What do you get if you cross a dyslexic, an insomniac and an agnostic? Someone who wakes up at 4 a.m. and says: ‘Is there a dog?’ There was a lot of dog talk this weekend, and about the tributes they bring to their owners in the shooting field. A South African who had just enjoyed his first days at the grouse, walked up and driven, was incoherent with joy, especially as he had made a respectable contribution to the bag.
The Afrikaners have always been an embattled race. God usually directs them to the windy side of the hill. When they do find some refuge to enjoy a settled life, perhaps planting a few vines, they often become lyrical about hemel en aarde: heaven on earth. Although the wine country around Stellenbosch is hauntingly beautiful, my earthly paradise is in Dorset, even if it has to import its own wine.
Friends had just returned from the far abroad, so they had not yet eaten any grouse. This was rectified, with young birds cooked rare after a very brief hanging. That led to the usual discussion. For its first few hours, a grouse will have a slightly metallic taste, which is to be avoided. Thereafter, it is a matter of preference. A fresh young grouse has a delicious sweetness; you can almost taste the heather, and the legs will be gamey. But if you want the full kick of gaminess, hanging is essential. I think that this is the right way to treat older birds.
There is another endless debate. Are grouse better hot or cold? They certainly freeze well. I prefer: the version which I have eaten most recently. Nicholas Soames recently expressed some interesting views on grouse, on which he speaks with authority. Not only has he shot a fair few. He may well have eaten more than anyone in history. Soamesy is a glorious fellow, and not solely at the trencher. If he does insist on leaving the Commons, it would be monstrous if he were not elevated to the Lords. After all, he has already demonstrated his versatility, in the matter of tweeting. One might have assumed that to him, a tweet was a sound made by a panic-stricken ortolan whose protected status was not going to save it from the gnashers’ yard. Not so: he would never break the law on protected species and has become one of the more accomplished tweeters of the age, without ever resembling an ortolan.
Anyway, he has said that his equivalent of eating foie gras to the sound of trumpets would be shooting grouse to the sound of Wagner. The birds would certainly fly. He did not specify which Wagner opera. Torydammerung, perhaps? For a whole weekend, we managed to keep off the related topics of Brexit, Tories in crisis and Boris Johnson. Someone did ask me whether Boris was a saviour or a wrecker. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘But which?’ ‘As the man himself does not know, how can I?’
We did find a cheerful topic, despite constant relays of bad news from Old Trafford. Grouse goes with claret, and my hosts supplied a splendid example, from St Julien. Although none of its wines have first-growth status, it supplies three super-super seconds: Leoville Las-Cases, Leoville-Barton and Ducru-Beaucaillou. Which is the best? Las-Cases is usually awarded the palm, but for the other two, I would again be tempted to reply that it was the one I had tasted most recently. We were drinking the Ducru 2002: close to perfection. It had spent long relaxed years in a cellar in Northumberland, undisturbed by the guns on the neighbouring moor, and was everything fine claret ought to be, as Ducru always is.
Outside, an Indian summer day had faded into a gentle English evening. At table, all was harmony. The labrador seemed frisky, and not only because she was kippered up by cooking smells. Perhaps she sensed that she would soon be waiting expectantly at her master’s heel. As the fall of the year approaches, we could answer one question. There is a dog.