The Countryman's Weekly

Risky woodcock

June 30
15:29 2015

DO you leave the guts in place when cooking your woodcock? The entrails intact and completely un-eviscerated to be grammatically correct. There is a well known tradition of cooking woodcock with the entrails in place, roasted whole and served up on some toast or bread to soak up the juices.

I do, however, wonder how popular a means of cooking and consuming woodcock it actually was and more importantly, actually is. Do you know of anyone who regularly or has ever cooked his or her woodcock in this way?

I have only ever come across two fellow enthusiasts who did so in over 50 years of shooting woodcock. Both were adamant that the resulting dish was delicious. Nevertheless, it is a method that has never appealed to me even though my wife would describe me as less than squeamish when it comes to eating all manner of hunted and gathered game, wildlife, fruit and fungi.

The thought of eating liquidised worms, the woodcock’s predominant food source, doesn’t exactly make me salivate with anticipation. Having cleaned hundreds if not thousands over the years I have a particular image of woodcock intestines fixed in my head. They are white and coiled.

I joyfully and easily eat all manner of shellfish from gulper clams to mussels much to the astonishment of my children. I cannot, however, bring myself to eat woodcock with the trail left in place to cook and the juices to run free.

I found a recipe on the internet for ‘flambe woodcock’ where after cooking them whole with the guts intact the entrails were scooped out and mixed with bacon, olive oil, mustard, port, and lemon juice to make a puree.

The puree and woodcock are then warmed in a frying pan for a few minutes before tipping cognac over and setting alight. Simple as that and it is apparently delicious. Other cooks roast the bird intact then scoop out the ‘trail’ into a hot pan, add some red wine and seasoning and spread on bread or toast when heated.

Taking this a step further, woodcock are also cooked not only with the guts in place but with the head on as well. After cooking, the head is split open and the brains eaten. Why on earth do we, or did we, do these kinds of things with woodcock? We do not practice such culinary rituals with other species such as mallard or pheasant do we?

They are served up in this manner at some of the posh London restaurants and are not cheap either costing around £30 for a serving. The brain of the woodcock is comparatively small but said to be delicious. For my part I am more impressed at how it enables this enigmatic bird to perform in terms of flight and migration. A functionally perfect little brain I would say.

Jessup Whitehead, who wrote The Stewards Handbook and Guide to Party Catering in 1903 had this to say about the woodcock: “To no other bird do we pay such homage.” He goes on to explain: “The choicest bit is the head, the thigh is finer, the trail considered superlative.”

Other than his reference to the thigh I cannot agree, but my grandfather would have I am sure. He ate not just the body parts of the rabbits he shot but also cooked the heads and ate the flesh off them and also ate the brains.

Thankfully for my part I have only inherited his love of shellfish and shooting. However, not everyone is convinced that eating woodcock un-eviscerated is a good or safe idea.

Earlier this year I was asked to provide expert opinion to a piece of qualitative research being carried out on behalf of the Food Standards Agency for Scotland (FSAS).The research looked at the risks associated with eating un-eviscerated gamebirds.

This assessment was undertaken by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency and was qualitative in that it gathered mainly opinion rather than scientific fact.

The risk assessment did not in fact pathologically examine the actual guts of any specimens of the species included. My input was restricted to woodcock. The project assessed the microbiological risks of six key pathogens (bacterium, virus or disease causing agent) from eating un-eviscerated small gamebirds.

This risk assessment included nine bird species which were: snipe, woodpigeon, woodcock, mallard, teal, widgeon, grey partridge, red legs partridge, and quail. Quite a surprising list from my perspective as the only one known to me to be eaten ‘guts in place’ is the woodcock.

This is a large report of some 148 pages so I am only dealing with the main points as I see them from the perspective of the game shooter who is also the consumer. The risk for each species was considered in relation to six pathogens of which most are unheard of by the ordinary shooting person.

The pathogens were: Campylobacter, Salmonella, Escherichia coli, Toxoplasma gondii, Chlamydophila psittaci, and Listeria. The final report became available in late-September 2013.

The assessment concluded that “Large outbreaks of infection among UK consumers due to small gamebird production and consumption are unlikely, sporadic infections may occur due to combinations of ‘rare event hygiene-related issues’ in the field-to-fork chain”.

This is an interesting suggestion as it draws attention to the absolute need for good practise in terms of handling and storing game on shoot days. A bit less helpful is the ill-founded comment that “the heaping of birds in the game cart could result in both cross contamination and the growth of pathogens due to body heat maintained by the close proximity of the birds”. Where on earth did that idea come from? When did you last see a heap of pheasants on the floor of the game cart?

All of the shoots that I have been on in the last ten to 15 years have game carts built to hang the birds in plenty of space and airy to boot. I even use a belt mounted game carrier for my woodcock on rough shooting days. For woodcock the risk of infection to the consumer is deemed to be very low.

In my estimation and I made this known to the research team, consumption of un-eviscerated woodcock is a minority culinary practice amongst rough shooters but it may be fashionable in some restaurants. Most people I know gut them and clean them within a day or two of hanging them in a cool vermin/pest free environment.

As I mentioned, this was a qualitative piece of research with little hard fact available to it to draw upon. There was little previous statistical analysis available to it too let alone actual examination of the birds themselves as there was no laboratory testing.

I was somewhat surprised at the list of species too. I have no knowledge of any of them other than woodcock and perhaps snipe being cooked and consumed with guts in place. However, the authors of the report are of the opinion that even though they were unable to find evidence of other species being eaten un-eviscerated this cannot be taken as an absence of such consumption.

The report concluded: “We are unable to find evidence of human consumption of un-eviscerated birds other than woodcock and snipe in the UK. However, there was also not sufficient evidence to conclude that these birds were never consumed un-eviscerated in the UK.”

This is where I become confused as a mere social scientist. No evidence becomes some evidence? It seems to be a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

The report also suggested that it was likely there was a greater risk from some eviscerated gamebirds than there was from un-eviscerated ones. Readers with more time and resilience than me have can read the report for themselves on the FSAS website.

I would love to know who it was that thought this piece of research was worth pursuing. In the meantime, I guess it is safe to suggest you carry on as normal, if eating woodcock with the guts in place can be considered as normal let alone safe. The mind boggles!

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