In How to Turn a Bird into Dinner Part One, I waxed lyrical about the moral benefits of eating game, and directed scathing retributions at those who termed my pheasant-butchering activities ‘gross’ whilst simultaneously chomping away on meat of dubious provenance without a second thought. I disclosed photos of my apron-clad self clutching a pair of bloody scissors looking nervous yet jubilant, the bare breast of a pheasant gleaming baldly before me. Fast forward two years and my butchery skills still leave something to be desired, I still feel a sense of considerable elation when I manage to produce something edible from a feathered carcass, and I still feel strongly about the issue of meat ethics and the advantages of eating game. Fortunately, however, all that moral high ground was covered in Part One, so this time you just get straight to the good stuff: roast bird.
Part Two, then, takes us to partridge. While these little creatures can’t really hold a candle to the pheasant when it comes to magnificent plumage, there is something beautifully understated and elegant about their compact forms, a muted mix of grey, gold and dark red. They are also considerably more manageable than pheasant when it comes to butchery – it takes about twenty minutes (for me, at least) to pluck and draw a single partridge; it takes me all of that time just to pluck a pheasant, never mind the rest. I prefer to pluck pheasant and remove the legs and breasts to cook, rather than dealing with the whole carcass, but partridge look best roasted whole, I think – again, there’s something rather appealing about their dainty little bodies, sitting in a roasting tin like tiny chickens. They are usually very tender, provided you don’t overcook them, and have only a slight gaminess that makes them very versatile.
But before you can enjoy all that, you first have to lop their heads and wings off, snap off their feet, poke around in their neck skin to remove their last meal and their windpipes, pull off all those downy feathers one by one, and stick your finger up their bums to pull out their guts and liver (important note: a partridge’s liver is surprisingly large for such a small bird, and far larger than the opening of its bottom. You will find yourself scrabbling around inside that carcass for quite a long time). So as long as you don’t mind doing that, you get the reward of some truly tasty meat. Seems fair, right? Better than getting a vacuum-packed supermarket chicken that’s been butchered for you but has lived on a diet of pure misery for its entire short life. It’s a trade-off.
My go-to partridge recipe (yes, I have such a thing) is a roast with pears and bacon, à la Nigel Slater, but this year a basket of pumpkins in my kitchen whispered to me in seductive tones, and this luscious autumnal feast was born. The partridge is roasted on a bed of pumpkin and fresh figs, which turn soft, fudgy and sweet in the heat of the oven. The lot is scattered with fragrant rosemary and thyme then glazed with a mixture of cider and honey, which becomes a rich, syrupy gravy. To cut through all that soporific sweet meatiness, gremolata: finely chopped rosemary, toasted walnuts and lemon zest. It gives everything a fresh, aromatic lift, and all of those ingredients work beautifully with game, pumpkin and figs. Essentially, I’ve put all my favourite game flavours together into a hedonistic, greed-driven medley of seasonal fruitfulness, and it was a triumph.
I’m glad it was a triumph, because I spent a lot of time with my finger up a bird's bum entwined in its guts. However, the sweet meat of these little fowl, with its slightly earthy, metallic tang, is more than worth the effort, particularly when it’s used as a focal point for so much other autumnal bounty.
P.S. If you were actually hoping for a step-by-step guide to partridge butchery, rather than me waxing lyrical about the restrictive nature of avian sphincters, I do apologise for the misleading title, and suggest you use this excellent guide, which has guided me through many a bird butchery session over the years.
Roast partridge with pumpkin, figs and walnut gremolata (serves 2):
- 30g walnuts
- 250ml cider
- 2 tbsp clear honey
- 500g pumpkin, deseeded and cut into 2-inch chunks
- A few sprigs of thyme, leaves picked
- 3 sprigs of rosemary, leaves picked and finely chopped
- 2 partridge, ready to roast
- Olive oil
- 200ml chicken stock
- 4 figs
- Zest of 1 lemon
Pre-heat the oven to 200C. Toast the walnuts in the oven on a baking dish for 5 minutes until golden and fragrant, then set aside. Keep the oven on.
Mix the cider with the honey in a small jug. Put the pumpkin on a roasting tray and toss with half the thyme leaves, a little of the rosemary, salt and pepper, 2 tbsp of the cider mixture and 1 tbsp olive oil. Roast for 30 minutes or until tender.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a large non-stick pan. Season the partridge with salt and pepper, then brown on all sides in the pan. Remove and deglaze the pan with two-thirds of the cider mixture, stirring well. Add the stock and reduce the liquid for 5-10 minutes until you have a syrupy sauce. Season to taste, then keep warm until ready to serve.
Once the pumpkin is nearly cooked, remove the tray from the oven. Put the partridge on top of the pumpkin, tuck the figs in alongside the birds, then pour over the remaining cider mixture. Sprinkle with the remaining thyme leaves and a good grinding of black pepper. Roast for 16 minutes.
While the birds roast, make the gremolata. Put the toasted walnuts, remaining rosemary and thyme, and lemon zest in a mini chopper and blitz to a coarse crumb.
When the birds are ready, rest them for 5 minutes on a plate covered with foil. Serve them alongside the roast pumpkin and figs, with the walnut gremolata sprinkled over, and drizzled with the cider sauce. Sautéed leeks are a nice accompaniment.