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Upland Chef

Making Game: Inspired by a Classic

Some of my chef friends and I were recently sitting around discussing the age-old question, “With whom would we like to cook then eat dinner?”

Without missing a beat, I answered, “Guy de la Valdène, Russell Chatham, Nick Reens and Jim Harrison.” With all the ink de la Valdène got in the Autumn 2023 issue of UA, I had thought it was time to reread his Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock. So he was on my mind.

As we all learned in that issue, Making Game is fabulous on many levels, and for the woodcock cook the writing cannot be beat. The book’s opening salvo sets the table for what is to come: dinner at a posh restaurant in France where 10-year-old Guy is served woodcock for the first time as his father looks on. The bird’s feathered head is presented, brain exposed for the taking, dark and pungent trail smeared on toasted brioche, and by the end Guy picks the tiny bones clean with his fingers. Monsieur de le Valdène could not have known that young Guy would grow to love, worry about, hunt and cook these precious birds for almost the rest of his life.

Chef Gordon Hamersley has adapted to simplify this recipe for Woodcock Salmi found in Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock by Guy de la Valdène. (Photo/ Gordon Hamersley)

Great food writing comes in many forms and from many places. Harrison, MFK Fisher, Brillat-Savarin, Ruth Reichl, Joseph Wechsberg, Laura Esquivel, Haruki Murakami, Gabrielle Hamilton and Rick Bass are some of the best. Each in their unique way writes about food and cooking to great effect, making their pages simmer with mouthwatering goodness. Making Game fits right in this group because de la Valdène had a remarkable ability to elegantly communicate his love and passion for woodcock all the while writing clear, free-form cooking instructions.

Mind you, the kitchen and table never outshine his love of the hunt, and without ever actually answering the question directly, de la Valdène somehow solves for himself the age-old contradiction of why he hunts these birds at all. In addition, his science-based descriptions of woodcock habitat and how its loss threatens the plight of these tenacious migrants to find suitable places to live and multiply are top-notch. Guy visits wildlife biologists in 1983 from Michigan to Louisiana and hears why the decline in woodcock populations has been so rapid. Rereading these pages today, 40 years later, emphasizes that we still do not do enough to help these birds rebound.

But the thing that brings me back to these pages and makes this book different is de la Valdène’s skill in simultaneously weaving together pure hunting with the celebration of woodcock among his close circle of bird hunting friends in the kitchen and around their table. Harrison, Reens and Chatham make up the famous quartet of hunter/gourmands, and there is no dearth of culinary or for that matter artistic talent among this group.

Chatham did the illustrations for the book, and he perfectly captures the spirit of woodcock in flight, but my favorite image is the one of the setter on point: nose and tail frozen end to end, its body rock solid in mid-step.

Guy de la Valdène’s fabulously written descriptions of camp life, kitchen methods and alcohol indulgence are true to life and no style of writing might be harder to get right or is more welcome tobird hunters. He describes these simple pleasures perfectly. Close bonds that perhaps only hunting can ignite, accentuated by cooking, eating and drinking.

On most evenings, kitchen duties are shared over the course of the hours-long meals. On one particular night, Chatham starts things off with curried turkey. Then Harrison and Reens grill woodcock basted with butter and Worcestershire sauce, and de la Valdène finishes this four-hour culinary rock concert with racks of lamb infused with garlic, soy sauce and rosemary. After an appropriate “rest,” the night continues with a trip to the local town bar for shuffleboard, pool and the Playboy channel (of course they did!) and then, like Grateful Dead concerts in the 1970s which never seemed to end, back home for more food. This time it’s spaghetti and Italian sausage. Phew ... these boys knew how to party!

The next morning in the woods there is an acute awareness that a shotgun blast might not be the most welcome sound anyone wanted to experience.

While this is not a cookbook, it is surely a book for cooks. As soon as one ribald over-the-top dinner ends, you find yourself wondering when and what the band of uniquely talented, merry misfits will be up to in the kitchen next. And de la Valdène does not disappoint.

The best recipe is for woodcock salmi which he carefully details. Home cooks versed in basic French methods can easily follow along.

