Food: The game's up

Top tips for glorious grouse: let it hang for several days, cook it in lashings of butter - and don't forget the cocktail sticks. Photograph by Dominick Tyler
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I am never quite ready for grouse.

Apart from the fact that the "Glorious

Twelfth" was one of the warmest days of the year (welcome, but hot all the same), grouse, for me, calls for wintry bread sauce and crunchy game crumbs, sweet jelly and roast potatoes. A parsnip lightly mashed, perhaps. Dusk at five. But 12 August it is, and there's an end to it.

However long I wait to cook my first bird, I insist on a proper period of putrefaction - about five to six days will usually see it right. The rush for grouse on "the very day" seems to have abated somewhat - like the Beaujolais run, thank God. But when it comes to cooking the perfect British grouse, there are a few pointers I would like to mention. First of all, I see no reason for trussing it neatly and slapping a bit of bacon or backfat over its plumpness. Now I know this is all traditional, I just can't see the point.

A tight truss affords no favours to the cooking of the legs (I feel the same way about a roast chicken). The thigh part of the bird - that bloodiest portion below the drumstick - never gets enough oven heat when thrutched (a good Lancashire expression meaning taut and tense) by string, and so remains undercooked and unpleasant to eat. If you wish to keep the shape of the thing while it cooks, weave a wooden cocktail stick through the thinnest part of the two drumsticks.

Now to this nonsense with fat. It is there to moisten and lubricate the grouse as it roasts, but when you remove the stuff, the skin underneath is dull and damp when it should be crisp and looking good. A grouse needs butter. And plenty of it. Smeared all over it, basted with it often and copiously. You may have plenty left over, but use it for frying the game crumbs while the grouse relaxes and rests. A rasher of super-thin bacon draped over the breast is nice, but only in so much as it tastes good when done to a crisp and nibbled in the kitchen with a drink while you get on.

Young, plump grouse should not take much longer than about 15 minutes in a hot oven (450F/230C/gas mark 8). Smear them well with softened butter (about half a packet) and season all over with salt and pepper. Baste well with a big spoon, tipping the roasting tray to pick up as much butter as possible. At this heat the skin will bubble and blister nicely, adding extra heat to the breasts, too. My tip on how to tell when the birds are ready is to tweak the breasts with your fingers. If they have the feel of a peeled, hard-boiled egg - sort of resistant but bouncy - they are done (well, "done", that is, at this stage). They now need to rest.

I like to leave grouse to rest for a maximum of 30 minutes. Tip off the butter into a frying pan (to cook the crumbs) and cover the birds loosely with foil. Leave them on top of the stove while you make the crumbs. Don't switch off the oven. Heat the butter until frothing and add a couple of teacups of fresh white breadcrumbs. Season with salt and pepper and fry gently until all the butter has been soaked up. Allow to colour for a few minutes, then add a small glass of medium sherry. Once the frothing has subsided, you will notice that the mixture has become claggy. Panic not! Turn down the heat and stir fairly constantly with a wooden spoon until lumps begin to collect. After about 15 minutes, these will break back down into crumbs: the sherry has been driven off by evaporation, its flavour left behind with the butter, which, in turn, has browned with the crumbs. All should be crisp and golden. Sounds like a palaver, but it isn't.

More breadcrumbs are needed for the essential bread sauce. Earlier in the day, you will have simmered together 400ml of full cream milk, three cloves, two bay leaves, half a chopped onion, salt and pepper and a thick slice of butter, for a few minutes. Cover, and leave to infuse until needed. Heat through once more. Then strain into a bowl containing 100g of fresh white breadcrumbs. Stir together and keep warm over a pan of hot water. Depending upon your preference for a thick or sloppy sauce, add either more hot milk or bread. Check the seasoning.

There is some controversy as to whether a grouse needs gravy or not. Practically speaking, not that much juice exudes from a grouse if cooked properly - much of it will be contained within the meat, hence the all- important period of rest. I have made excellent gravy from the giblets before now, but it is a rich lotion to be sure (so much so, that some of you may think it masks the flavour of the grouse). It remains a matter of taste.

To serve the grouse, whip off the foil and return the birds to the top shelf of the oven for five minutes. Remove, and extract the cocktail stick. Carve off the bone, if that is the way your guests like it, or present traditionally, proud, plump and intact - with sharp knives and finger-bowls supplied. Whichever style you choose, a sprightly clump of cool watercress is the correct garnish here. Anything else in the way of vegetables and potatoes is your affair. Watercress, bread sauce and crumbs is often all I want; a pink sliver of meat, a smear of sauce, a sprinkle of crumb and a sprig of watercress is as fine a forkful as I know

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