Grouse is one of the most popular game birds, along with pheasant, partridge and wood pigeon. Red grouse is the most commonly shot and eaten variety, though ptarmigan, black grouse and the protected capercaillie are all members of the grouse family.
Grouse has the darkest meat of the game birds with a rich red, almost maroon flesh and it has an intensely deep flavour to go with it. Red grouse is in season from August to December with the first day of the grouse shooting season on the 12th August commonly referred to as the ‘Glorious Twelfth’. Grouse can be found in many heathland areas across the UK and are particularly prevalent in Scotland.
Grouse will be abundant in the months after the 12th of August, so make the most of the bounty from this time to the end of the season in December (or November in Northern Ireland). These are truly wild birds, so there is no need to be concerned about farming welfare. Instead, concentrate on buying the best birds possible - talk to a reputable game dealer to find what you need.
Older birds can be a bit tough, but have bags of flavour and are great for good slow cooking in stews and pot roasts. Younger birds are best for quicker cooking methods such as pan-frying. The feet of grouse are a good indication of age, as well as the flexibility of the breast bone - the sharper the claws and the more flexible the bones, the younger the bird is.
As these birds are shot in the wild, some quantity of lead shot in the meat is inevitable. Cut the shot out of the flesh before serving, as well as any feathers that may have been driven into the meat along with the shot. Take care to remove shot from bones, too, as any shot or heavily bloody areas will tarnish the flavour of bones used for stocks and sauces. Before cooking, it is wise to truss the birds so that they hold their shape and cook evenly - you can ask your butcher to do this for you.
Roasting grouse on the crown is the best way of protecting the delicate meat during the cooking process. Brown the skin in a pan before transferring to the oven for 10-12 minutes. Grouse is a lean bird, so needs to be cooked carefully to prevent it from drying out. It should be served pink, as this ensures that the moisture is retained in the flesh. If you have a whole grouse, don’t discard the heart and liver as these can be pan-fried and eaten, too, perhaps on a slice of good sourdough toast.
Being slightly tougher, older grouse benefit from slow cooking. Make sure you braise the bird, or pot-roast, ideally in a mix of stock and good quality red wine. Cook for around 45 minutes and always allow the bird to cool in the stock to help lock in moisture - you can keep the birds whole, or joint them.
As with pigeon, quail or duck, grouse legs can be removed and confited in fat, gleaning tender, melt-in-the-mouth results.
The traditional way to serve grouse is with a fruit jelly, game chips and a gravy or jus. Commonly associated with autumn and winter, grouse pairs perfectly with seasonal fruit and vegetables such as blackberries and beetroot. Adam Stokes favours beetroot with his grouse, while William Drabble chooses blackberries.
It has a strong gamey flavour which needs to be balanced by sweet and sour accompaniments – hence why it matches so well with blackberries – so be bold when choosing what to serve with this glorious bird.