Category Archives: Meat

Lent podcast episode 7: Figs & Lambs (ending Lent)

Helen’s Hebridean sheep

In the final episode of the series we look at how the last Sunday of Lent was marked in the past, focussing on Fig Sunday and Palm Sunday.

Neil cooks up some historical pax cakes to give out to shoppers and traders at Levenshulme Market so see how then would go down today.

Pax cakes

With Easter Sunday on his mind, Neil gets hold of some very special meat from a Hebridean sheep farm and has a chat with farmer Helen Arthan about what it’s like working with such characterful little sheep. On his return to Manchester, he cooks up some roast hogget for two friends of the show.
 
For episode notes, photos and recipes please visit

https://britishfoodhistory.com/lent-podcast/

Helen, Neil & Vicky

Links and extra bits:

The story of Holy Week: https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-resources/common-worship/churchs-year/holy-week-and-easter/holy-week

Recipe for pax cakes:

200g icing sugar, plus extra

30 g cornflour, plus extra

1 tsp orange flower water

Zest half a lemon

1 medium egg white

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C.
  2. Place all the ingredients in a bowl and whisk slowly to combine, then use an electric mixer to beat the mixture very smooth.
  3. Dust your worktop with icing sugar and cornflour and roll the mixture out to a thickness of around 3 mm.
  4. Cut into rectangles and prick with a fork, then arrange on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper and dusted with a little cornflour.
  5. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until slightly golden brown.
  6. Cool on a rack.

Levenshulme Market website: https://www.levymarket.com/

Hebridean Sheep Society website: https://www.hebrideansheep.org.uk/

‘Neil Cooks Grigson’ blog: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/

Rectangular livestock paintings: https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-rectangular-cows-of-art-uk

Roast hogget/lamb, recipe number 438: https://neilcooksgrigson.com/2020/04/04/438-plain-roast-primitive-lamb-with-gravy/

‘English Food’ by Jane Grigson: https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/242/24292/english-food/9780140273243.html

Other primitive/ancient sheep breeds of the UK: https://www.accidentalsmallholder.net/livestock/sheep/british-rare-and-traditional-sheep-breeds/

Written and presented by Dr Neil Buttery
Produced by Beena Khetani
 
Made in Manchester by Sonder Radio

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Favourite Cook Books no.4: ‘Great British Classics’ by Gary Rhodes

I have been meaning to write a post on this excellent cookbook for quite a while, and it is such a shame that my prompt to pull my finger out was the sad and untimely death of Gary Rhodes at the end of last year.

When I was asked to submit my list of favourite cookbooks to the 1000 Cookbooks project, I put New British Classics as my number one choice, my comment at the time being: “simply the best book on British food around. Everything from lowly haslet to lobster.”

Favourite recipes include salad cream, lardy cake, prawn cocktail, rhubarb and rack-on-black – lamb roasted with black pudding.

My favourite books on food tend to be by food writers rather than professional chefs because they write about their love of food and its importance in our culture and history. Chefs tend to be, well, cheffy; there’s no evocative description of the hustle and bustle of a French market, and they assume that you want to be cooking restaurant-level food at home. This is where Rhodes was different – sure there are cheffy dishes like the very complex rich pigeon faggot – but there are basics such as fried bread, porridge and jam roly-poly. Everything is represented and everything has equal billing, meaning that whatever your ability level there is a way in. You can start off with basics like scrambled eggs or go straight in at the deep end with pigs’ trotters Bourguignonne.

The full gamut of British food is here: fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, pork faggots, white pudding, Welsh rarebit, and the massive range of techniques contained within makes it the most comprehensive book of British recipes there is. What’s more, every single recipe works perfectly; he goes through every stage, assuming you know nothing but never patronises. If you don’t own a copy and you’re interested in cooking British food, it really is essential.

