal (though, unfortunately not in all other European countries).

woodcock

Sourcing Woodcock

Woodcock are rarely found on sale, but I have spotted them in my butcher’s shop a couple of times in the last three or four years. I do remember seeing them once at a game stall in London’s Borough Market. Patience is a virtue and if you keep looking, you’ll eventually find one. On the open market, you’ll pay at the very least £15 per bird.

Alternatively, make friends with a hunter, or ask if you can help in a local hunt. I have never done this, but would love to.

 

Preparing woodcock for the table

Take a woodcocke, & reyse his legges and his wynges as an henne; this done, dyght the brayne.And here begynneth the feest from Pentecost unto mydsomer.

From The Boke of Keruynge (the Book of Carving), 1508

As already mentioned, woodcock need not be drawn. You can pluck them, but be careful as they have very thin skins that are easily torn. If you are keeping the head on, remove the eyes and skin the head if you like. To draw the birds it is best to use some sharp scissors to make an incision. Use your first two fingers to loosen the innards and pull them out. Keep the tiny livers if you like. Drawing woodcock is easier compared to other small game birds such as partridge.

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See the post on snipe for more details.

 

Roast woodcock

Woodcock is not always roasted, but because you often only get hold of just one, it’s the only way you can eat it really. I’ll not repeat myself; the way it is cooked and served is exactly the same as snipe, except for a few minor differences:

  1. Smear butter over the breasts, season and cover with streaky bacon to prevent the bird from drying out in the oven.
  2. Roast for 20 to 25 minutes, depending upon how rare you want your bird. Slip the buttered toast under the bird for the final 10 minutes of roasting.

 

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