The red grouse is a resilient little bird. Prone to an unpleasant disease called louping ill which is transmitted by sheep ticks, and vulnerable to attack by nasty, invasive little worms, its population may crash in some moorland areas for several years; and then it will reappear in healthy numbers as if nothing had happened. Grouse-shooting in Scotland has suffered a serious decline recently, due in part to the increased population of red deer, which may also be infested with ticks, and to cold, wet weather during the hatching season. (I have only just learnt that the Dr Edward Wilson who did so much valuable work in the early 20th century on the causes of grouse disease is the same Wilson who perished with Scott in the Antarctic.)
In these days when field sports seem to be constantly under threat from interfering ignoramuses, it is heartening to know, from a report by the Game Conservancy Trust, that the management of grouse moors benefits birds such as the curlew, dunlin and golden plover, whereas in upland areas where there is no grouse-shooting, the numbers of those birds are in decline. The evidence is directly contrary to a statement from that deeply discredited organisation, the RSPB, that ‘where wild birds and animals are in decline the hand of man…can be detected’.
Grouse-moor management, however, comes at a cost — something like £150 per brace for the privilege of shooting them as they hurtle towards your butt. So rare are the occasions when I have been invited grouse-shooting that I am pretty inexpert at both killing and cooking them other than by plain roasting — which, with most game, is usually the best way. Whether the bird comes to you straight from the moor or from a butcher, oven-ready, try to ensure that it is a young one. There is absolutely no point in paying an exorbitant sum of money to a restaurant to eat grouse this weekend, the start of the season, since it should be hung for about four days before being plucked and drawn, keeping the liver if possible.
The grouse should be smeared with butter, bacon rashers placed over the breasts, roasted in a hot oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, with frequent basting, and then left to rest. Plenty of bread sauce will be required, also white breadcrumbs fried in butter and then added to the bacon, finely chopped. The bird should be placed on a piece of fried bread spread with its liver, which will have been gently cooked in butter and brandy. Little more is needed — perhaps watercress or boiled cabbage, a thin gravy and some rowanberry jelly, and a good bottle of claret.
Most recipe books distinguish between young and old grouse, the latter more suitable for casseroling, or making a terrine. If roasting a bird of indeterminate age, it can be cooked slowly in the oven, in a little water and covered with tinfoil, for 45 minutes before discarding water and foil and roasting it on a high heat for another ten minutes. With the luxury of several birds, an old-fashioned cold grouse salad would make a tempting picnic, perhaps with sliced beetroot and hard-boiled egg and a herby, creamy mustard dressing.
Recipes can be found in the old books for devilled grouse, grouse suet pudding (made with beef skirt, onions, mushrooms and port), even for grouse soufflé; and for the other kinds of grouse — blackgame, capercaillie and ptarmigan. The last two, however, are very rare these days and should not be shot. I suspect that the taste of capercaillie, which lives on pine needles, might be reminiscent of the Greek wine known as retsina. Ptarmigan, which lives high up in the Scottish mountains, is popular in Iceland, where a sportsman of my acquaintance eats it on Christmas day.
Grouse pie, made with young and old birds, a game forcemeat (suet, bacon, breadcrumbs, herbs and a beaten egg), a strong stock and a spoonful of anchovy essence, is the sort of dish I associate with the years before the first world war, when bags of 1,000 brace in a day were recorded, often on English moors. Today the large, though much smaller, numbers will be shot in Yorkshire and Lancashire, while a 100-brace day in Scotland is considered outstanding. All of which means, of course, that this king of game birds is not going to get any less expensive to buy — at least until moors are managed more successfully and disease and bad weather are avoided. Probably the best time to buy grouse is late in the season, between October and December — if you can wait that long.