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Fair game

For Fergus Henderson the winter of his content is made glorious by the onset of grouse-shooting season.

By Fergus Henderson

For Fergus Henderson the winter of his content is made glorious by the onset of grouse-shooting season.

The passing of summer can bring a sense of gloom to your average person, but in the kitchen it's a time of joy. The turn away from the sun may rob the smiles from the faces of most folk, but for the chef, the shortening of the days equals a lengthening of the shopping list. Here in London, the smiles start to widen on 12 August, the "Glorious Twelfth".

The beginning of game-shooting season heralds the coming of winter, and when such an announcement is accompanied by the musk of a grouse roasting, little wonder that it's a moment of great anticipation. This is the moment at which there is divine unity between nature and oven. The appearance of game is an extraordinary thing - it's as though nature has taken over your menu. Delicious things shoot out of the sky and onto your plate, and the mighty grouse is just the beginning.

Roasted rare, a young grouse will melt in your mouth. To keep us from getting too excited we serve the bird with the most calming of companions, bread sauce. In its most basic form, it's simply white bread cooked in milk, but when flavoured by an onion stuck with cloves and cooked slowly so the ingredients have time to work on each other, it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Then the happy chef's march towards winter continues, handing shamelessly over to the grey-leg partridge. This is a paler-fleshed bird, so we don't cook it as rare as grouse, but just showing the faintest embarrassment in the flesh.

This bird's companion on the plate is the orb of joy, a red onion peeled then braised whole. Here you should allow the braising stock to reduce, leaving the tops of the onions to caramelise and the flesh underneath to surrender.

The pheasant follows suit by becoming fair game. Prone as it is to drying out, it makes an ideal companion for the ever-helpful pig's trotter, which has counselling powers for meat and heat. Then the odd snipe appears if you're lucky, and wild duck.

(A small confession here: I was on a duck shoot and feeling bonny with the eight ducks I had sent to their maker when the chap loading my gun uttered the game-changing words, "Ducks mate for life, you know." At that moment a sad-looking drake flew past me quacking, looking for its life companion. I doffed my hat and put down my shooter, like a gunslinger who has shot his last sheriff.)

Game season is no time for sentiment - not least when there's also our four-legged friends still roaming free. There's the beautiful hare which, when jugged, dark, rich and spicy, the sauce thickened with its own blood, is the very essence of winter in a pot. And come the very depths of winter, woodcock start to fly; roasted head on and guts in, they make for the perfect holistic lunch.

At St John we have for the last few years prolonged the local game season by serving squirrel in February. It's rather like wild rabbit and, since they're being culled at this time of year, they're available in abundance. Customers didn't bat an eyelid when we put them on the menu, so I foolishly went on Radio 4 to extol this fine way to extend the season. This proved to be something of a mistake; I get hate-mail from Beatrix Potter lovers to this very day.

Our best friend in the plant kingdom in winter is the potato, one of nature's great accompaniers when mashed with plenty of butter, milk and black pepper.

I also feel there are few winter roots that do not benefit from the rich embrace of duck fat. Parsnip, for example, is a firm root which can take some cooking. Left to my own devices, I toss peeled parsnips in Dijon mustard and duck fat, and roast them until they're crisp and giving.

I'm afraid we haven't even started on suet puddings, which give warmth and ballast during the winter months, let alone the prune, which comes into its own until the soft fruits of summer come around again. We will have to leave this comforting treasury for another time. In the meantime, do not fear the shortening days, gentle reader, for every season brings joys of its own.

  • Author: Fergus Henderson