Magazine article The Spectator

A Little Snack

Magazine article The Spectator

A Little Snack

Article excerpt

The countryside writer Ian Niall, a columnist in these pages some 50 years ago, told in his classic work, The Poacher's Handbook, of one of the fraternity known as Black Bill who had an affection for partridges and could never bring himself to kill them. 'The partridge is the one bird I don't touch, ' says the sentimental old poacher, expressing his contempt for those to whom it is 'just a little snack on a plate with gravy runnin' round it'.

One can understand Black Bill's feelings as he listens to and watches a partridge collecting its family together, huddling in a furrow when danger threatens. Yet those of us who enjoy eating partridge think better of it on the plate than he did, whether or not we have shot the birds as they flash challengingly high over a Wessex valley.

When my uncle, August Courtauld, spent the winter of 1930-31 alone on the Greenland icecap, he recorded in his diary his longing to get back home to huge breakfasts of poached eggs, kidneys and cold partridge. I am sure he was thinking of the grey (or English) bird, so much tastier and gamier than the red-legged (or French) partridge. The grey was much more plentiful in those days, but its population crashed in the 1960s largely due to the increased use of pesticides on arable land and the loss of nesting habitat.

Now, when restaurants and butchers offer grey partridges, they may be farmed birds which have never flown over a line of guns. This bird is probably at its best plainroasted, with the usual game chips, fried breadcrumbs, bread sauce and a thin gravy. To its credit, a restaurant on the Berkshire-Wiltshire border, the Harrow at Little Bedwyn, offers only the English partridge on its menu, sometimes with an apple and Sauternes sauce.

Though I know that for many the more common French partridge, simply roasted, is their favourite game bird, in my view it can taste rather bland and needs more flavours than a conventional roasting can provide. In France, and elsewhere, it is often casseroled, with cabbage, smoked sausage and bacon, carrots, grated lemon peel and nutmeg. A German method uses sauerkraut, juniper berries, white wine and sour cream. In Spain (where large numbers of these partridges are shot) the bird may be cooked with garlic, onion, thyme and oloroso sherry, or fried in oil, then simmered in sherry, stock and Seville oranges with pieces of serrano ham. …

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