I recently played the ancient game of “us and them,” of “the guns and the beaters,” in the British countryside. It was a day out in the woods and fields of a small village in Cambridgeshire, England, which is one and a half hours north of London. There was lots of wool tweed, plus fours, wellies and anxious dogs. The days were consumed with friendly socializing, multiple visits to the pub, full English brekkies and morning coffee fortified with cherry brandy to keep the belly warm in the cold and wet British fields.
At elevenses (a snack at 11 a.m.) were refreshments of sloegasms (sloe gin and champagne) sausage rolls and Scotch eggs, followed by post shoot pints at the local pub and finally a late lunch for “the beaters” and “the guns,” cooked and served by the farmers’ wives and an Austrian mother-in-law.
The beaters beat and the guns shot in six drives over the course of the day, until we reached the last field in the afternoon, strategically chosen because of its proximity to the village pub. By now I had heard the story of the Devon coast from the villagers, a wonderful dreamy sort of place where the birds can be seen flying off of cliffs 120 feet high, and all you can do is stand and watch them in awe and forget to shoot.
I don’t often have those moments, but on this day I did. I saw a bird that I had never seen before, but I knew what it was simply by how I felt when I saw it. “It’s a dodgy woodcock,” one of the villagers said, observing from his gator behind me, his pipe puffing and his newsboy hat sitting square upon his head. The bird was small with a needle for a beak and a 30-mile per hour acrobatic flight. I had heard stories about its delectable dark meat and wanted to taste it, but all I could do was watch the moment fly by—quick as a flash—then hop in the gator and drive the few yards to the pub, my mouth still slightly agape.
But here is the good thing about British game meat. Unlike in the U.S. where wild meat can’t be sold commercially, Britain has plenty of it dangling and shining at its farmers markets. Perfectly wild and hunted and brought to market for those who didn’t bother to shoot—like me—to buy and taste. And so I bought some woodcock and I loved every moment of eating it. If you are lucky enough to shoot the elusive woodcock, give this recipe a try. It is all about its simplicity and the sweetness of the sherry sauce. And even without woodcock, this sauce will work well with other birds.
Browned Woodcock with Sherry Sauce Serves 2-4 as an appetizer
-4 woodcocks, bodies plucked and insides removed, with the heads and beaks still attached -Salt and pepper -2 tablespoons flour -1 tablespoon butter -1/2 cup sweet sherry -1/2 cup bird stock -Pinch Cayenne -1 teaspoon lemon juice
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Season the woodcock inside and out with salt and pepper. Dust it on all sides with 1 tablespoon flour. Secure the beaks between the two legs (this is the most impressive presentation).
2. Melt the butter in a sauté pan and brown the woodcock on all sides, approx. 2-3 minutes. Transfer the pan to the oven and cook for 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Remove the woodcock from the pan and set it aside. Place the pan on the stovetop.
4. Deglaze the pan with sherry and bird stock, let simmer and reduce for 2 minutes. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of flour, until there are no lumps and the flour begins to bubble, cook for 1 minute. Season with a pinch of cayenne and a dash of lemon juice. Let simmer and reduce for 2 to 3 minutes.
5. Pour the sauce over the woodcock while it is hot and serve immediately.