"In wildness is the preservation of the world." -H.D. Thoreau

Why eat from the wild? The answer is obvious to anyone who has felt the emotional uplift from the weight of a basket brimming with morel mushrooms, the earthy-sweet scent of digging Sassafras roots, or the heavy pulsing of a fish testing the limits of your fly rod.
There are a million reasons to eat wild, to get dirty, to taste fresh food. It is here where we connect to the Earth, our Ancestral past, immediate present and hope for a healthy future...

"Nothing else can build such awareness as surely and powerfully as practicing the ancient ecological art of humankind - foraging. It is not observation of, but rather participation in the phenomena of Nature that brings us to our greatest understanding of our place in the mosaic of life."
-Samuel Thayer The Forager's Harvest

Foraging in the Tip of the Mitten!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Mysterious Migrants: Hunting the Woodcock

Here at the Farm, spring begins with our annual 'Woodcock Walks' where we sneak through forest and field in search of the male Woodcock who has returned from the south to do his dramatic mating display. I always wish him luck in his endeavors, because I love Woodcock for many reasons. One of these is for a warm autumn meal.

The Woodcocks life begins as soon as it hatches. It is fully feathered and ready to stumble around looking for food, which is 90% earthworms. They hang out with mom and their bros and sis's until they fledge and take off on their own. Usually they don't go far, but some spend the summer traveling about the eastern United States. I suppose its the same wanderlust that strikes so many youths fresh out from under their parent's wing. In the fall they migrate from the upper part of the Eastern U.S. and southern Canada to the Southeast. I like to imagine them this time of year, traveling under the cover of darkness, navigating by the stars and forever weary of the eyes of owls and stealthy cats.

Mystery has always surrounded this nocturnal and well-camouflaged denizen of the forest. Woodcocks have been called the "least understood and seen" of our game birds. When it is spotted, it is often just a fleeting glance as it escapes back into solitude.
Its enigmatic presence aside, it is anatomically strange. It has been said to have more of the appearance of a moth than a bird. It 'sings' using the three tiny outermost primary wing feathers. Its brain is upside-down and below its eyes, which are to the rear of its head, giving it nearly 360 degree vision. Its ear is near the base of its beak.

It has been said that the first Woodcock was once a tiny partridge who was out-competed by her siblings due to her short beak and was slowly starving to death. The Virgin Mary took pity on this lonely bird and, bringing her to heaven, placed three fingers on her feathered forehead and blessed her to be a solitary keeper of the forest. Her beak lengthened and three patches formed on the brow of the bird and are known now as "the Virgin's Fingers." She flew back to the Earth and watches over her forest haunts where she is known by many names: Woodcock, timberdoodle or meme (Anishinaabemowin) in my area. To the ornithologist she is Scolopax minor. The Germans call her Schepfe, meaning 'beak.' To the Spanish she is la ciega, the blind hen. In France she is known as La Becasse, Lady of Velvet Eyes, Queen of the Woods, Enigmatic Gypsy, the Divine One, and Sorceress.

A brace of timberdoodles
 What is curious and odd about our relation with Woodcock is how it is traditionally eaten. They are plucked everywhere but the head, which is kept on so they can be trussed with their own beak. Now, I don't expect your average American to stomach this next part, but it is traditional and I can't belittle anything my ancestors ate. I wouldn't be here without them. So here it goes: they are roasted whole, plucked but not gutted. Once cooked, the 'trail' (entrails, liver, heart and lungs) is spooned out and gently cooked down into a thick sauce and spread on toast. At the very end, the beak is broken apart, revealing the tiny brain which is scooped out with the beak's tip and eaten. The very essence of the Queen of the Woods. For years I thought it beneath me to partake in such barbarous behavior, but I kept running into recipes from famous chefs, fancy cookbooks and even poets and classical novelists touting the epicurean delight of Woodcock cooked in this way. What the hell, I'll give it a shot.

Most Woodcock are hunted with the aid of dogs. I've read that if you don't have well trained bird dogs, you'd better hunt something else. But I don't have bird dogs, money to keep them nor patience to train them. So I hunt solo, trudging through likely habitat waiting for the distinctive trill of their flushing wingbeats. I have about a 1 to 3 second window in which I must train my 20 gauge New England Pardner onto the bird and calmly pull the trigger. It takes some practice, and I definitely miss a lot. But when the shot is right on and a bird is in hand (or pocket) there is no greater feeling. It erases all those perfect flushes and horrible shots that made you look a-fool out of your mind.  

During the off-season when I hear that trill, without thought or hesitation I draw my imaginary shotgun. I wish I could just look at the flushing bird and smile, but I've trained myself and have to be much faster on the draw than those with dogs, who locate the bird for their masters who then have the dogs flush it. They know right where the bird is at before they fly.  They can down a dozen or more birds in one hunt. I'm lucky to even flush five.

I wouldn't have it any other way. My best hunting grounds are right out my back door, literally a stones throw. The poplar leaves tremble and fall all around me, chickadees hang from nannyberry clusters. Cotton tufts bounce hurriedly away, attached to another of my prey whom I hunt only after a hard frost. Just when I'm giving up, an excited singing flutter erupts from beneath a feral apple tree, a shot is fired and the bird dies in mid air and falls into the brittle and brown goldenrod. After the bird is found, apologies are made and its beauty is appreciated as it is turned over in hand. This is when I start to think about supper. But not for several days, they say it is best to age a Woodcock under cool conditions. 

 "...not eyes to dwell on if one intends to keep hunting."
                                      -Guy de la Valdene, Making Game: an Essay on Woodcock

 Aged several days unplucked in the refrigerator. With the wings removed, the bird is plucked of all feathers but those on the head. Some sources say to remove the gizzard by slicing between the first rib and thigh on its right side. Once found, try to skewer it out. This appeared too painstaking and since only a few books mentioned this I figured it was unnecessary.  The neck is stretched down to pierce the two legs, trussing the bird.

They are basted in butter or lard and roasted at high heat, 475 F for 13 minutes. Once removed I spooned out the trail where I found the gizzard and removed it then. I then added the trail to a small skillet with leeks, a dollop of butter and splash of red wine. Simmered for about 10 minutes it turned mostly into a paste. The only thing that was left recognizable were the hearts.

 The flesh of Woodcock is divine. This one was shot in late October making it buttery-fat. The breast meat is deep red, like duck. I've heard many say it tastes like liver and read that if it does, you are cooking it wrong. The legs are white meat and were creamy and oily from the fat reserves it was building for its great migration to the south.

Trail-on-toast. The results were good. It very rich and earthy. A bit of an iron flavor that was expected. A little mealy like the texture of liver, but I like liver.

The finale. Spreading the beak apart, the skull is broken, revealing the brain which is then scooped out with the lower mandible, and eaten. With relish, mind you.

 The brain proved excellent. Very creamy and buttery, rich and hearty.
Well, there you have it. Waste not, want not. La becasse complete. 

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