Back in the gamebird season Miss South visited the depths of the snow-covered Pennines to see in the New Year: in respite from the cold we took solace in cooking homely hotpots and sitting in front of the fire, reading cookbooks. One of these was the massive River Cottage Meat compendium by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, in which he raves about the joys of snipe and woodcock. As luck would have it, next time we visited my favourite butcher he had both birds freshly delivered by his game man, and I could pick up a brace of prepared fowl that coming weekend after they’d been hung and dressed. Miss South had unfortunately gone back to London by this stage, so after I picked up the plucked woodcocks they went straight into the freezer, awaiting her next trip north.
Fast forward a few months and the prospect of a sibling convergence back here in the North suggested we should feast on these tiny birds. Well, perhaps nibble would be a more appropriate verb, rather than feast. I’d been assured I could freeze them for a couple of months with little ill effect, although I was slightly worried about their contents. By all accounts one leaves the entrails of the woodcock intact for hanging and cooking (they’re so small they, shall we delicately say, lighten their load upon take-off, to facilitate maximum flight efficiency). So with little prospect of ‘filled’ entrails, and due to the fiddliness of delving around inside their carcass, it’s best to leave everything in place, bar the gizzard according to Hugh (and as we’d had to look up what a gizzard was after our recent Portuguese foray, we agreed). We decided to follow Hugh’s treatment of the bird: roast simply, and serve with a home-made bacon and woodcock innards pâté on a slice of toast.
We were both rather unnerved as we prepared to roast these teeny beasts: the prospect of guts on toast challenged our tentative embrace of all things offal, and we were both a little worried at how ‘gamey’ the birds would be. We both remembered experiences with overly hung pheasant as children, and as such neither is a fan of the ‘let it hang til it’s almost putrefying’ school of thought. I still shudder at the trauma of having to pluck a pheasant when I was about 11 (although our father had to finish it, which at least raised a smile due to the old tongue-twister) as it was rather ‘high’. Ugh. I prefer my game to taste a tad more fresh, if you know what I mean…
Miss South elected to insert a pinky to track down the gizzards; then we rubbed the carcasses in seasoned butter and wrapped them tightly in some local Yorkshire dry cure bacon from the market before placing in a hot oven. After around 5 minutes I removed the bacon and sliced it finely to use as the basis of the pâté (which turned out to be more of a jus with bits, but hey) and the birds went back into the oven for another 12 or so minutes. After they seemed done I transferred them to a warmed plate to rest as Miss South went to work on the sauce / jus / pâté (delete as applicable).I was in charge of removing the innards for the pan, which I was able to do with the handle of a teaspoon. These birds are so small that their contents were fairly insignificant, and much less off-putting than we’d imagined.
The recipe called for a glug of port, but the only port I have is an unopened vintage which I’m saving for a special occassion, so we decided to substitute my home-made damson gin instead, keeping the meal as local as possible. We deglazed the pan using the damson gin… heavenly aromas from it permeated the room… until the alcohol had mostly evaporated, then that joined the pounded bacon and offal in a heavy-based saucepan. The toast was a brilliant whole rye sourdough from the local vegetarian Saker bakery in Lydgate, topped with the sauce, and crowned with the bird itself. A dash of redcurrant sauce and a few peppery watercress leaves finished the whole thing off.
We approached this tiny morsel with fading trepidation: the aroma was wonderful, and the meat proved to be exceedingly good. There’s a surprising amount of breast meat on a woodcock… I suppose they’re just chest muscles and wings… and there’s also plenty of gnawing. You can’t beat interactive food. Miss South had the larger bird, and in places the meat was a little too rare for her liking, but we both wolfed the meat and pâté-covered toast down with relish (and relief too, that it was so much better than we’d feared). If you ever get the chance to eat woodcock, and don’t expect it to provide a full main course, we can’t recommend it enough. A pocket-sized treat for one!