We are learning to love grouse hunting in Northwest Montana. This post summarizes everything that we’ve learned to date including the hunt, options for field dressing, plucking, drawing, prepping, and cooking. The post concludes with suggestions for how to serve these wonderful game birds, suitable sauces, and candidate side dishes. And this is just the start. We’ll be updating this post as the month goes on and we learn more.
Mention grouse to game bird connoisseurs and they will usually wax rhapsodic concerning the Glorious 12th of August, the starting date of the shooting season in Northern England and Scotland for the fabled red grouse. From late summer to early December shooting parties, bolstered by pre-hunt hot toddies and accompanied by beaters, loaders, dogs, and their handlers stalk the upland heather for these prized and difficult-to-kill Galliformes that can reach 80 miles per hour in just a couple wing beats.
Not only are there centuries of tradition associated with grouse hunting and cuisine in the UK, but it represents serious money for struggling rural economies. A shooting party of eight can expect to spend about $10,000 a head for a day-long hunt when factoring in accommodation, guide and support staff commissions as well as tips, ammunition, food, and drink. And this tally does not even reflect shooting couture, which is often Saville Row bespoke and quite spendy. In macroeconomic terms, grouse hunting alone contributes $80 million a year towards jobs for rural UK hospitality and entertainment workers. For those simply inclined to partake of red grouse served in UK restaurants starting on August 12 with birds shot that morning, expect to pay $60 and up for a roast grouse with the traditional accompaniments (not including other courses, wine, or tip, but often goosed even higher by means of a “grouse supplement”).
As you might imagine, we do things a little differently in Northwest Montucky (that’s Northwest Montana to you). Our season runs from the Sublime September 1st to New Years Day. To quote Subsistence Man (Whole Trout with Bacon and Eggplant Stuffing): “We pay our taxes for September.” During this magic month, the forest fires abate (pretty much), the flatlanders leave, the bugs die, the aspens and larches start to turn, and it’s the start of “chicken season.”
We have relied heavily on Subsistence Man’s knowledge throughout the years for all things hunting and fishing in Montana. This photo is of Subsistence Man harvesting onions from his garden. Note, however, that his gun (far left corner) is never very far away, neither is the PBR.
Although the red grouse is unique to the moors of Scotland and northern England, Montana boasts no less than six species of these nice crunchable birdses. In our neck of the woods the spruce grouse (falcipennis canadensis) is by far the most prevalent and easy to shoot, as the nickname “fool hen” signifies. Sprucies gather on roads and trails in the early morning and evening to ingest gravel, which helps them digest their omnivorous diet, giving hunters plenty of opportunity.
We do not employ gamekeepers, loaders, beaters, or other euphemistically named servants to shoot chickens. Growing up in Montucky, here is what I always heard you needed to kill grouse: a truck, a firearm (or a bow or a rock), and plenty of PBR. One is supposed to drive slowly down a dirt road where conifers (particularly spruce trees) grow to the very edge of the road until one spots a dark shape on the road. Drive the car very slowly to within 25 feet or so of the birds. If they are fool hens (as opposed to ruffed or blue grouse) this is not really hard to do.
What’s actually difficult is to avoid running over them if you are going too fast (note: it is illegal to hunt upland game birds with a vehicle in Montana, although in neighboring Wyoming they reportedly use tactical nuclear weapons—in either event crushing or nuking a chicken seriously limits your culinary options post-hunt).
Once close to the sprucies, you’re supposed to get out of your vehicle and use the door as a gun prop (you should have the window down already so as to listen for birds roosting in trees beside the road as you drive) or walk forward slowly to get even closer to the target(s).
Mago Reality: The only problem with this approach is that there are only three places where one can shoot grouse around here: on your own property, on a friend’s property with permission, or on Forest Service property. Given that it’s illegal to shoot from the road on Forest Service property (or drink alcohol while you’re driving), the tactics described above only work on your own or a friend’s property. What you can do on Forest Service property (without the PBR) is walk disused access roads and achieve the same results, just with a little more effort.
If there are more than one sprucie gobbling down gravel, shoot one at a time starting with the closest one—the others will either freeze or fly into a nearby tree and then freeze. With a little practice you should be able to nail multiple birds with a shot or two each.
Dogs are optional, but are sometimes pressed into use by those who own and train them. If you hear grouse in the woods, either clucking or making a thunderous sound as they fly, a dog can be sent to locate them and then flush them into a tree from which they can be dispatched. The best dogs then return the shot bird to their master intact.
