What manner? What trail? I said thinking about the cold lamb I had planned for shepherd's pie that evening. Look it up in Larousse, said my husband, and went out. Larousse? He must have meant Roget's. I look everything up in Roget's Thesaurus. It's my favourite book. Section 365 began: Animal life - animality, brute creation, flesh and blood, zoomorphism, until finally, over the page, it got down to, table fowl - capercaillie, ptarmigan, bubbly-jock, snipe and woodcock.
Larousse Gastronomique, said my friend Shona, who knows about these things, is the classic French encyclopaedia of food. "I'll look it up for you." There were four pages devoted to woodcock, its mating habits, migratory patterns and more especially its eating habits. Woodcocks are insectivores and baccivores meaning they eat only insects and berries. All of which, explains Larousse, is why, together with blackbirds, thrushes, rails and avant garden warblers, they are traditionally cooked and eaten with their trails. For trails read guts. They're also traditionally served with their heads tucked between their legs, beak uppermost.
The French really are disgusting. A wine-writer friend called James told me about the dinner he was once invited to in Cannes to taste 1961 clarets. To complement the wine, the chef had produced a special 12-course menu gastronomique starting with millefeuilles of lark. James is not an emotional man, but even he felt queasy, he told me, when the larks appeared sitting as if nesting in puff pastry, their little heads poking inquisitively through the golden crust.
Worse was to come. The chef appeared and, having advised everyone to make sure their napkins were protecting their shirt fronts, he went systematically round the table pulling off the larks' heads. Decapitation is a messy business, as anyone who has read an eye-witness account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots will aver, hence the extra-large napkins.
They were extremely fortunate to be eating this dish, the chef told them, because shooting larks was illegal in France but he had very good contacts. Besides, nothing complemented a 1961 Gruaud la Rose better than millefeuilles of lark. Personally, I'd prefer a thick, rare slice of Aberdeen Angus, but of course that's also illegal in France.
I unpacked the carrier bag. The woodcocks looked at me reproachfully. They were very beautiful and very smelly. For someone whose happiest memories of childhood include strangling pigeons in a ruined castle in Argyll, my husband is pathetic when it comes to plucking game birds. He's often given a brace of pheasant which he declines to pluck himself, leaving the messy business to me. I looked at the woodcock and they looked piteously back at me. I packed them back in their bag and took them round to the butcher. "Certainly," he said, "pounds 1.50 each, ready at four. I'll leave the heads on shall I?" No, please don't, I said. It was only later when I was dressing them in their bacon vests that I realised they still had their guts. Too late.
"Erm, this looks good," said my husband opening a bottle of Gevrey-Chambertin 1988. Erm, he said chewing judiciously, sensational. It wasn't. It was, as Roget had said, brute creation - dark, primeval, barbaric, violent, terrifying, a taste that had no truck with civilisation. I could feel the fetid breath of the pursuing hyena behind me. I also felt slightly sick. If they ever produce GM woodcock, maybe I'll try again.Reuse content