Salmi involves roasting or sautéing game birds, making a flavored sauce from the bones, wine and vegetables and then reheating and finishing the birds in the flavored sauce. The trail is often served as are the livers. It is ideal for game birds of all varieties especially wild duck. As with all recipes, adaptation is encouraged, so follow your own tastes and explore. Perhaps some wild mushrooms for added flavor and texture or some carrots and leeks or both. Just make sure the woodcock is cooked medium rare or it will taste like dry liver. Salmi is labor intensive, but in the spirit of de la Valdène, Harrison, Reens and Chatham, more time in the kitchen is really the point.

The respect for woodcock displayed by de la Valdène translates into how the birds are ultimately cooked, and for him the hunt does not end until it includes time in the kitchen and enthusiastic enjoyment of the quarry at the table among friends. This completes the hunting circle which should never be taken lightly and always enjoyed and savored.

When you next read <em>Making Game</em>, remember to slow down at the cooking sections. It’s a wonderful little book, and better food writing will be hard to come by.

SALMI OF WOODCOCK WITH CARROTS, LEEKS AND MUSHROOMS

Adapted from a recipe by Guy de la Valdène
This adaptation of de la Valdène’s recipe leaves out a few ingredients and changes a couple of directions for ease of preparation. Open a great bottle of wine to go with this classic French dish. Happy cooking!
INGREDIENTS

4-6 woodcock, plucked and gutted, livers reserved
2 chicken livers
4 tablespoons canola oil
3-4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
Salt and black pepper
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into ¼-inch rounds
1 large leek, root end and all but ¼-inch of the green end removed
3-4 ounces dried porcini and morel mushrooms
2-3 sprigs fresh oregano, 1 ½ teaspoons dried
2-3 sprigs fresh thyme or ¼ teaspoon dried

4-6 fresh sage leaves or ½ teaspoon dried
1 bay leaf
2 cups red wine
2 cups game bird stock or roasted chicken or beef stock
¼ cup brandy
2 tablespoons canned foie gras or goose liver pâté
4 slices of good quality bread, crusts removed, cut into triangles

DIRECTIONS

Using kitchen shears, remove the backbones from the woodcock and reserve. Flatten each bird and place in a baking dish or sheet pan in a single layer breast side up and cover with 3 tablespoons of the softened butter and a light sprinkle of salt and pepper. Leave to marinate for about 1 hour until ready to cook or in the refrigerator up to 3-4 hours.

Cut the leek into thin rounds and soak in water to remove excess dirt. Drain and rinse. Soak the mushrooms in hot water for 10 minutes until rehydrated. Drain and rinse. Reserve.

Heat the canola oil in a heavy skillet and add the woodcock backbones, carrots, leek, and mushrooms. Cover and cook over medium heat until the vegetables soften, about 8 minutes. Reserve a sprig of each herb and gather the remaining herbs and bay leaf into a small bundle. Tie with string and add to the skillet. Add the red wine and game bird stock and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer until the sauce is well flavored and reduced by about three-quarters. Reserve.

In a small skillet heat the remaining butter until it bubbles. Add the woodcock and chicken livers and brown for 2 minutes. Flame with 2 tablespoons of the brandy and let cool for 2-3 minutes. Add the foie gras and mash together using a wooden spoon. Add salt and pepper to taste and keep warm. Toast the bread in the oven or toaster.

Note: If the woodcock has been in the refrigerator, let it come to room temperature before proceeding.

Place the woodcock in the preheated oven for 8 minutes. The woodcock should be just pink (medium rare). If the skins need a bit more browning, raise the oven temperature to broil and place the pan on the top rack and color the woodcock skins, being careful not to let them burn. Remove from the oven to a warm spot and let rest while finishing the dish.

Remove the herb bundle and woodcock backbones from the sauce and discard. Add the remaining brandy, bring to a boil and cook until the sauce thickens slightly. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Note: If needed, you may thicken the sauce with an egg yolk as de la Valdène does or with a dash of cornstarch. If the sauce has reduced too much, add a few tablespoons of stock.

Serve on plates or a larger platter. Spread the liver mixture on each piece of toasted bread and place a woodcock on top. Spoon the sauce and vegetables over and around the birds and decorate with the reserved sprigs of herbs.

Gordon Hamersley

About author
Gordon Hamersley is the former chef and co-owner of Hamersley’s Bistro in Boston (1987-2014). He is a James Beard award winner (Best Chef Northeast) and an IACP (Bistro Cooking at Home) award winner. Currently, Gordon advises youth-oriented culinary nonprofits, writes about food for various publications and lives with his wife Fiona and their dogs in rural Connecticut.