The Common Snipe is a wading bird native to the British Isles and it’s numbers are augmented in winter by other snipe that migrate here from Northern Europe. There are 26 species of snipe in total, distributed throughout the Old World, the Americas, Australia and New Zealand. Snipe live on wet grassland, marshes and moors – they have long legs and feet specifically adapted to this habitat. Their pointed bills have evolved for probing mud and soil – they like to eat worms, insects, crustaceans and plants.
The snipe is very well camouflaged and it’s brown plumage resembles that of a female duck. They are revered as probably the most delicious of all game birds, while being the smallest legal bird that one can hunt (in season). In spite of being highly sought after, the snipe is incredibly difficult to spot and shoot. In flight they zig zag all over the place – this may be the snipe’s way of avoiding natural predators, such as owls and hawks. The term sniper, meaning expert marksman or sharpshooter, relates to a snipe’s erratic flight and going on a snipe shoot is synonymous with embarking on a fool’s errand. According to Clarissa Dickson Wright, in her Game Cookbook, Winston Churchill once demanded, “a finger of snipe and a pint of port”, as a hangover cure. She says that a finger refers to the number of snipe which can be carried in one hand between the fingers, therefore, three birds.
I have been looking for a bird specifically for this recipe for some time – it’s snipe cooked in a potato! I found Snipe, “Butcher’s Treat”, in a book by Prue Coats (a well known contributor to The Field and Shooting Times) called Prue’s New Country Cooking. In the book, Prue states that she doesn’t know where the recipe comes from, but assumes it was invented by Mr. Butcher, or a local butcher… I’ve changed the recipe slightly, by adding herbs and garlic. I also cut the cooking time from 1 hour to 30 minutes.
I asked the Pheasant Girl at the beginning of the season if she’d look out for a snipe and was delighted last Sunday, when the she beamed a smile at me and said, “Guess what I’ve found for you?” I was so pleased I could have kissed her!
Snipe – Butcher’s Treat recipe (1 per person):
1 baking potato
2 knobs of butter
4 fresh sage leaves
2 sprigs of thyme
1 clove of garlic, bruised and peeled
sea salt and cracked black pepper
This is quite simple, choose a suitably large baking potato, slice the top “lid” off and hollow out the inside with a pairing knife and teaspoon. If necessary, cut a small slice off the bottom of the potato so that it doesn’t roll over. Make a similar but smaller hollow in the lid, so that it will close properly.
Sprinkle the inside of the potato with salt and pepper, line the bottom with 4 fresh sage leaves, add a knob of butter and a clove of garlic. Sit the snipe on top and apply the leaves of 2 sprigs of thyme, along with more salt and pepper.
Put the other knob of butter on the bird, or if feeling extravagant, a piece of smoked streaky bacon. Close the lid and secure with 4 cocktail sticks.
Place the potato in a moderately hot oven at 230ºC for 30 minutes. If you have access to an open fire, it’s worth considering wrapping the potato in foil and cooking it in the embers for an hour.
Put all the extracted potato into a small baking dish, with salt, pepper and yet another knob of butter. Cover with foil and cook with the bird.
When the snipe is done, it will be beautifully tender and have slightly pink flesh.
If you are feeling brave, remove the entire contents of the stomach and spread the entrails on toast like paté. I can assure you that it’s quite delicious, as are the brains.
Zig Zag Red (like these birds in flight) wine is a must for Snipe or Woodcock – it’s produced in Surrey, England.
If roasting snipe, start in a hot oven proof frying pan on the hob, with a mixture of olive oil and butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and brown the bird all over, spooning the liquid over the breast for a couple of minutes. Finish off in the oven at 230ºC. 4 minutes on the hob and 6 minutes in the oven – 10 minutes maximum! Allow to rest and serve on toast, or better still, fried bread.