January 22nd 2012
I bought a couple of partridges last week, semi direct from a shoot in the south of England. This red-legged variety (Alectoris rufa) is native to Southern France and Iberia, has been introduced here as a game bird because of it’s large size. It’s estimated that there are between 72,000 and 200,000 breeding pairs in the UK. The shooting season is from September 1st to February 1st, so this late in the season one can expect the birds to be large, whereas there are a lot of younger, smaller birds around in September.
I hung the birds for 5 days – this improves the flavour, tenderises the meat and makes them easy to pluck. Hanging should be done in a cool dry place. If you run one over in spring, I don’t recommend hanging if the weather is warm – flies will be attracted to the bird and lay eggs in it. In winter this isn’t a problem.
Don’t pluck or dress game birds before hanging or they will start to go off quickly. Do put some newspaper underneath your hanging game, just in case any blood drips out (though there won’t be much if any). You can hang partridge for a week or so before cooking them – how long depends on how gamy you’d like them to taste. Up to a week suites me.
Simply put, when plucking, put one hand under the bird, with the head towards you and gently pull out small clumps of feathers away from you. I recommend plucking out of doors, the feathers do float all over the place. Doing this by hand, after a few days of hanging, should produce a far better job than by a plucking machine, which tends to leave a few feathers under the skin – these can taste quite bitter when cooked. Once you’ve done this a couple of times you get quite quick. There’s no need to pluck the head, tail or wings past the first joint (there’s no meat after that), as they get chopped off.
Cut in around the neck with a sharp knife – partridges have a crop in the throat, where they store and digest food, so cut the head off and clean the crop out with your fingers. Cut off the feet and wings, with a sharp knife or secateurs. Cut gently around the breast bone and down around the anus. This is the only tricky bit. Look at the picture above – that’s the sort of shape to aim for – similar to that of a ready to cook chicken from the butcher. Once opened up, put two fingers into the bird and gently pull out the intestines – the idea is to get them out in one piece and not break them open and contaminate your meat. Save the heart, liver and kidneys for stock, or put them back inside the bird and cook them. The liver is delicious fried, albeit a bit small. Give the bird and offal a good rinse to remove any blood or food in the crop and pat everything dry.
Put 4 pieces of garlic, a sprig of thyme, salt, pepper and a teaspoonful of goose fat inside the partridge, tie the legs together with a piece of string and wrap it in 3 or 4 pieces of smoked, streaky bacon. Game birds don’t have much fat since they run wild, so the goose fat and bacon is necessary to stop them drying out when cooking.
For additional plucking pictures and pot roasting recipe, see my pheasant post.
A note on partridge cooking time. Partridges are beautifully moist and tender when cooked to perfection, but too much cooking and the breast dries out very quickly. Ideally, unstuffed partridges should be cooked at 200º C for 20 minutes maximum. If your bird is wrapped in bacon, cooked upside down and or stuffed, 30 minutes will be OK. If your partridge misbehaves and refuses to brown, put a cast iron skillet on the hob and heat it until it is almost smoking. Scorch the breast for no more than 2 minutes and allow to rest in tinfoil for 10 minutes before serving. One can also prescorch partridges for 2 minutes before cooking. If you use a cast iron skillet, the pan can go straight into the oven from browning. A third option would be to use a blow torch (sparingly). It’s quite safe to eat game birds rare. An overcooked partridge will be as tough as old boots!