There is something undeniably special about grouse. Not only is there the razzmatazz of the Glorious Twelfth, which marks the start of the season, but the bird itself has a particularly striking appearance with its curiously feathered ankles and quizzical red brow. With a diet consisting almost entirely of heather, grouse has a flavour that sets it apart from other game birds. Faintly redolent
of wood smoke or jasmine tea, it lingers in the memory long after the season
There was a time when grouse was exclusively the preserve of posh game dealers and the larders of shooting folk. Nowadays, once the season is under way, it's much easier to find in the shops. Farm shops and traditional butchers are good hunting grounds, and word has it that grouse is available for the first time in Marks & Spencer, thanks to increasing demand for game.
When preparing an oven-ready bird don't be alarmed if you find claws and feathery ankles misleadingly tucked inside the cavity but still attached to the drumsticks. Being claw-phobic I was horrified the first time I discovered them
– I was expecting an empty cavity. I have since learned that this is a deliberately upfront way of doing things; if the claws are there you can check the age of the bird by the pliability of the spur. Elderly birds have long sharp spurs and hard scaly feet; young birds have softly rounded spurs and
If you have not eaten grouse before, try it plainly roasted before embarking on chef-style titivations. That said, a handful of seasonal blackberries stuffed into the bird does no harm; they complement rather than detract. Try my recipe for Roast Grouse with Blackberries for a memorable dinner for two.
Other options are quickly seared breasts, thinly sliced and tumbled in a salad of crunchy sugar snap peas, watercress sprigs, spring onion and walnuts. Dress with walnut oil, sea salt flakes, a splash of balsamic vinegar and the juices that have flowed from the seared breasts.
Older birds are best jointed and slowly casseroled (also a good way of using up the legs from the salad above). Gently fry the joints skin-side down, then add cubed pancetta, shallots, garlic and carrots. When soft, add bay leaves, crushed juniper berries, a spoonful of tomato purée and a slug of gin. Pour over enough rich game stock or strong chicken stock to just cover, then simmer for about 45 minutes until tender. Transfer to a warm serving dish and strew with chopped flat-leaf parsley, finely grated lemon zest, and crisp golden cubes of fried bread.
Open shooting 12 August–10 December.
Varieties to look for
Scottish red grouse, heather-based diet gives it a unique flavour.
Choose plump oven-ready birds with undamaged skin.
Avoid birds with dark bloody patches – a possible sign of embedded shot.
© Christine McFadden, September 2013