A dainty dish to set before a duke

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Where, in May, can you eat rook pie in the company of a duke, his head gamekeeper and 30 other roistering locals? Only, I fancy, in the King's Arms in the Gloucestershire village of Didmarton, where the enterprising proprietors, Nigel and Jane Worrall, have instituted an annual event which is clearly here to stay.

The Worralls took over the pub early in 1994, and that spring Nigel went out shooting rooks with Mervyn Barratt, head keeper to the Duke of Beaufort on the Badminton estate. Mervyn told him that 12 May was the traditional date for thinning out the rookeries, when the young birds are just off their nests but not able to fly far. The keeper also recalled how, when he was a boy, his grandmother and mother made rook pie every spring as a matter of course.

And so in 1994, when they had downed 90-odd birds, Nigel said, more or less as a joke, "Why don't we all meet up at the pub and eat them?" His chef - the Roux-trained, award-winning Sue Andrews - consulted old recipe books, went to work, and produced a pie so delicious that the 10 who sat down to it a couple of weeks later pronounced it a masterpiece.

Thus was born the annual Rook Pie supper. Last year's was heavily over- subscribed, and this year the dining room could have been filled three times over.

Dress for the occasion was variegated, to say the least. Mervyn, who took the head of the top table, wore a white polo shirt, horizontally striped with dark blue, which emphasised his impressive girth. Chas Wright, the brewer from the nearby village of Uley, whose ale we were drinking, looked equally massive, but in a dinner jacket. Nigel also appeared in a dinner jacket, extended to heel level by a tail of black bin-liner, which gave him a suitably avian appearance.

The company was equally variegated. The Duke of Beaufort sat next to a pig-man who works at a nearby farm. There were several barristers, a lady who sells pyjamas in Savile Row, and at least one bearded artist. Mervyn, who has worked on the Badminton estate for 33 years, reckoned that this year had been been "a bit iffy" for rooks. Nevertheless, he, his son and nephew (the two underkeepers) shot 200, and he himself skinned them, filleting off the dark breast meat. Sue Andrews then marinaded it for a fortnight.

Expectations ran high, and the company was in such fettle that singing broke out before the first course had been cleared away. It needed only a few notes from Chas's squeeze-box to set everybody off into "Tis my delight on a Friday night, To be a farmer's BOY, oi-oi-oi", and other favourites.

Then suddenly Chas struck a mock-heroic chord - and in came the first of two mighty pies to the blazing hymn tune "Thine is the glory". There was no doubt that the chef had done her stuff. The pie was delicious, with crisp pastry, glutinous gravy, cubes of beef and slimmer slices of rook. In the gravy, the beef taste predominated, but the rook was rook, and no mistaking it. I am not sure I would want to eat it every day, yet it was fascinating - gamey and different.

Perhaps unwisely, our talk turned to rooks' habits and diet. The birds eat large amounts of seeds, and in late summer can seriously damage corn crops; but on the whole they are the farmer's friend, because they gobble up harmful grubs. As another of the diners remarked, "They be the buggers what scatter the dung". Exactly.

The sing-song picked up riotously before, during and after the spotted dick pudding. Called upon for a riposte, Mervyn rose to his feet and recited a poem which featured a squirrel. His diction seemed less clear than it had been, but I think I heard the lines:

I got up to close the window,

I smashed his bloody 'ead

Chas began to sing in Irish, in Gloucestershire, in Cornish. Most of his words were - fortunately, I suspect - incomprehensible. Later he led an impassioned rendering of Bread of Heaven, which he announced as "the Western Samoan national anthem". Later still he was seen clog-dancing with Catriona, lithest of the lawyers, and sliding along the bar.

Next day several of the company could not recall when, or by what means, they had reached home. But I am willing to bet that, come next May, they will be back at the King's Arms for another dose of the same medicine.