Little did I know that this winter, amongst the feathered beasts making their way through my kitchen, that a woodcock might rear its elusive head. A brace of the shifty buggers at that!
I must admit the credit doesn’t go to myself for supplying said game a few of my friends are lucky enough to do a fair bit of shooting and in turn keep my larder well stocked. Don’t get me wrong I have a couple of shotguns but the most action they get is the odd rabbit or pigeon here and there. There is one friend of mine, my best buddy Nick who does more shooting than anyone I know and during open season is rarely available for debaucherous nights out on the town. This year amongst the pheasants and partridges, I got a phone call; “I’ve got my first woodcock and I’m bringing them over for supper”. Well, one cannot deny the pleasure of having the chance to do justice to this most dainty and delicious of game birds!
The woodcock it seems, has had its fair share of mystery surrounding it over the years, before its migratory patterns were discovered in the 18th century scholars came up with the bizarre notion that when the woodcock disappeared between March and April, it went to the moon for a few months! Others suggested that it would head to the coast and make a burrow in the sand…a bit more likely perhaps.
Woodcock are often found on the edge of woods and in clearings were they blend in beautifully with the surrounding foiliage, when flushed from it leaves its cover at pace and flits from left to right, keeping low and becoming more erratic in its flight the further it goes. It is for this reason that woodcock are notoriously difficult to shoot. It appeared that Nick truly was a bit of a wizard with a gun and was as good as his word (he did hint at the fact he felt bad about shooting these days, as he never misses! Point taken.)
The woodcock may be a small bird, but it is a great one. The flavour is equisate, so much so that even its entrails were highly regarded by the French gastro genius Godard d’Aucour who favoured them on toast sautéed with foie grois, lemon juice, spices and laced with brandy…mmm. Traditionally the guts should be left in and the bird cooked whole. I decided that I would save this escapade for the next time I get some my hands on some woodcock. There are literally thousands of recipes for how to cook this bird, like any delicacy the woodcock has been tried in every possible way. Call me boring if you like but I felt to do this bird justice, I felt it needed the slightest of flavourings to let this fantastic meat shine through.
The traditional method for trussing up the bird is done using its long bill, hence it is roasted head on with the eyes removed. It may look fantastic on the plate this way but I decided otherwise, as I also had a couple of partridge to deal with. So, without delay Nick and I began plucking in earnest, gutting and chopping of the bits we deemed unnecessary.
A good tip for plucking anything is to boil up a big pan of water and dip whatever bird you have in to it for about 5-10 seconds, anymore and the bird will start to cook. After this treatment the feathers virtually fall off the bird. P-easy! Now we were ready for cooking…almost.
To keep it simple and traditionally English the only flavourings I used were a slice of lemon, juniper berries, ½ garlic clove and some thyme with a smidgin’ of butter and some seasoning. The bird itself was wrapped with some streaky bacon to keep it moist and add a little fat for cooking.
To serve, the extras were mostly of the bean variety, steamed green beans and a cannellini bean mash. All that was left was to make a cracking jus worthy of the mighty woodcock.
• 2 woodcock (hung for 3-4 days)
• a few sprigs of thyme
• 10 juniper berries (4-5 per bird)
• 2 thick slices of lemon
• 1 garlic clove
• 6 pieces of bacon
• salt & pepper for seasoning
• a small knob of butter.
Cannellini bean mash:
• 2x 400g tins of drained cannallini beans
• olive oil
• 2 garlic cloves
• ½ a lemon
• 4 tbsp of good chicken stock
method: being a small bird, the woodcock only takes a short time in the oven. Stuff the cavity of the bird with the garlic, lemon, thyme, juniper berries and butter. Wrap the bird in bacon and then season with salt & pepper. Place the bird in the oven and cook at 190C for 15-20 minutes.
For the bean mash, put some oil in a saucepan and warm, place the garlic (finely chopped) and brown in the pan. Pour in the beans when drained and add the chicken stock allow to simmer for 5 minutes, remove from the heat and mash adding the lemon juice halfway through. If the mash is a little too runny then add some flour to thicken, Keep warm and till serving.
An essential part of this dish is to knock together an amazing Jus, which will cut the rich gamey meat perfectly. For this you will need-
• 150ml good beef stock
• 1 wine glass of port
• a shot of brandy 25ml.
• a handful of dried mushrooms (jews ear or morels)
• ½ a red onion finely chopped
• a knob of butter
• 10 juniper berries crushed
• salt & pepper
First, melt the butter in a pan and add the onion and sautee until soft. Add the port and reduce for a bit. The port contains a fair amount of sugar, which will make it slightly syrupy and sweet once reduced. Then add the stock, mushrooms, brandy and juniper berries (crushing them will allow the flavour to release better) and season well. Allow the jus to reduce by half till it is rich and thick.
If you can ever get your hands on woodcock, jump at the chance because it is amazing. The meat is rich and intense, it is easy to see why they are so highly prized as a game bird. It is quite possible you could get them from your local butchers, you may have to put in the request and give them prior notice. Otherwise, if you have friends that shoot, express your interest in obtaining a woodcook, but unless you are pretty matey, it is unlikely they will part with them! I don’t believe, unless Nick continues to be a super sharp shooter, that I will have woodcock again this season. But then again, at least I got a taste this season...