The World Cup may be over, but Tom Parker Bowles says now is the time for the real beautiful game
For the culinary timorous, or even the gastronomically shy, the roasted woodcock holds little appeal. For it arrives at the table intact, its long, elegant, rapier-like beak tucked neatly beneath its wing, and its skull hewn open to show off the brains. The innards sit alongside, laid thick across a slice of golden fried bread.
There’s no room for bourgeois niceties here. You grasp the head and suck out the tiny coils of grey matter, soft, silken and very restrained. Then get to work on that delicate body, with flesh that is both rich and dark. The meat has depth and character and profound tang, miles removed from the bland platitudes of the dreary chicken breast. You carry on feasting until every last shard and scrap is gleaned from the carcass.
Ok, so this particular species of bird is not going to convert the game averse. Never mind that it’s miles removed from the bitter, pungent mouthful of popular imagination, a well worn cliché that imagines all game, from partridge to pheasant, as food for slightly strange masochists, odd types who value the foul and grotesque. This is pure fantasy, as we all know. A young partridge, simply roasted, is the most delicate thing one could imagine, sweet, luscious and entirely unthreatening.
As ever, the problem of game is one of image. It’s seen as dark and dank and threatening, the edible equivalent of the video nasty. And people simply refuse to give it a chance. Which is a crying shame, as it’s the ultimate seasonal food, and, if you care about such silly matters, low in fat too. Plus the likes of grouse, woodcock and grey leg partridge (our native breed) cannot be farmed. So no dodgy chemical or ethics either.
And if, as a suspicious game neophyte, you start with partridge, and move through to young grouse and pheasant, then before long the likes of teal, widgeon and woodcock will show their true worth. And as a savvy Londoner, you’re blessed with some of the finest game butchers, chefs and restaurants in the world. Grouse comes first, on 12 August, followed by partridge at the start of September, pheasant a month later then woodcock last of all.
If you want to cook it yourself (and really, roasting a small bird is little different from roasting a chicken), then there are all manner of fine butchers. HG Walter and Son (hgwalter.com) in West Kensington; M Moen and Sons (moen.co.uk) in Clapham; Allens of Mayfair (allensofmayfair.co.uk); C Lidgate (lidgates.com) in Holland Park; The Ginger Pig (thegingerpig.co.uk) in Marylebone, Shepherd’s Bush, Hackney and Borough; Frank Godfrey (godfreys.co) in Highbury, City Meat in Chelsea, Mackens Brothers (mackenbros.co.uk) in Turnham Green; Kent and Sons (kents-butchers.com) in St John’s Wood; and Randalls on Wandsworth Bridge Road, Fulham. All have a good supply of game. All know their stuff.
But if you can’t face cooking yourself, then worry not. Go traditional with Rules, Wilton’s, The Ritz, Le Café Anglais, Corrigan’s Mayfair, Hix Soho, Racine, Boisdale, St John, Trinity or Hereford Road. You can’t go wrong with any of the above. But for something a little more modern, then Brett Graham’s cooking at The Ledbury in Notting Hill is some of the finest game cookery I’ve ever eaten. All manner of deer and bird and transformed into dishes to make one weep with greedy joy.
The Cinnamon Club in Victoria (pictured top) offers a sub-continental take on game while Francesco Mazzei, at the City’s brilliant L’Anima, roasts grouse whole in his Josper oven. Magnifico. For the game lover, London is pure edible nirvana.
1 Enjoyed a sumptuous and wonderful dinner at the soft launch of the new Barrafina on Adelaide Street, Covent Garden. As it wasn’t yet open, I didn’t pay. But the food was stunning. Milk fed lamb’s kidneys, deep fried brain, crab croquetas, suckling pig, chicken wings and much more. Seriously, one of the best dinners of the year. I’ll be back.
2 Had dinner at Umu in Bruton Place, and some of the most astonishingly fine Japanese food (well, Kyotan to be precise) I’ve ever eaten. Wobbling home-made tofu, wagyu beef so rich and gloriously fatty that it stops conversation dead in its tracks, and sushi and sashimi that is up to Tokyo levels. Seriously, this is world class cooking.
3 The Chiltern Firehouse still has it. I sat outside with two good friends on a sunny Friday lunch and we made light work of rivers of Provençal rose plus good burrata and steak tartare. Inside might be white hot, but the garden is one of the most civilised lunch spots in London.