Mago Tip: If you don’t have a dog, then have a partner perform dog-like duties. I am excellent at spotting the birds, flushing them, and retrieving them while Patti does the shooting. I even have a military-grade laser pointer to do the spotting. In addition, I do what no dog can – I pluck and cook them. See more on this below.
As you might be able to guess from the contrasting approaches to grouse hunting described above, it’s a lot cheaper to hunt the beasties in Montucky. While our trans-Atlantic cousins drive to their rough shooting rituals in high-end Range Rovers, most of our trucks are pretty much 50% duct tape. As for hunting regalia, both male and female Montucky units are stylin’ with any piece of clothing that has a Carhartt logo on it. It’s preferable that one’s pants in particular are in that wonderful, “rotting off your body” stage that they take on after a summer of working, hiking, floating, and fishing.
Once you have shot your grouse (in our area the bag limit for spruce and ruffed is 3 per day per license, 12 possession in aggregate), then the question becomes what to do with it? This is multi-part query that begins with how to field dress your birdeses. Below are the three basic approaches:
Warning: The following information on cleaning and plucking is very explicit. Folks who have a weak stomach for such things might want to skip to The Feast.
Red necks that have destroyed their palates with dip and crown favor this approach. Place the bird breast-up on the ground, step on each wing near the body, then grab the feet and pull upward. The legs, back, skin, feathers, and entrails will pull away, leaving a clean grouse breast laying on the ground with the wings attached. Then cut off the wings. Discard everything but the breasts.
MagoGuide considers this approach to be reprehensible culinary wastage, and for larger upland game birds, such as the endangered spruce grouse, it is flat out illegal. The argument in favor of breasting is that a grouse breast contains nearly all of the bird’s edible meat with a minimal amount remaining on the very tough thighs and legs. This is mendacious nonsense, as we will demonstrate below.
Montucky multi-taskers use this method. Say you are driving to a trailhead in September for a 6 hour plus hike. Might as well take a firearm and shoot chickens along the way, right? The problem is that what are those sprucies going to do while you hike? Well, if they remain intact for many hours, even in a cooler with ice, you risk ruining the meat, because once you shoot game it should be field dressed and cooled down as soon as possible to avoid spoilage.
The solution is skinning the bird on the spot. Hold the bird in both hands facing you with your thumbs on its breast. You can easily tear the warm skin open on the breast where it is particularly thin and then proceed to peel the bulk of the skin and feathers off the carcass. This process exposes the croft near the base of the neck where undigested food (usually spruce needles, why do you think we call ‘em spucies anyway?), which should be discarded. Once the skin has been removed, cut open the membrane between the bottom of the breast and the anus and pull the guts out of the bird. Be sure to leave the liver and heart in the body cavity or place them in a separate bag and put them on ice in the cooler. Cut off the grouse’s head, feet, and wings beyond the first joint. Place the skinned carcass in a zip lock bag on ice in the cooler until you get it home where you can cook it or freeze it.
This approach saves all the useful meat on the bird, but it makes cooking it more difficult later on. The skin is the only source of fat on these very lean, all-dark meat birds, and of equal importance, the skin keeps the underlying meat juicy by forming a seal during cooking. The upshot is that a skinned bird will require brining and barding if there is any hope of serving it medium rare in all its glory while keeping it tender and juicy, and even then the results are probably not going to be as good as a skin-on oven roasted bird.
At MagoGuide, we believe that if you take an animal’s life you are obliged to utilize every bit of the creature that you can and to make of it such a repast that it will please at least the goddess Addephagia if not PETA acolytes. In order to do this with grouse of any kind, you must have as much intact skin on the carcass as possible. Intact skin requires plucking. Up until now we have been using the skinning technique to decent effect, but the purpose of this post is to determine the best use of one’s extra time to prepare and cook the birds in a traditional grouse dinner as it is served in the Old Country.
Plucking is a culinary subgenre in and of itself. It will not surprise many readers to learn that each approach has its devotees, who swear that theirs is the only way to accomplish the task and that all the others are not only sub-standard but also absolutely doomed to fail spectacularly. MagoGuide decided to conduct an experiment in which four sprucies received three very different plucking approaches and then to compare them.
Some preliminary steps, however, are important to any plucking approach. First, do not try to combine your hunt with any other activity; grouse must be plucked as soon as possible. Secondly, with the first rule in mind, do your hunting in the morning. This will increase your chances of bagging multiple chickens as well as giving you the rest of the day to pluck, draw, and prepare your birds. So shoot your birds during the 1 to 1.5 hour prime time slice of the morning (roughly 8:30 AM to 10 AM, depending on local sunrise and topography), put them in zip locks on ice in a cooler, and head home as soon as you bag your limit. Note: there is no mention of gutting them at this point. In fact, you do NOT want to gut them. You want the whole bird intact.