The secret to his success was his attention to detail. Every move made, and technique used was meticulous and done with deftness, even the way he picked up an ingredient to show to camera had an air of precision about it. Take a look at this clip from the accompanying BBC programme, where he shows us how to make cabbage and bacon soup, and you’ll see what I mean:

He was a classically trained chef who applied French techniques to classic British dishes, taking them to new heights while keeping them authentic. His approach definitely rubbed off on me when I was teaching myself to cook; use the best ingredients and don’t cut corners, every stage is there for a reason, so you need to understand why it is there. Only when that penny drops will you develop a cook’s intuition. This approach to cooking won him his first Michelin star at the age of 26, eventually receiving an OBE for services to the hospitality industry in 2006.

On television, he was very enthusiastic, polite and well-spoken; he seemed a little odd and socially awkward (as all the best people are), making him all the more endearing. He got me interested in cooking and wanting to spend my precious leisure time in the kitchen, learning new techniques and tackling novel ingredients.

He was rarely off the telly during the late 1900s and early 2000s, his trademark spiky hair and over-enthusiasm caused many to pooh-pooh him as gimmicky. Eventually the fickle eye of entertainment focused upon other, younger chefs and so he stopped appearing so regularly. But his books and their accompanying TV shows are great; his Rhodes Around Britain and Cookery Year series are worth checking out too (his apple pie recipe from the latter is the best in world in my opinion).

He died on the 26 November 2019 at the age of 59 from head injuries after a fall – no way or age to go, I’m sure you’ll agree. Of course, when someone dies, there work is revaluated and I hope people recognise what he did for British cuisine, because he put it on a pedestal when everyone else was looking elsewhere.

Braised Oxtails

He was ‘discovered’ on the Keith Floyd programme Floyd on Britain & Ireland. On the segment he makes his signature dish: braised oxtails. Ironically, by the time New British Classics was published his most famous dish was illegal to eat – cooking beef on the bone was banned because of health fears surrounding the BSE crisis. Eventually the ban was lifted, and I could make it for myself. Back in my pop-up restaurant days it was the main course at my first ever Odd Bits offal evening.

This is my version of Gary’s signature dish; it’s slightly simplified but just as gutsy. It really is one of the most delicious things you will ever cook. Nothing else needs to be said – except ‘cook it’!

Enough for 6

2 oxtails, trimmed of excess fat

Salt and pepper

Beef dripping

Around 100 g each carrot, onion, celery and leek

1 tin of chopped tomatoes

2 tbs tomato purée

Small bunch thyme and rosemary

2 bay leaves

1 clove garlic, crushed

300ml red wine

1 litre beef stock

Season the oxtails and fry in dripping until well browned, transfer to an ovenproof pot, then fry the vegetables until nicely brown too. Tip those into the pot along with the tomatoes, garlic and herbs and bring to a simmer. Pour the wine into the original pan and reduce until almost dry. Add to the pot with the stock.

Simmer very gently on the hob or braise in an oven set to 160⁰C. Whichever you choose, it needs to tick away for 3 hours.

Remove the cooked meat and keep warm and pass the cooking liquor through a conical strainer, really pressing the vegetables hard to get all the flavour out.

Throw in a big handful of ice cubes, and stir so they freeze the fat; you should be able to lift out ice and fat in one nice big satisfying lump.

Reduce the liquor to a sauce and season with more salt and pepper, then add back the oxtails to heat through.

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Cornish Pasties

As promised, some Cornish recipes and I start with a classic. Cornish pasties are a simple combination of chopped (not minced) beef, potatoes, turnips and onions. It’s seasoned well – especially with black pepper and baked in shortcrust pastry. You can moisten it with a bit beef stock and season it further with some thyme leaves if there’s some hanging around, but you really don’t need to. Sometimes you may find some carrot in your pasty, if you do, thrown it back the face of the person who gave you it, because there is no place for carrot a Cornish pasty.

Cornish pasties were given to Cornish tin miners or field-workers so they could slip one into their pockets and eat them for lunch, the thick crimp being a useful handle protecting it from dirty fingers. The meat-to-vegetable ratio varied depending upon what folk could afford at the time. It don’t think it should be too meaty, but if you disagree simply alter my proportions in the recipe below.

