Of all the meats in the world, it is those that are dark and mysterious which intrigue me the most. While I do believe that literally nothing on this earth beats a good roast chicken, at the same time I have a love for and fascination with those darker, gamier, more interesting meats. Those that can be eaten rare and rather bloody, sliced into gorgeous glistening pink strips on the plate. Those that can more than cope with a heavy dose of spicing and flavouring to bring them to life. Those with an iron-rich tang that pairs so well with all manner of sweet and savoury ingredients. Those that unequivocally scream 'carnivorous feast' when you see them on the plate, red and juicy with a burnished outer crust and a tender blushing centre.
One of these, a meat I've only recently discovered, is grouse. I first tried grouse a few months ago, and remember it well. I'd asked my mum to get me a grouse from the butchers near our house in Pateley Bridge, north Yorkshire, some time last winter. This had been sitting in the freezer for months, preying on my conscience, demanding that I get round to eating it before the poor thing froze away into oblivion. Having never cooked grouse before, I didn't feel particularly inspired, and had no idea what to do with it. I'd asked her to buy it on impulse, because I was curious about this elusive bird, which has a very short season starting on the twelfth of August (the 'glorious twelfth') and lasting around a month.
One night, however, I decided to bite the bullet (something that you literally end up doing a lot with game, which has a little surprise in the form of metal shot lurking in its flesh waiting to break your teeth) and cook the damn thing. I looked for a recipe online, but all I kept finding was the traditional grouse with bread sauce and cabbage. As nice as that sounded, it was July and I really wasn't in the mood for a traditional British autumnal feast. Bread sauce is not a thing that should be on plates in the summer. I was also in the middle of planning my August trip to Vietnam, which definitely wasn't putting me in the mood for winter fare.
I then came across a recipe for roast grouse with grapes (ignore the rather alarming photo at the top, which looks somewhat like a poultry foetus zombie - not entirely sure what editor allowed that unappetising shrivelled monstrosity onto the website...). This involved smearing the bird in seasoned butter, roasting it in the oven, then adding red grapes and red wine to the roasting tray. Always a huge fan of meat with fruit, and intrigued by the concept of cooked grapes, I went with it. It was fantastic - the meat was dark, rich and gamey, while the grapes were a delicious burst of sweetness. I served it with couscous, to soak up the red wine sauce and the juice of the grapes, and because I find it hard to go more than a couple of days without couscous in my life.
My first taste of grouse was delicious. I'd probably describe it as a cross between pigeon and partridge - the birds are a little bigger than a partridge but smaller than a pheasant, but the meat is much darker, more reminiscent of pigeon. It's also best served quite rare, otherwise it dries out completely and (I imagine) tastes of leather. It does have quite a strong gamey taste, but in a pleasant way, and this works very well accompanied by some sort of sweet fruit.
Inspired by this success, I bought some grouse breasts from the same butcher this year. Buying just the breasts takes the faff out of trying to hack your way through a whole bird, and seeing as there isn't much meat on the legs this is the best bit anyway. They're also much easier to cook, as you can just pan-fry them, and it means it's easier to get the exact degree of done-ness (I like my meat almost still alive - if it's not bleeding, it makes me sad). I love cooking pigeon breasts, as they're like little baby steaks - dark and sizzling and best served rare. I imagined grouse would be very similar.
This recipe, with its accompaniment of juicy roasted grapes, is inspired by that summer feast. The spiced grouse is inspired by a gorgeous dish I had at Cinnamon Kitchen in London a couple of months ago. Chef Vivek Singh served us the most delicious combination of spiced grouse breasts, spiced minced grouse leg meat, and black lentil dhal. It was a revelation to me: I'd never really thought of using Indian spices with grouse, but after I tasted it it made perfect sense. Grouse has such a strong, meaty flavour that it can perfectly withstand such strong spices. In fact, I would argue that they're almost necessary, to temper the very bold flavour of the meat. It was an ingenious dish and one that has stayed with me long after.
I've attempted to recreate it here, by marinating the grouse breasts in a spice paste before pan-frying them and accompanying them with roasted grapes. For the marinade, I've used three lovely spices: cardamom, garam masala, and chilli flakes. The aromatic garam masala is lifted by the citrus freshness of the cardamom, while the chilli adds a bit of heat. There's also grated ginger and crushed garlic for warmth and depth, and a little salt, plus some oil to bind everything together. This delicious scented paste is rubbed onto the grouse breasts, which are left to marinate for as long as you have time.
The grapes are placed in a roasting dish with a splash of red wine and a drizzle of olive oil, then seasoned with salt, pepper and fresh thyme. They go into the oven, where they wrinkle and pucker gloriously, ending up crispy in places and soft in others, their skins slightly split, oozing luscious juice. I pan-fried the grouse breasts for a minute or so on each side, to leave them nicely rare in the middle. The spice paste formed a delicious aromatic crust in the pan.
I served my grouse and grapes with pomegranate seed couscous, coriander and spinach. It's a fantastic combination - the bland, comforting couscous is the perfect foil to the rich, gamey grouse with its hit of spices and the juicy sweet grapes. It's a delightful Anglo-Indian fusion of flavours, and a really unusual dish. If you've never paired game with spices or fruit before, try this recipe and kill two birds with one stone. I think it's definitely the best way to cook and eat game.
Indian spiced grouse with roasted grapes (serves 1):
- 2/3 grouse breasts
- 6 cardamom pods, husks removed
- 2 garlic cloves, crushed
- 3 tsp grated fresh ginger
- 1 tsp garam masala
- Pinch of chilli flakes
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tbsp olive or rapeseed oil
- 2 small bunches red grapes
- A splash of red wine
- Salt and pepper
- Olive oil
- A couple of sprigs fresh thyme
- Couscous mixed with pomegranate seeds and chopped coriander, to serve
Using a pestle and mortar, crush the cardamom seeds to a fine powder. Add the garlic, ginger, garam masala, chilli flakes, salt and oil, and mix to form a paste. Rub this over the grouse breasts and leave to marinate in the fridge for as long as possible (mine were in for around 4 hours).
When ready to cook, heat the oven to 190C. Put the grapes in a roasting dish with the red wine. Drizzle over a little olive oil, then season with salt and pepper. Strip the thyme leaves from their sprigs and sprinkle over the grapes. Roast in the oven for around 15-20 minutes, until the grapes have started to wrinkle and split.
When the grapes are done, heat a non-stick frying pan. Add the grouse breasts and cook for 1-2 minutes on each side. Remove to a chopping board and rest for a minute or so while you get the couscous ready on the plate, then slice the breasts into thick strips. Arrange on the plate and place the grapes alongside. Sprinkle with fresh coriander and serve immediately.