The game’s afoot

Categories: News and previews

Ahead of his upcoming demo, Tim Maddams talks about the arrival of partridge season, and this delicate game meat’s many uses in the kitchen

September—it has so many faces. I think it was the month of March about which Shakespeare wrote “summer in the sun and winter in the shade”, but the same feeling lingers in these gold-lit days of early autumn. The sense of promise that was so strong in the spring is missing: what we have in its place is fruition. Something to be busy with, storing away and keeping safe for the long nights of winter that lay ahead of us.

September brings with it the start of the wild fowl season, ducks and geese—and the partridge. The poor old partridge is a much-misunderstood bird, seen as exclusive and a talisman of the well-heeled shooting fraternity, often neglected by cooks up and down the country. It is remembered by most only when it’s a bit too late at Christmas—but is at its tasty best around about now. The season for shooting these semi-wild birds starts on 1st September, but they really come into their culinary best mid-month.

There are two types of partridge in the UK: the good old English or grey partridge (Perdix perdix) or the more recent inhabitant the red legged or French partridge (Alectoris rufa). Both are reared and released by game keepers and not truly wild anymore—though there are more and more, thanks to the efforts of various conservation and shooting groups, they are hardly ever shot.

I would highly recommend learning to pluck your own birds and gut them. It’s not difficult and if you are prepared to do the dirty work yourself, a brace could be as little as a couple of quid. It will connect you with your food in a very real way, too, which I think really makes you appreciate them all the more and, in a way, it feels more respectful.

In the feather
If you do manage to get them in the feather, don’t let them hang: the season’s mild weather means that they tend to get a head start on this front before they reach the chiller at the game dealers. I love the natural sweetness of young game birds, so I like to eat them fresh with the minimum of hanging time. Basically, so long as they have been through rigour mortis and out the other side, they are good to go.

To my palate the grey partridge has more flavour and gives it up more readily than its Mediterranean cousin, but red legged partridge is by no means a poor substitute. The young birds have been supplementing their diet of grain with wild foraging, have grown fully and spent a fair amount of time flying around. This gives its tender and delicately gamey flesh a really nice balance and greater depth.

Roast these birds hot, then give them a long rest. They need to be almost fully cooked—not quite so much as a chicken, but you definitely don’t want to eat them rare. I like to season mine with salt and pepper and then start them in a hot pan on the burner with a little pork fat, some fresh bay leaves and a few cloves of bashed garlic. Once coloured, pop them in a really hot oven for as long as they need to begin to firm up, then leave them in the pan somewhere warm for at least as long as you have cooked them. Never ever cook meat of any kind straight from the fridge, always allow it to come to room temperature first.

Serve these delicious birds with whatever garnish takes your fancy. Wild mushrooms are a natural bedfellow of the partridge—partridge and ceps are particularly excellent together and both deserve your seasonal attention in the kitchen. I also think partridges like a nice gooseberry preserve or redcurrant jelly to help them along, and leftover partridge makes great risotto. It’s excellent cold as well—a delicious addition to any cold spread.

A lunchtime staple
As the season progresses and there are lots of partridges about, I often de-breast them without plucking first to save time. Pan-fried partridge breasts become a staple at lunchtime with a simple winter salad or slaw. Sometimes I like to smoke them, too—a quick cure and 10 minutes in the hot smoker results in half smoked, half raw breasts that freeze excellently and after a quick flash in the pan with some butter, make seriously good eating. They go down very well in a bread roll with a little green sauce and some rocket or kale.

There is something dangerous in suggesting that a meat is versatile—as if some insult is implied—but in the case of partridge and indeed the pheasants to come later in the season it is not only true, but good to know, as there will be a bit of a seasonal glut of them. Let a few partridges into your kitchen this September and see how you get on with them—you may well find a new culinary friend for life.

Join Tim for tips, tastings and recipes Friday 14th September in the Market Hall, 1-2:30pm