My grandfather used to enjoy eating ortolans in Biarritz, sometimes in the company of Rudyard Kipling. In London, it amused him to ask for these little birds of the bunting family when dining at the Savoy, though I don’t think they were ever on the menu. Ortolans have always been a French delicacy: la chasse aux petits oiseaux, which involves trapping small birds in nets, may continue in parts of south-west France, but their sale for the table has been banned for some years. President Mitterrand, no great respecter of the law, was said to have had ortolans for one of his last meals, a week before he died — almost fulfilling the wish expressed by a character in Disraeli’s novel, The Young Duke, that he should die ‘eating ortolans to the sound of soft music’. The birds were traditionally taken alive, force-fed and then drowned in armagnac before being roasted and eaten, bones and all, with a napkin over one’s head.
We don’t have quite the same attitude to small birds in this country, preferring to listen to them and, in the past, to keep them caged as pets. I have once eaten starling breasts, which had a surprisingly gamey taste; apparently they can be bought smoked in Sweden. Of the smaller game birds for which there is a shooting season, moorhen has been sampled by my son, with a flavour, he says, between that of a pigeon and a wild duck. Snipe are fascinating little birds, which require no more than ten minutes’ roasting in a medium oven; or they can be made into a snipe pudding, using suet, herbs, wine, chopped onion and mushrooms. This used to be enjoyed for breakfast by Edward VII, before he got down to the serious eating business of the day.
The king of these small birds, however, is surely the woodcock, not only for its flavour but for its remarkable way of life and the fact that it is so popular a subject for painting. Wildlife artists such as Archibald Thorburn, Richard Robjent and Rodger McPhail have often painted woodcock in a snowy landscape, and also illustrated the migrant birds’ arrival on the east coast of Britain from Scandinavia and the Baltic states — under a full moon in November and December, having battled their way across the windswept North Sea. In spring and summer, the small resident population of male woodcock indulge in roding displays, and the females may carry their young between their legs. Only Goya, to my knowledge, has painted dead woodcock, in an unusual study of a heap of the birds on the ground.
Except when flushed from cover, darting and twisting into the sky, woodcock are rarely seen during the day. They are well camouflaged against the woodland floor, only flying out at dusk to feed. The bird is traditionally eaten undrawn, with its guts intact, because, when shot during the day, it will have defecated in flight and will not have eaten for several hours, giving it ample time to digest its diet of worms and empty its digestive tract. With a clean gut, the ‘trail’ of the bird is judged to enhance the flavour of the flesh.
There is also a culinary reason for cooking woodcock with the head on. ‘Thigh, back and brain are choice portions’, according to an old recipe book, curiously omitting to mention the breast. But you do not have to eat the bird’s brains and innards in order to enjoy it. Woodcock should be roasted for 20 minutes in a medium oven and served on toast to soak up the rich juices, with or without the trail. The bird may also be casseroled with onion, red wine, butter and olive oil, or with brandy and a mixture of fresh and soured cream.
The Italians are partial to woodcock with polenta, also with apples and with juniper berries. However, it is fitting, I think, as we near the end of the shooting season, to mention two more exotic ways with woodcock. In the first recipe, from France, the birds are part-roasted then placed in a casserole which has been rubbed with garlic and cooked for another few minutes with stock and sliced truffles. An alternative idea is to stuff the woodcock with oysters (four per bird), anchovy fillets, nutmeg and lemon. Once roasted, the juices, plus melted butter and a splash of brandy, should be poured over the bird, surrounded by four more oysters fried briefly in egg and breadcrumbs. Is this an example of surf ’n’ turf taken a step too far?
After more than seven years, and having covered vegetables, herbs, fruit, fish, poultry and game, this column has, I feel, run its course. The response from readers — also from Think Publishing, which thought the articles worth putting between hard covers — has been much appreciated.