There is a dark side to gamebird production and the larger the shoot that produced your bird, it certainly sounds as though it will be less likely to have been managed ethically. Still, it is a good thing that you are able to buy it - historically, some estates have been known to avoid the hassle of selling the hundreds of poor creatures that their wealthy clients have killed in a shoot, instead ploughing them into the ground like so much landfill - a despicable practice and one that, hopefully, is now in decline.
There is also a wide gap between the rearing methods of estates: some hens are kept, and chicks raised, in little better than battery conditions and enjoy only the briefest weeks as outdoor birds. Some though, are luckier, and get to live a relatively long and completely natural life with as quick and skilled an end as can be given them. There are decent gamekeepers out there, who strive to be both conservationists and welfare champions, it's just worth asking a few questions before you buy.
Some questions to ask a game supplier:
- Are all of your birds from the UK or do you deal in imports?
- Under what conditions are laying hens kept, if not in the wild?
- What is the survival rate in the hatchery where birds are kept after hatching? How much space per bird is given? Are "bits" (masks over the beaks) used?
- How shortly after hatching are the birds released into the wild, if they are not born in the wild?
- Are the bird's diets supplemented? If so, by how much and are soya pellets used?
- Are the birds killed in large-scale commercial shoots?
- Is every bird shot carefully collected and offered for sale or eaten?
- How are predators (such as foxes, badgers, otters, weasels and birds of prey) and competitors (such as deer, rabbits and hares) managed?
I get mine from Hampshire Game, via Abel & Cole. I asked them about their birds and they replied that their birds are "not reared or released by the gamekeepers but grow up in their natural environment on the moors", making some of the questions above automatically inapplicable to their business. The grouse eat "young heather as a food source, they are supplemented with natural grit by gamekeepers". All of the birds shot on their estate are collected and sold as game.
They believe that "the wild game population benefit the eco-system in their own way for example the deer population eating the heather allows young heather shoots which all wild birds will then thrive off. All [of their] gamekeepers are aware of these things so do not allow a population of one species to grow too big or too small."
Anyone can visit the estate, whether on business or for pleasure, due to the "Right to Roam" Act (UK legislation), which applies to moorland.
So, assuming you have managed to procure a couple of tasty birds, here is a really good way of serving them!
Bacon-wrapped Roast Grouse with Bread Sauce, Recurrant Gravy & Buttered Savoy Cabbage
Heat up the oven to 200 degrees and take the birds out of the fridge to come up to room temperature. When the oven is hot put a baking tray in with some oil to heat up.
Slice up half a small onion and put to one side. Pat down the birds with kitchen paper and rub them inside and out with a mixture of butter, thyme, salt and pepper and lay bacon over the top.
Take the tray out of the oven and put the onions in to form a layer between the birds and the tray. Pop the birds on top and put back in the oven for 20-40 minutes, depending on their size.
Grouse is traditionally served a bit rare and we didn't wait for the juices to run clear. Instead we did the same test as for steak, pressing the breast with a finger to judge how firm it was.
To make the bread sauce put half a pint of milk in a saucepan with a couple of bay leaves, the other half of the onion studded with a couple of cloves, a few peppercorns and a peice of mace. Warm up to almost boiling, but don't actually bring it to the boil. Take off the heat and leave to cool down.
Slice the crusts off a few slices of stale white bread and cut into small cubes. Pour the cooled milk liquid over, straining it as you do. Mix and mash with a fork. Put this mixture to one side until the grouse are cooked.
When ready, get the grouse out of the oven and leave to rest for at least 15 minutes. Get some sliced savoy cabbage on to steam.
Put the bread sauce mixture back into a saucepan and add a few knobs of butter and a good grating of nutmeg. Heat up on a low heat.
Put the, now empty, baking tray over a low heat and add a glug of red wine and a splash of hot water to the juices. Scuff the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to lift all of the grousy residues and caramelised onions. Add a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly and stir until melted into the gravy.
Serve up a heap of bread sauce and cabbage with each grouse, melting some butter into the cabbage and topping with ground pepper. Pour the gravy over the cabbage and around the plate. Enjoy!