Cornish tin miners, pasties in hand

Also, for a Cornish pasty the crimp must go down the side, not over the top, as you might see in some bakeries. That is a Devonshire pasty, I believe.

As discussed in the comments in my previous post, these pasties did not have a sweet filling at one end and a savoury one at the other. What you have there is Bedfordshire clanger, but I’m sure you knew that.

One final thing, some advice from Jane Grigson: “Cornish pasties are pronounced with a long a”. We use a short a Up North, and I refuse to change.

Pasties ready for the oven

If you’ve never made a pasty in your life, this is the one to start with; the ingredients are raw so there is no messy gravy and juices getting everywhere and making things difficult. It seems too simple to be delicious, but it is. The secret is in the seasoning. I use a rounded teaspoon of salt, but you can use less; be warned though, use no or little salt, and you will have a bland stodge-fest before you, my friend.

On the subject of salt, notice the crazy amount of salt in the egg wash – a good half-teaspoon of salt in your beaten egg provides a strong and appetising shine to the final product. I believe that is, as the kids say, a kitchen hack.

For 2 large or 4 medium-sized pasties:

For the shortcrust pastry:

400g plain flour

100g each salted butter and lard, diced

around 80g water

For the filling:

300g chuck, skirt or braising steak, gristle and fat removed

125g onion (a medium-sized one), chopped

125g turnip, peeled and thinly sliced

250g potato, peeled and thinly sliced

salt and freshy-ground black pepper

thyme, fresh or dried (optional)

4 tbs beef stock or water

Egg wash:

1 egg beaten with ½ tsp salt

Begin with the pastry. Place the flour, butter and lard in a mixing bowl. If you have an electric mixer, use the flat beater and turn on to a low speed until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. If you are doing this by hand, rub the fat into the flour with the tips of fingers. It shouldn’t take longer than five minutes.

Trickle in the water with the mixer on its slowest speed and stop it as soon as the dough comes together. If doing by hand, add half the water and mix in with one hand, trickling in the rest of the water as you mix.

Either way the dough should some together and not feel sticky – it shouldn’t stick to your worktop, but it will feel a little tacky.

Lightly flour your work surface and knead the pastry briefly. This is where you may go wrong – over-kneading results in tough, shrinking pastry. The way to tell you are done kneading is to pinch some of the dough between your thumb and forefinger – it should just split around the edges when you pinch it hard (see pic).

Cover the dough and pop in the fridge to rest for 30 minutes.*

Meanwhile, get the filling ready. Place all the vegetables and a good pinch of thyme if using in a large mixing bowl. Season and mix with your hand, then add the meat, season that and then mix in. Remember to be generous with the black pepper – add what you think is sufficient, then do a couple more twists of the milk.

Remove the pastry from the fridge and split into two or four equal pieces. Form into balls and roll each out on a lightly floured surface, using a lightly floured rolling pin. I rolled out two large dinner plate sized circles of dough to around 3mm thickness – that of a pound coin. Don’t worry if they are a little wonky, they get tidied up as we go. That said, if it’s looking more like a map of the Isle of Wight than a circle, you might want to neaten up a little.

Now heap up the filling in a line just slightly off centre, dividing equally between the circles of dough. Sprinkle with the beef stock or water. Brush a semi-circle of egg wash down the edge nearest to the filling and then fold the dough over leaving the dough beneath poking out by 5 or 10mm.

Next egg wash the side again and crimp down the edge –  this makes things extra-secure as the filling expands in the oven. To crimp, fold over one corner inwards with a finger, squidge down the next section of pastry and repeat until you have worked all your way around the pasty.

Place on a lined baking tray, egg wash the tops and poke in a couple of holes with a sharp knife. Bake for 1 hour at 200°C, turning down the temperature to 180°C once the pastry is golden brown, around 20-30 minutes into the bake.

Remove and eat hot or cold.

*I will write a more in-depth method for pastry at some point, honest!

