Like so many things, it all rather depends on your viewpoint; if you're looking forward to tucking into a roast grouse, then the Glorious Twelfth of August may indeed be glorious, but if on the other hand you're a grouse ... The red grouse, Lagopus lagopus scoticus, is a magnificent creature, and so far it has resisted all of our attempts at domestication. It won't breed to order. It doesn't like living in cages.
An unfeasibly large area of heather is needed to support each pair. This means that the grouse is a genuinely wild bird – unlike pheasants and partridges – and benefits from a completely natural diet. The 2007 grouse season was a great success; Allen's, the London game dealer, sold upwards of 15,000 birds, and the 2008 season also looks most promising. Whether or not the year is good for grouse depends largely on the quality of the spring weather. If there's a cold snap (or indeed a wet snap) at the wrong moment, then the chicks catch cold and die. As usual, various restaurants will be scrapping to serve grouse on the first night of the season, but you will not be enjoying them at their best. You can just about get away with eating grouse within 24 hours of when they were shot, but leave it any longer and they will need to hang for a few days to tenderise. Many dedicated foodies wait until September to eat grouse, reasoning that the young birds will have developed a better flavour. Traditionally grouse is classed as a red meat and therefore eaten rare – a practice which some diners take to extremes by insisting that the grouse is roasted fiercely for a very short time and then served so raw that when you carve the breast the blood trickles down into the crouton on which it was cooked. A grouse pie is much more appealing, with a little steak added to thicken the gravy.
The call of the wild
The arrival of the first grouse on 12 August is the first indication that game is returning to our shops and menus. The next few months will see additions to the roll call – with the season opening for wild ducks, partridges and pheasants. Perhaps because game is not an everyday ingredient, when it does crop up, we tend to reach for a cookbook. The definitive volume is The Game Cookbook written by the irrepressible Clarissa Dickson Wright and Johnny Scott (published by Kyle Cathie, £19.99). The political stance may be dated (there's a recipe called "Bollocks to Blair" featuring roe deer sweetbreads and double cream) but all the recipes are clear and informative. The book lists nine interesting grouse recipes, including casseroled grouse with marmalade.