There are three plucking variations: dry, wet, and freezer.
Dry plucking must be done as soon as possible after a kill. Aficionados of this approach insist that the birds must be plucked as soon as they stop flapping. This has not proved practical for MagoGuide. Even for the culinarily obsessed, the excitement of the hunt and the fact that one has at best 90 minutes of prime shooting time make it difficult to call a halt to proceedings for the length of time it takes to pluck one or more birds.
Veteran dry pluckers would disagree because they say it only takes five minutes to pluck a grouse. This is clearly a muscle-memory skill that must be inculcated through multiple repetitions. Look dude, plucking OJT in grizzly country is downright dangerous, because bears treat gunshots as the functional equivalent of the dinner bell. You do not want to be holding something they like to eat with your hands covered in blood, guts, and feathers when they come investigating. For one thing you might have to choose between putting down that PBR and making a grab for the bear spray, or you might mistake one for the other in the heat of the moment with very regrettable consequences.
So at best you are going to initiate a dry pluck with a bird that has been dead for about an hour. My female sprucie had been singing with the choir invisible for about that amount of time when I began my dry plucking experiment. The first rule of plucking is not be in such a hurry that you pull more than one or two feathers at a time, otherwise you will break the skin and obviate the purpose of plucking. It is a two handed job wherein you anchor the skin in a taught hold with several fingers of one hand while pulling the feathers in the direction that they are growing from the skin.
There are two basic types of feathers on a grouse, quill-type and downy under-feathers. Quill-type feathers, which are on the wings, neck, each side of the breast, and the flanks of the bird, must be dry plucked with a quick snapping motion. Under-feathers, which are found mainly on the breast are removed by holding a small number between two fingers, anchoring the skin and then running the thumb of your anchor hand against the grain of the down, essentially rubbing them off the taught breast skin.
All dry pluckers call for starting with the back, wings, neck, and tail before proceeding to the breast. I found this rule counter-intuitive. The argument is that the breast is culinarily and visually the most important bit of the bird and thus demands extra care and time. True, but the whole point of dry plucking is to strip the grouse of its feathers while the skin is still warm and pliable—so why not do the most important and sensitive part of the skin first? In any event, I went for the breast first with my hen and was not sorry since it took over two hours to dry pluck the beastie and plucking became progressively harder as the bird cooled to ambient temperature.
I do, however, agree with the dry pluckers that the wings, neck, legs, and tail feathers are the easiest areas to de-feather. Their admonition that the “arm pits” where the wing joins the body are probably the most difficult to pluck without breaking the skin, however, is true as well . Finally, unlike wet plucking, best results are achieved using your bare hands since employment of latex exam gloves makes it impossible to anchor the skin with the required precision to avoid tears and obviates the thumb nail trick viz. the under-feathers.
Venue is important for dry plucking. It is best to do it outside with a trash can and bag set up so as to catch as many of the flying feathers as possible. You do not want to pluck or draw a bird in your kitchen if it can be avoided, since it makes one hell of mess and is olfactorily unpleasant at times. If you pluck outside in our neck of the woods, however, keep bear spray close to hand, especially if you engage in multiple pluck fests over the course of the season.
After two hours of dry plucking, I produced the nicest looking bird of the experiment, but the opportunity cost expended was simply not worth it. Also, the combination of a steep learning curve and the imperative to pluck as soon after a kill as possible makes it highly unlikely that I will utilize this method in the future. I suspect that it would take me at least ten birds to get under an hour per, and it would take many more to reach the claimed average of five minutes apiece that dry plucking experts toss off as if it were the equivalent of gutting a trout.
Wet plucking requires more equipment. You will need a pot large enough to submerge the grouse entirely and a means of heating water. If you have an inside workshop, prep-kitchen, or somewhere else inside that is not where you actually cook or your spouse is domiciled, these would be good places to wet pluck. I had the kit to rig an outside scalding station, so I added it to my dry plucking post. Once again, the bird detritus and a large pot of water steaming with essence de l’oiseau is a major bear attractant; so keep the bear spray handy and go easy on the PBR until after clean up, which must take place as soon after you are done plucking your last grouse as possible.