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Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’m carrying on the medieval almond milk theme (I will move away from this topic, I promise) with another post on what could be described as mediaeval England’s national dish – blanc mange. Blanc mange – literally white food – was a simple stew of poultry and rice poached in almond milk. Over the centuries, it evolved into the wobbly dessert we know and love (or hate) today. In France almond soups thickened with rice or bread are still eaten, so it appears that the blanc mange diverged into two different dishes: cold pud and creamy soup.

Blanc mange wasn’t just popular in England, but over the whole of mediaeval Europe. It began life as a Lent dish of rice, almond milk and fish such as pike or lobster, but people liked it so much that it was eaten at every meal, where the fish could be substituted with chicken or capon. Outside of Lent it could be flavoured with spices such as saffron, ginger, cinnamon and galangal, seasoned with verjuice, sugar and salt. It is thought that the dish originates from the Middle East, the part of the world we imported rice and almonds.

It’s worth mentioning that although a Lent dish, no commoner could afford this meal even in its most basic form– imported rice and almonds were very expensive, as were farmed chickens. This was commonplace food for the richer folk of society.

Here’s an example of a blanc mange recipe from around 1430:

For to make blomanger. Nym rys & lese hem & washe hem clene, & do þereto god almande mylke & seþ hem tyl þey al tobrest; & þan lat hem kele. & nym þe lyre of þe hennyn or of capouns & grynd hem small; kest þereto wite grese & boyle it. Nym blanchyd almandys & safroun & set hem aboue in þe dysche & serue yt forþe.

This recipe seems to be for a blanc mange served cold or warm; the rice is cooked in the almond milk and cooled while the capon or chicken is poached separately. Saffron and almonds are sprinkled over the dish before serving.

I’ve looked at a few recipes and they don’t really change over the next two hundred years – always chicken or fish, rice and almond milk and a few mild spices, sometimes served hot, sometimes cold and often adorned with slivered almonds fried in duck or goose fat and a sprinkle of sugar, all before being served forth. They also seem extremely bland with most recipes containing no spices at all. That said, many of our favourite foods are bland: white bread, mashed potatoes, avocados and mayonnaise all belong in the bland club, so bland does not equal bad. In fact, bland food is usually comfort food, and I strongly suspect that this is what is going on here, a bland white food, served at every meal no matter how grand. Blanc mange was mediaeval comfort food, the macaroni cheese of its day!

The blanc mange went from a chicken and rice dish to wobbly pudding somewhere around 1600 it seems. A 1596 recipe uses capon meat, ginger, cinnamon and sugar, and is pretty much identical to the recipes from 1400, but then I find in Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book of 1604 that she gives instruction for a cold sweet. She describes a moulded dessert set with calves’ foot jelly (i.e. gelatine), almonds, rice flour, rosewater, ginger and cinnamon.

Mediaeval Blanc Mange

I’ve combined the methods of several recipes from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The important thing to remember is that mediaeval almond milk would have contained sugar, salt and a little rosewater, so if you want to use the modern shop-bought stuff, you might want to add a little of all three for authenticity. Alternatively, you can have a go at making some yourself.

The spices I went for were ginger and cinnamon, but you can add white pepper, galingale and saffron too if you like.

The only thing I have done differently to the original recipes is to leave my chicken on the bone; bones stop the chicken drying out in the cooking process and flavour the dish.

1 L mediaeval almond milk flavoured with a few drops of almond extract

1 chicken jointed into 8 breast pieces, 4 thigh pieces and 2 drumsticks, skin removed

3 tbs duck or goose fat

white rice measured to the 300 ml line of a jug

½ tsp each ground cinnamon and ginger

1 ½ tsp salt

small handful slivered almonds

Demerara sugar and more salt for sprinkling

Pour the almond milk in a saucepan and heat up to almost boiling. Meanwhile, in a large saucepan melt one tablespoon of the goose or duck and when hot, tip in the rice. Stir to coat the rice grains in the fat, then add the spices and salt. Add the chicken pieces and hot almond milk and stir just once more.

