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The Questionable Ethics of the Grouse Game

How glorious is the Glorious Twelfth?

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Roasted grouse and game chips

Last Saturday was The Glorious Twelfth; the official start of game season. This is a very special time of year for chefs and food writers: check Tom Parker Bowles, positively tumescent at the thought of it, superior “to the first thrusting spears of asparagus or the native oyster's wobbling folds” (yeesh); marvel at how a brace in a pan can get the usually dour Tom Kitchin “buzzing” enough to cringingly exclaim “#loveit” on Instagram. Game is ennobled above pretty much every other source of protein in the vocabulary of chef-icons like Fergus Henderson, Brett Graham and Mikael Jonsson; the most toughly authentic of the things we can find to eat in these British Isles.

Grouse is the ur-text of self-sufficient, robustly rural meaty Englishness, which means the Glorious Twelfth is big business. It’s grist for the PR mill of course, which means it’s also good news for content-mines: here’s a guide, and here’s a guide, and here’s a guide. But mainly it’s huge for restaurants themselves, a welcome reason to put bums on seats at the tail-end of summer. Currently, scores of freshly killed birds — once plucked, not much bigger than a fist — are in transit to some of the grandest, most impressive kitchens in the country. On arrival, one of two fates await them. Either the modish tweak — how do tandoor smoked breast or geometrically perfect pithivier sound? — or the much-vaunted classic preparation favoured by (among others) The Ritz: cursorily roasted so still pink, then served with game chips, watercress, bread sauce, and a trencher of toast basted in the bird’s juices, anointed with a paste made from its offal.

Let’s peel back the layers on that dish. First, sourcing: what speaks more indelibly of terroir, more romantically of billowing heather, than a noble beast we have hunted on its native moors and killed ourselves? And that method: simple, direct — with a respectful touch of nose-to-tail. Finally, the flavours: at once subtle and eye-openingly intense (the watercress; the legs, unless it’s a very young bird; that toast). A classic, right?

Well. Just one second. Does conferring “classic” status on something mean it is protected, forever, from reappraisal? At the risk of sucking all the joy out of the subject — and rendering this exhaustive guide moot — is it reasonable to ask a question that The Guardian recently did of “classic” TV shows? Is the industry’s #fave... problematic?

First, sourcing. The myth that the huntin’-shootin’ lobby manages to sort-of sell is that they are decent, bluff old chaps who don’t go out expressly to kill things on a Sunday; that they are preserving moors and with them a whole ecosystem. But as multiple activists have argued, the impact of shooting on a landscape forcibly denatured of raptors and other predators and reconfigured to maximise numbers of red grouse is nothing short of devastating.

And that method: surely a holdover from the dark old days when all we could do was roast things; a wonderful way to get the best out of a chicken or a baron of beef, but moronic with something as lean as a game bird. Representative now, therefore, of a wilful, intractable stubbornness, a blind loyalty to the old ways — even when the old ways are entirely unfit for purpose.

Finally, the flavours. Side of bread sauce: the nursery-foodiest food imaginable, the sort of thing you’d spoon-feed a senescent aristocrat. Then, the meat. No two ways about it: grouse leg and grouse offal are challenging on the palate. Not “challenging” like an olive or an anchovy (a burst of something intense), but properly, eye-openingly confrontational: a lingering, faecal taint that comes as a genuine shock to the uninitiated.

Of course, this is not how the pro-game lobby sell it: the meat, we are told, is “sweet”; a bird that has been hung too long is not “rancid”, but “high.” These euphemisms get to the root of the problem, really. Game is an us-and-them thing, something only chosen initiates know intimately enough to enjoy. As Eater’s own Helen Rosner has observed, making your guests feel small by displaying this sort of attitude is precisely the opposite of hospitality, but it’s hardcoded into the grouse experience, as Bill Buford recognises in this passage from Heat:

In England there is a practice that involves hanging a bird on a hook until it grows so rotten it tears in half. This is just before the maggot stage (unless you’re unlucky and it’s just after). The rotten thing is then served rare with considerable bravado: you think you like game? (Chuckle, Chuckle.) I’ve long suspected a conspiracy. Unlike the United States, where hunting is usually done by the less affluent, shooting in Britain is the pastime of people who own the land. What better way of fending off outsiders than giving them an occasional taste of what they’re missing, so repellent they won’t be tempted to go back for more when the landlord isn’t looking?

It is possible to ignore the conspiracy theory but still get the broader subtext: that grouse represents conservatism, asymmetry and exclusion. Traditional, deeply Little English, and suggestive of the things the self-appointed guardians of England’s so-called national identity hold dear: the consolidation of land and wealth into the hands of the very few; an associated act of myth-making that links what it means to be English with maintaining a system that drove that consolidation in the first place.

Grouse is one of many myths. Cooked well, it is undeniably delicious, although that is beside the point: food is never just about the eating. Being a responsible consumer in 2017 entails doing so with open eyes; recognising that sometimes the most enjoyable and rarefied things that are eaten come with a not-so-hidden ethical and political subtext. Foie gras means something; abalone means something; Bluefin tuna means something. This August, London could ask what it wants grouse to stand for, too.