Wet pluckers all agree that the water temperature is important, because if you over-scald the skin it will rip very easily but if you under-scald it the feathers will be too hard to remove (and you will rip the skin as well). Unfortunately they do not agree on the grouseilocks temp, with recommendations running from 140 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (as in steaming but not boiling). I initially worked with the higher figure, but when I did it again I used the lower range, because while the skin did not tear, it was clearly scalded to a pale white and probably lost some of its occlusive culinary function, which was the point of plucking in the first place. Unfortunately, the lower figure made the plucking too difficult and I’ll have to reluctantly recommend a temperature closer to 160 degrees.
I used the most involved wet plucking instructions I could find. The first time, while the water was coming to heat (I used a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature), I added a couple tablespoons of dishwashing detergent, which supposedly decreases the surface tension of the water and allows it to penetrate the feathers more thoroughly. I tried this a second time, though, without the dishwashing detergent and couldn’t really tell a difference. I would call it optional.
Secondly, dunk the carcass headfirst and draw the bird backwards through the water while it’s submerged for 60 to 90 seconds (I used the latter) in order to force the heated liquid through the feathers and under the wings.
Third, place the bird on a thick section of newspaper, soak two sponges in the hot water, and tuck one under each wing. Fourth, roll up the drenched sprucie with the sponges and wrap it in a plastic trash bag to help retain the heat and moisture. Fifth, let the bird steam in this fashion for 20 minutes. On another occasion I tried leaving this step out and discovered that it’s very important. Don’t skip it.
Do I need to add that if you live in the wilderness interface, leaving one or more such bundles unattended outside for 20 minutes is a good way to serve grouse to any number of predators? Finally, unwrap the bird and begin plucking.
I had originally thought that wet plucking was best accomplished with latex exam gloves, because a lot of it involves basically rubbing feathers off the scalded skin, and unlike dry plucking you remove the quill feathers with a slow and steady pull rather that a quick snap of the wrist. The next time I plucked, however, I tried it without the gloves and found that the extra sensory cues from bare fingers really worked best.
Once again wet plucking advocates call for tackling the breast last, and once again I found this approach counter-productive—always pluck the breast first when the skin is warmest, wet or dry. Other than that, wet plucking proved much easier than dry, especially for the very tender parts of the breast, wing pits, and neck.
I found I could pluck an individual bird in 10-to-15 minutes after unwrapping it. With practice, I am confident that I can reach the 5-minute optimum cited by pluckers of all stripes. In fact, the main problem I discovered in wet plucking was the location of the entry and exit wounds. Whatever your lethality preferences (fire arm, bow and arrow, stick, rock), aim for the head or neck, never the body of the grouse. The photo above shows the dry plucked grouse on the right and the wet plucked grouse on the left. The perfect culinary shot is the back of the neck just above the shoulder blades (the grouse on the left). This is the same shot utilized in innumerable thrillers where a sniper takes out her target by severing the spine at the base of his neck. Every wound below the head complicates the plucking process, especially in the breast and innards (the grouse on the right).
The final defeathering method I tried was freeze plucking wherein a drawn (gutted) bird is frozen headless but otherwise intact with its feathers on.
It is very important to remove all the air in whatever medium you freeze the bird. I utilized our vacuum sealer for the purpose. Freeze plucking advocates claim that wild fowl will last 6 to 8 months frozen in this manner. To pluck the bird, remove it from the freezer and let it thaw for an hour before starting to pluck. At this stage the meat will still be frozen but the skin thawed to the extent that plucking is expedited.
My only issue so far with this approach is that the sprucie must be drawn with all its feathers on. This is a messy and unpleasant process even for the culinarily obsessed. There are many good reasons for the traditional order of kill, hang, pluck, draw, singe, and cook, and I found one by jumping the queue on gutting. Since I had three plucked grouse by this point and wanted to move on to recipe testing, I will compare freeze plucking to the dry and wet approaches in an update to this post (see below).
Ok, we have three nicely plucked birdses to prep and draw. This can be done in the kitchen, but again a separate or outside prep area would be better with respect to marital harmony. Having plucked the wings only to the end of the first joint, cut off the rest of the wings and discard. At this point, many recipes call for singeing the bird with a culinary torch to remove any remaining hairs or feathers. I did not find this step necessary even with the dry plucked bird, but it is probably intended for older and bigger grouse than our sprucies.