Turn the heat down to low, place on a lid and simmer gently for 25 minutes.

When the time is almost up, fry the slivered almonds in the remaining fat until a deep golden-brown colour.

Serve the chicken and rice in deep bowls with the almonds, salt and sugar sprinkled over.

There you go, pretty easy stuff really. And the verdict? Well, it was quite bland, but pretty tasty with all of the adornments, and the flavours developed a lot over night when I reheated some. The sugar wasn’t as weird tasting as you might expect, and the mild scent of rose water really lifted the dish. The almonds fried in duck fat were amazing, and I’ll certainly be stealing that idea. Will I make it again? Probably not, I must admit, but it was an interesting experiment. Next post, I’ll give you a very easy recipe for a proper dessert blancmange, one of my favourite things to eat. Until then, cheerio!

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Suet – A Beginners’ Guide

Suet is the essential fat in many British puddings, both sweet and savoury, as well as stuffings and dumplings, mincemeat at Christmastime and – of – course suet pastry. It makes some of my most favourite British foods. It’s role is to enrich and lubricate mixtures, producing a good crust in steamed suet puddings.

Suet is the compacted, flaky and fairly homogenous fat that is found around animals’ kidneys, protecting them from damage. Here’s a very quick little guide to buying and using it in recipes.

snapseed-02Flaky fresh beef suet

Don’t be put off by suet – I served up Jam Roly-Poly to a group of 18 American undergraduates recently, and they’d never heard of a suet pudding before. They all came back for seconds!

Several recipes already on the blog use suet:

Fresh Suet

Fresh suet can be bought from your local butcher at a very low price. Most commonly available is beef suet and it can be used in any recipe in the book. You can also buy lamb and pork suet – and sometime venison – which are all great when using the meat of the same animal in the filling (e.g. Lamb & Mint Suet Pudding). Pork suet is sometimes called flead or flare fat. Sweet suet puddings, however, require beef because it is flavourless, whilst lamb is distinctly lamby; not great in a Jam Roly-Poly.

Fresh suet can be minced at home or by your butcher or can be grated. I prefer to do the latter, as it’s quick and easy. You must avoid food processors however, as you end up with a paste. Grater or mincer, you will need to remove any membranes and blood vessels – much easier to do as you grate, hence why it’s my preferred method.

snapseed-01Freshly-grated beef suet

I find it best to buy enough suet for several puddings, grate it and then freeze it. Fresh suet can be kept frozen for up to 3 months.

atora

Preparatory Suet

Although not as good as fresh, packet suet bought from a supermarket is a perfectly good product and store cupboard standby. Atora is the iconic brand producing a shredded beef suet as well as a vegan alternative; these vegetable suets are made from palm oil and are therefore somewhat environmentally unfriendly. However, Suma produce one that is made from sustainably sourced palm oil, so keep a look out for that in shops.

suma_vegetarian_suet

Preparatory suet can be switched weight-for-weight in any recipe unless otherwise indicated.

And that’s my very quick beginners’ guide to suet, have a go at cooking with it, you won’t be disappointed.

 

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Savouries

About five years ago, a reader asked if I could write about savouries, that now forgotten course served up towards the end of a Victorian or Edwardian meal. Well I’ve finally pulled my finger out and written one, so here we go:

The savoury course used to be extremely popular; a delicious morsel, which was salty, creamy and spicy, serving as a digestive after a rich meal, either as a final course, or before a sweet. What often happened was that the gentlemen ate their savouries and went off to drink whiskey and play bar billiards, and the ladies had their sweets and swished off to the withdrawing room for cards, chats and sherry; there were no non-binary genders allowed here, let me tell you.

I’m a big fan of the savoury course and I often include one in my supper clubs and pop-ups. They had gone out of fashion by the mid-twentieth century, the only real survivor being the cheeseboard.

