A friend turns up to dinner with a gift. A bottle of wine? A box of chocolates? No, two freshly-shot partridges.
It’s not unusual for my friend to gift us some game he’s shot. Usually, though, he’s field dressed it – skinning and gutting in situ. Or he’s taken it to be done properly at the butchers.
“Sorry, I didn’t have the time,” he says, with a little twinkle in his eye. You see, he likes to challenge people. See what they’re made of. And this was a gentle, unspoken dare. Would I wimp out and take these to be professionally dressed? Or would I (wo)man up and prove I can get my hands dirty. Very, very dirty.
I ask for some tips. “I just slit through the skin, rip it off and stick my finger up its bum to pull out its guts,” is proffered. Oh.
I put the birds in a dish and stick them in the fridge where they stay for three days while I decide what to do. I look for some how-to guides online. They fall into two camps. The first is something filmed in the boondocks which generally involves ripping the carcass from the body in one movement. Field dressing in the extreme. Take a look (NSFW unless you work in an abbattoir).
The other is painstaking, step-by-step guides warning me to be careful on several steps. Well, almost every step really. There’s one thing I do know. I will not be hanging the partridges to develop a richer flavour on my first attempt. More tender meat means, um, more “tender” guts.
In the end, it’s the dead-eyed stare from the birds every time I open the fridge door that forces me to take action. I chop off their heads.
Having done that, I decide to pluck them. Remarkably easy on the first one, even though they are cold (it’s easier when the flesh is at room temperature apparently). But I’m a bit too vigorous on the second one and rip the skin badly. So I chop off the wings on both birds and skin them. Then I chop off the feet.
Now comes the bit I was dreading. The guts. This is where the painstaking step-by-step guides are very useful. From the top end I remove the throat and crop (part of a partridge’s digestive tract). Some wriggling up the bottom end sees me removing all the rest in one fell swoop. Intact. No erroneous piercing with a fingernail. No noxious smells. Just a little bit of poo. Yeah, I can handle that.
Mentally, I punch the air, as the dog dances around in fruitless anticipation. I wash the skinned corpses, pop them in the fridge and pour myself a large glass of red wine.
And then start to think: What on earth am I going to do with two tiny skinned birds?
Suggestions via Twitter say stew. All kinds of stew.
So, in the end I wrap the breast of the birds in unsmoked streaky bacon and cook them with a large sweet white onion, elephant garlic, skinned and chopped Toulouse sausages some diced brown mushrooms, some cooked chopped chestnuts, red wine and chicken stock.
The birds look ungainly, with their legs splayed, but this is home cooking not Masterchef and I’m not fighting to stay in the competition. I’m after flavour. And I get it. The partridges are not overdone either. Bowls are licked clean. Another mental punch in the air.
Do we drink wine with it? Hell, yes!
A D’arenberg Grenache from Australia’s McLaren Vale – The Derelict Vineyard, 2009. I’ve been sent a bottle by Bibendum to mark Grenache Day (which this is). On opening, it feels closed and a bit “spirity” – I can feel the warmth of the alcohol before anything else.
I stick it in a decanter for a while and it becomes a more friendly – strawberries, cranberries and white pepper. Then it goes and gives the food a big, warm bear hug. It’s weighty and structured to stand up to the stew, but the flavours in the wine aren’t so intense that they overpower the partridges. The two hum along together like good chums.
Afterwards, I post a picture on Facebook. I get a comment from the partridge donor, impressed (I think). He offers me some pigeons.
I have yet to say yes.