Now it is time to show up those who claim that grouse leg and thigh are too tough to trouble with for the wastrel poltroons that they truly are. Use a heavy-bladed French chef knife to break the bone between the claw and the end of the drumstick on each leg. Hold the claw at the end of the leg, then twist and pull to extract the tough leg tendons. The leg-thigh combo has just morphed from inedible to the best bit o’ the bird.
MagoTip: I had originally read that you needed to cut off the claw before the twist and pull, but discovered that the claw actually provides a lot of gription. So on subsequent birds I left the claw on and the tendon extraction worked out much better.
Now decapitate the grouse, but leave the whole of the neck attached to the body. Lay the grouse breast down and slit the neck skin from the carcass to the point where it had so recently been attached to the head. It’s now time to draw the bird.
This is a two-step process straight out of a D-rated zombie movie, and thus not for the faint of heart or constitution. Carefully (you have already allocated a non-trivial fraction of your only life to keeping that skin intact, so do not blow it now) pull back the neck and upper breast skin to expose the gullet and crop, which are located at the intersection of the lower neck and upper breast. The crop is where the bird’s pre-digested food is stored while it ingests gravel for its gizzard so as to promote digestion. Sprucies almost always have a bunch of spruce needles in the crop. Discard both crop and gullet. Leaving the skin over the neck attached to the carcass, cut out the neck and retain for stock. Cut around the V-shaped wishbone and pull it out.
Now comes the truly less-than-salubrious bit. Turn the bird on its back and use a pair of kitchen scissors to snip out the anus, making a small slit through the skin to the tip of the keel-bone. Insert two fingers inside the carcass and extract the innards, which consist mainly of the lower intestinal track and their nasty smelling contents. Take special care not to leave any organs inside, which could make the grouse taste bitter when cooked. Once you have the guts pulled out, reach back inside and extract the liver and heart. Save these for making the traditional pate accompaniment to roast grouse (I freeze them until I have a nice amount for this purpose). Wash the carcass thoroughly inside and out, pat dry and season the body cavity with salt and pepper.
The next step is barding, which actually boils down to covering the breast with bacon. All grouse recipes call for thin streaky bacon, which is good in that streaky is what we call bacon in the colonies, but bad in that you want the best quality bacon possible for these beasties and that means local and bespoke, which is inevitably cut too thick for this purpose. I used our current fave, peppered bacon from Perfect Cuts in Columbia Falls, but I pounded it out to about twice its original size before I barded the birdses, precious.
It is important to truss the bird (tie it up with butcher twine) so that the bacon stays in place while searing and the grouse cooks evenly in the oven. Turn the grouse on to its side and pull the split neck skin over the backbone. Stand the bird breast uppermost, with the triangular “pope’s nose” towards you. Slip the kitchen string underneath the tail end, bring it up, and fasten the string in a half-knot around the ends of the legs that pulls the exposed belly cavity together. Slip the two ends of string between legs and breasts. Hold one end secure. Twist the other around the carcass twice on top of the stretched neck skin. Lay the grouse on its breast and tie the two ends of string together. Trussing small barded birds can be a bit tricky, and initial efforts can certainly profit from two people working together.
At this point, the birds can be kept in a refrigerator for up to 48 hours before cooking. Whenever you do cook the grouses, however, it is critical that they be at room temperature. Take them out of the fridge at least an hour ahead of time (I usually let them come up to room temp for two hours).
During the prep we had to stop and admire a double rainbow that appeared above the cabin over Glacier National Park.
Even though the real purpose of this post was to test plucking techniques and recipes, it would not have made any sense to go to all this trouble without serving grouse with at least some of its traditional accompaniments. In this area alone, our UK cousins are streets ahead of us. In Montucky most sprucies end up on the barbie or the breasts are pan fried solo. Either approach yields a dry and tough repast. I chose a menu of roast grouse with bread sauce, grouse gravy, game chips, and a very untraditional Caesar salad that was nonetheless made in classic fashion with raw duck egg yolks and plenty of Sicilian salt cured anchovies.
Stuff each bird with a small bunch of fresh thyme, rosemary, and a bay leaf and season them all over with salt and pepper. Heat pure olive oil or vegetable oil in a pan that will just hold all the birdses you intend to cook. Do not use EVOO, because it has too low of a smoke point and will turn bitter during the searing process. Sear the birds on each side, then the back, and finally the top of the breast. You want nice caramelization on both the bacon and the exposed flesh of the bird.
In a restaurant, each bird is done in an individual pan and then popped into the oven. This is not practical for more than a couple grouse, so I seared three in a large non-stick skillet and then transferred the birds to a roasting pan.