Potted chicken livers

Savouries have of course lived on as first courses, canapés, teatime snacks and light lunches, and you will have eaten some of them, and many have already appeared on the blog. Delicious morsels like devilled kidneys, Welsh rarebit, potted chicken livers, potted cheese, Patum peperium, rillettes, angels & devils on horseback and sardines on toast have all been served up by Yours Truly at some point. Two of my favourites are Scotch woodcock – a spiced anchovy butter served on toast covered with a creamy, savoury custard – and Locket’s savoury, a slice of toast topped with ripe sliced pears, wilted watercress, and a thick blue cheese sauce which is then grilled, rather like Welsh rarebit. Delicious! It was nice to see Nigella Lawson championing the devilled egg recently; a woman after my own heart.

Angels & devils on horseback

Savouries are often served on toast, fried bread or some kind of biscuit or cracker. In Eliza Action’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families, there is just one recipe for savouries which appears to be a proto-croque monsieur, with a small footnote. She doesn’t seem to approve. In the twentieth century, however, you get entire books of the subject, the best being Good Savouries by Ambrose Heath (1934).

What makes a good savoury?

  1. Size matters: it must be one or two mouthfuls, so the best vehicles are toast, fried bread or crackers. However, boiled eggs work well as do oysters in the shell. As long as you can eat it without cutlery, you’re doing good.
  2. Salt: savouries are almost always highly seasoned with salt. This is apparently the digestive part, but it also functioned to give people a good thirst ready for a boozy evening ahead. Salt itself was rarely used, it’s much better to use more interesting ingredients such as anchovies, cured meat and fish, cheese and relishes such as mushroom ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, etc.
  3. Heat & spice: quite a lot of the ingredients served more that one purpose, so most of those listed above fit into this category too, but there was also good old black pepper, English mustard, Cayenne pepper, curry powder and Tabasco sauce.
  4. Strong flavours: other strong flavoured things were used, such as blue Stilton, kidney, liver, game and smoked meats and fish like ham, bloaters and even red herrings.
  5. Creaminess: all that salt, spice, richness and heat was often tempered with something bland and creamy and a variety of things were used for this purpose, such as cream (obviously), egg yolks, savoury custards, béchamel sauces, soft cheeses, brains, sweetbreads, lambs’ fries, fish roes, oysters and left-over poultry meat.

Devilled Chicken Livers

Probably the most infamous savoury is the devilled kidney, but you can devil lots of things. I pride myself on my devil sauce, and at The Buttery devilled chicken livers on toast became a rather unlikely signature dish. This recipe can be easily adapted if livers aren’t your thing: fish roes, kidney, brain, lambs’ fries, left over roasted poultry, mushrooms and even tofu can all be devilled with great success. My favourite is chicken liver because it has all of the qualities listed above in abundance. It’s a good idea to make extra devil sauce as it keeps in the fridge for a good ten days or so, and I can guarantee, you’ll be wanting to devil everything you eat from now on! Here’s how to make it.

Serves 2 as a light lunch or snack, or three as a first course, or six as a savoury course.

For the devil sauce:

2 tbs English mustard

2 tbs Worcestershire sauce or mushroom ketchup, or a mixture of the two

1 tbs vinegar

good pinch of Cayenne pepper

dash of Tabasco sauce

freshly ground black pepper

Simply beat all the ingredients together – taste and add more Tabasco and pepper if you like. There’s no need to add salt.

For the livers:

6 chicken livers

a decent knob of salted butter

the devil sauce

3 or 4 tbs double cream

1 slice of crisp toast per person

chopped parsley

First of all, check the livers for any bitter green gall sacks, which are often accidentally left on. If you sport one, snip it off with scissors.

Get a frying really good and hot and melt the butter. As soon is stops foaming, add your livers. Try not to disturb them. After 2 minutes, turn them over and cook for one more minute. Next, add most of the devil sauce and fry a further minute, making sure the livers get coated in it. Add the cream and let form a lovely rich sauce, turning the livers over in it. Have your toast ready on plates so you can top it with the livers and then the sauce. Scatter over some parsley and serve immediately.

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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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