It may not be very cool to say so, when the general trend appears to be to moan about it as much as possible, but I love Christmas. In fact, I love the few weeks before the big day more than the day itself. There are twinkly lights in the Cambridge streets, Christmas songs playing in the shops, cranberry sauce sitting in the fridge, and two heavy, alcohol-sodden Christmas cakes maturing happily in one of my kitchen cupboards. We were very organised this year and made the cakes a huge six weeks in advance, to allow time for 'feeding' them with copious quantities of brandy and rum - brandy for Delia's classic version; rum for a truly scrumptious-smelling tropical version by Fiona Cairns, resplendent with jewel-like chunks of dried mango, apricot, pineapple, dates and raisins and rich with the aroma of crystallised ginger, lime zest and treacle. I can't wait to get my teeth into a slice of it, though I'll wait until it is thoroughly inebriated before I do so.
What better way to celebrate all things festive than with a dish that echoes a famous Christmas carol?
The 'partridge in a pear tree' notion holds fond memories for me. Two years ago I dressed up as a partridge in a pear tree for our URNU (University Royal Naval Unit) Christmas party. It was an inspired costume, even if I do say so myself. I wore a green dress (the tree), brown tights and boots (the tree trunk), a string of pears and leaves around my neck, and clipped a fake, feathered bird into my hair. Not only did I win the prize for best costume, but that was also the night my boyfriend and I got together - I can't help but think it was my avian sartorial ingenuity that sealed the deal.
Partridge are, of course, for life - not just for Christmas.
When I'm not exploiting their potential for Christmas costume possibilities, I'm plotting the best ways in which to devour them.
I found three brace of partridge for £11 at a butcher in Yorkshire a few weeks ago - an obscenely good bargain, which made this dish taste even more delicious. Like hunger, frugality is an excellent sauce.
I've cooked with partridge a few times, but don't have a true favourite recipe yet, so I decided to try one from Nigel Slater that I'd bookmarked when I bought his book Tender, Part II (pretty much my kitchen Bible, given my love of fruit in cooking). I couldn't resist the notion of coupling partridge with pear, in a nod to that classic carol. Some might argue there's something slightly morbid about that...a bit like serving rabbit on a bed of lettuce and carrots - Nigella Lawson has a recipe for "Peter Rabbit in Mr McGregor's Salad" which does just that. Try not to think about it too much.
The beauty of this partridge recipe is that it is quick and easy, but gives impressive and delicious results. The birds are basted with a herby butter to keep them moist, then wrapped in streaky bacon to seal in the juices. They are roasted with herbs and slices of caramelised pear; the bacon is removed near the end to allow the skin to crisp up. The end result is an array of lovely little burnished birds, slices of crunchy bacon, and tender, juicy pear segments to contrast wonderfully with the grainy, gamey flesh of the birds. You also end up with some juices left in the pan, to which you can add a little redcurrant jelly and make a nice gravy.
This, for me, is what game is all about. Keeping the meat moist with some butter, using some lovely autumnal flavours (thyme, rosemary, juniper), and serving it with a fruity accompaniment. I also roasted some squash with rosemary and steamed some savoy cabbage to go alongside.
Autumn on a plate, with whispers to come of Christmas.
Roast partridge, juniper and thyme (serves 4):
(Adapted from Nigel Slater - recipe here and in 'Tender, Part II')
- 4 young, plump partridges
- 6 sprigs of thyme
- 4 sprigs of rosemary, leaves finely chopped
- 12 juniper berries
- 100g butter
- 8 rashers of streaky bacon
- 2 pears
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- 2 tbsp redcurrant, rowan or quince jelly
- A glass of vermouth or white wine
Check the birds all over before you start for any stray feathers or bits of shattered bone. Set the oven at 220C/200C fan oven.
Pull the leaves from the thyme branches and mash them with the juniper berries, rosemary, butter and a hefty pinch of sea salt and black pepper, using a pestle and mortar. Reserve a tablespoon for cooking the pears, then spread this butter all over the birds, and particularly on their breasts.
Lay the bacon rashers on a chopping board then stretch them with the flat of a knife blade to make them longer and thinner. Wrap them round the birds. Place in a roasting tin.
Cut the pears into thick slices, toss them in a little lemon juice, and cook briefly in a little of the herb butter in a shallow, non-stick pan. When both sides are pale gold, transfer them to the roasting tin. Roast for 20 minutes, then peel off the bacon, setting it aside if it is crisp enough or leaving it if not, then return the birds to the oven for a further 10 minutes.
Remove the tin from the oven and set the birds, bacon and pear to rest (I put them on a plate, covered with tin foil). Put the roasting tin over a moderate flame, drop in the jelly and let it melt into the pan juices, add a small glass of wine and stir to dissolve the pan-stickings. Bring to the boil, put the birds and their bits and pieces on to warm plates, then spoon over the 'gravy'.