Once I had the grouse in the roasting pan, I deglazed the searing skillet with red wine and poured the results into the roasting pan with the birds. At this point, most recipes call for pouring a small amount of brandy into the birds’ body cavities. We did not have any brandy to hand, but I found an excellent jar of Kentucky ‘shine that worked just fine.
Recipes are all over the place with respect to both oven temperature and the internal temperature associated with a medium rare bird. If you are going to sear and roast off any fowl or game, however, a very hot oven is generally the way to go. I found recipes calling for 250 degrees Celsius (482 Fahrenheit) and I can get pretty close to that in the top part of our Aga’s roasting oven. I ended up cooking the three grouses for about 12 minutes and when I do it again, I will back that off to 10 minutes or less depending on the size and age of the birds.
As a direct result of their sizes my three test birdses came out of the oven in a spectrum consisting of slightly pink to a genuine medium rare. All of them, however, were juicy and tender, especially for game birds. Note that the gamey taste of the bird is present in direct proportion to level of doneness, so you might want to adjust your cooking times given individual preferences, especially at a dinner party. Let the birds rest for 5 to 10 minutes while you prepare and finish the sauces.
Nigella Lawson calls bread sauce “every Briton’s sacred and stodgy inheritance”. It is indeed the single modern survivor of the panoply of medieval bread-thickened sauces that once graced the tables of Christendom from Ireland to the Austria. Indeed, some food historians trace bread sauce all the way back to ancient Rome. The British brought this frugal condiment (in that it uses up stale bread while providing a rich contrast to game birds) to the New World, where a recipe for roast partridge and bread sauce can be found in a cookbook published in 1860. Bread sauce is very easy to make and is a cornerstone of a traditional grouse dinner.
This recipe makes about six servings: Simmer 2.3 cups whole milk with a halved medium onion stuck with a clove impaling a bay leaf on each half until the onion is tender. Strain the milk into a clean saucepan and whisk in 4 ounces fresh white breadcrumbs (about four or five slices of white bread cut into quarter inch dice) until smooth. Off heat add 3 to 4 tablespoons of softened butter. Season to taste with salt, white pepper and nutmeg and/or mace.
While the birds are resting on a platter, place their roasting pan on a high flame and add red wine and stock.
I used a 2011 Villa Antinori and a home made triple moistened duck and chicken stock. Any game stock or dark chicken stock will work just fine. Be sure, however, to police up the carved carcasses after dinner and freeze them until you have enough to make genuine grouse stock for your next feed. Reduce the gravy volume by at least half over high heat.
Purests insist that you fry the game chips (pommes gaufrettes) a ‘minute and serve them hot and salted with the grouse and sauces. I found this great way to cheat and still get at least 95% of the game chip effect. Simply take salted Kettle Chips and warm them in a low oven (I used the Aga braising oven) while you sear, roast, and rest the sprucies. The resultant chips taste fresh fried to all but the most discerning diners. Do not, however, return uneaten chips to the pack since they will go stale in a couple hours after heating.
A Word on Wine
The classic accompaniment to roast grouse is mature claret, which, Dionysios be praised, we tend to have in abundance at Kitchen Stadium Montucky. We started with a bottle of Chateau Belgrave (Haut-Medoc) 1986, followed by a Chateau Beychevelle (St.-Julien) 1990. Both wines were excellent, exuding a leather and mineral terroir with dark fruit and tobacco notes that melded perfectly with the slightly gamey sprucies.
Updates to Follow
The results of our initial sprucie experiment were so good that we are going to be making updates next year with refinements and additions to our fool hen cuisine. We have a lot of skinned sprucies in the freezer, so the next head-to-head is going to involve brined and barded skinned birdses versus freezer plucked.
When we bag some more, I also want to see what hanging accomplishes. Although most chefs these days, to include Scottish ones, eschew hanging by insisting on young grouse for their kitchens, I still want to see if the taste is significantly different after hanging in a cool (50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit) area like one of our root cellars for 3 or 4 days.
I also want to add huckleberry catsup to the bread sauce and grouse gravy as an accompanying sauce. Additionally, I intend to serve the next bunch of sprucies each with a large crouton topped with a pate made from their livers and hearts (perhaps stretching and somewhat diluting the pate with additional chicken livers).
Finally, I want to mess around with presentation. As you can see, we just plopped the birdses on a plate and went at them. I think for guests at a small and elegant dinner party I will remove the breasts and leg-thigh combos and serve them sans carcass, but with that wonderful bacon. So keep watching this space for more juicy sprucie tips and recipes.