Grouse is famous for being the first bird of the season. Indeed, for the month of August every year it is the only bird to be allowed to be shot. Pheasant and partridge doesn’t start until September.
To find out more about this unique bird I travelled to Linhope in Northumberland where I spent the day with John Queen, the head gamekeeper on the Linhope Estate which is owned by Lord James Percy and is one of the best-run grouse moors in the world.
There are few things that John Queen doesn’t know about grouse and how to make sure that everything goes right for the glorious 12th and beyond. However, I wanted to get beyond the shooting and talk and learn about something different. Something that mattered to chefs and diners: flavour.
It might seem a strange thing to ask a gamekeeper but it turned out that John Queen is an expert on the diet of the grouse and what they eat is no accident. It turns out the habitat is important not just for cover but for nutrition. And that nutrition has profound consequences for the shooting season as I learnt in the film: once the young grouse mature and add strength to their bodies, due to their diet, they increase in speed and are much harder to shoot later in in the season. And that’s why shooting in August is so important. Like deer grouse need to be culled. Too many and the populations don’t have enough space and start fighting each other for territory.
What I learnt was how important all the different grasses and seeds are for the young chicks and how insects provide protein in the first few days and weeks. What the grouse eat is what becomes the flavour on the plate and this is a mixture of grasses, insects and heather tips.
It’s a fascinating subject for chefs who want to learn more about the origin of the grouse they cook and what they feed on. Grouse are completely wild. They receive no additional feed of any kind. That’s what makes them so special and what makes them to luxury they are. They deserve to be cooked with pride.
Film and words by Chandos Elletson, editor of The Great Game Guide.