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The woodcock: Good but gory eating (©JASON THOMPSON CC BY 2.0)


I ate grouse for the first time last month. Three of us shared two grouse, which had been hung for probably too long, made to a Simon Hopkinson recipe: with toast, bread sauce, breadcrumbs fried in grouse grease (bread in all three states of being), and watercress. Despite eating less than half a grouse I felt weighed down, dopey and woozy for hours afterwards. I grew concerned. Does grouse have a sedative effect? Does some chemical get produced with aged game which makes your brain slow down? Or was it just the carb triple threat? The rich roasted-bone smell clung to the kitchen and wafted around the hall like a charnel house.

People who are game aficionados tend to want to eat things which are funky, well-developed, strong-tasting, even slightly off-putting. Another example is the woodcock, a tiny, beautiful bird, which, if cooked in the traditional English style, is roasted whole, for a very brief time, and served with head and feet on. The organs liquefy: you scrape them out and spread them on toast. (This is possible because the woodcock is fortunate enough to evacuate the cloaca on takeoff.) You’re encouraged to crack the skull open and also eat the brain, although I’ve never personally done that. I also prefer — rather than eat tepid organs — to scrape them into a pan and cook them through while the meat rests, which makes me a wuss. Sadly — just to be disgusting for a moment — the meat is best when it is not cooked and not raw, but somewhere in between.

Households disagree on woodcock. One of my parents is very keen; the other not so much. One of them fantasises about holding a woodcock dinner party but fears not knowing enough people who would enjoy it. (Certain aged woodcock linger in the freezer waiting for this dinner party.) As Julia Drysdale, in her 1987 Classic Game Cookery, who “likes [her] woodcock very bloody”, says: “Think of the sacrilege of wasting one on a nonbeliever!” The Club National de Bécassiers (the French national society of woodcock-hunters, for such a thing exists), by contrast, is extremely firm on the point that a woodcock needs to be cooked for a  long time: “Leave the game to simmer for a long time so it will  reveal its delicate treasures . . . The fashion of eating bleeding game is disastrous.” The Larousse Gastronomique allows for both opinions, but ultimately backs the Bécassiers: “There are some people who hold that woodcock is difficult to digest, indeed harmful to health . . . even toxic.”
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