Thursday, December 8, 2011

On Woodcock

One of the most fascinating and endearing creatures that inhabits our Wisconsin property is the American woodcock, scolopax minor.  It's a migratory bird that makes epic, apparently solitary journeys from the northern U.S. and southern Canada to more temperate climes--notably the Louisiana bayou country--in autumn, and back again in spring.  Considering that woodcock use their elongated bills to probe soft soils for insects, they return to our region remarkably early, often when there is still snow on the ground, and only the south-facing slopes have melted.  It's a curious strategy, it would seem, that leaves them vulnerable to late snows and cold snaps.  We've sometimes seen the weak, dazed birds staggering along the shoulder of the road, too feeble to fly, after a March or April storm has swept through.  Well, there must be some wisdom in nature's plan, as the species does manage to survive.

Once we've observed the first returnees in  March, we look forward to a spectacle that makes these birds both endearing and thrilling, comic as well as marvelous.  It's the mating behavior of the male woodcock (if you break the name down etymologically, it seems odd that there would be female woodcock, but there you go; I don't think I've ever heard or read the term woodhen).  Almost immediately upon arriving in their northern breeding grounds, the males of the species stake out territory in an open space.  It is here that, each night through the spring--sometimes into early summer--Mr Woodcock does his mating dance.

It's a circular dance, somewhat arduously accomplished in the dry grasses in our fields, the moreso because a woodcock is a rather stout, short-legged creature.  That adds to the comic aspect.  Then there's the peenting.  I didn't make that word up.  Peent is the term that ornithologists have come up with to describe the sound the woodcock makes as he toodles along in his roundabout dance.  It's a nasal utterance somewhere between a quack and a croak--well, just say the word peent, and give it a good Dylanesque twang.  Before we were aware of the source of this odd sound, we often heard it coming from the field on moonlit nights, and invented a mythical Bide-A-Wee beast, the duck-frog, to explain it.

But now for the thrilling part.  At some point in his dancing, peenting frenzy, the woodcock decides it's time for a change of strategy.  He takes flight with the twittering wing-flitter sound familiar to upland bird hunters, and streaks into the dusk; he follows a circling path in his flight, as well, soaring out of sight far up into the darkening sky.  And then he stops; stops at the apex of this climb, almost directly over the spot from which he flew, and descends, fluttering back and forth like a falling leaf, producing yet another sort of sound--what to call it, a sort of undulating whistle, fwoot fweet fwoot fweet fwoot fweet.  And he lands where he started from, and begins again.

Last spring one woodcock established his dancing ground on the hill just above our cabin, and I was able to creep up on him and observe his tottering progress through the grass.  More exciting still, his flight path on his ascent took him directly past the cabin's deck, so we could sit out and see him go past, try to follow his progess up into the evening sky, wait for the sound of the return to earth.  Perhaps I'm easily amused, but I couldn't get enough of it.

This behavior is supposed to stop, I suppose, when the woodcock attracts a mate--that's the whole point of it, after all, unless woodcock enjoy this sort of virtuosity for its own sake; and you know, now having mentioned that, I really hope they do, unlikely though it seems.  Well, our Bide-A-Wee woodcock, it appeared that he was destined to remain a lonely bachelor, for his peenting and dancing, his nightly flights, went on for weeks, both in the evening, and then again in the morning--it's brought on by a certain quality of the dusk and dawn light.  On nights of bright moon, it sometimes continued through the night.  At some point it stopped; whether he did attract a mate, or just felt his chance had passed, we'll never know.

Through the summer we rarely encounter woodcock on our property.  I assume they're still there, hiding back in the impenetrable thickets.  We come across them again in the fall, when the leaves start to drop, the meadow grasses to dry and recede.  And then of course, in the fall, it's hunting season.

We don't hunt birds on our land, though we have woodcock, grouse, the occasional pheasant and transitory turkeys.  We prefer to think of our little plot, just 20 acres, as a gamebird refuge--the partridge and timberdoodles need only deal with their natural enemies, foxes, owls, hawks, and what-have-you.  The flesh of these birds is delectable, but the pleasure of encountering them throughout the year exceeds even the delights of an excellent meal.

But we do hunt them, of course, in the public hunting grounds with which western Wisconsin is amply endowed.  I believe that the birds we find, in much the same cover that ruffed grouse frequent, are migrants.  As the winds turn to the north and temperatures drop, they come through in waves, and though they travel singly, from what I've read, they tend to congregate in liminal terrain at the edges of woods and marshland, or creek bottoms where damp soil provides them the nutrition needed to fatten up for the long flight south.  For a bird whose behavior and movements are famously mysterious, you can come across quite a lot of them in a day of hunting, especially with a pointing dog to assist.

I did not come across a lot of them this year, however.  Various circumstances conspired against my spending much time in the woods before the woodcock season ended in early November.  I shot one woodcock, one.  We made a point to savor it.

I'm a firm believer in the concept of terroir; I believe that the food of a place carries the taste of that place (I almost called this blog Taste of the Place, before switching to the more esoteric title).  And I believe that foods that occupy the same space, even if, say, one is a bird, and one comes from a tree, have a certain simpatico, partake of a sort of sympathetic magic that can create great synergy in the pot and on the plate.  Hence:  grilled woodock glazed with birch syrup.

I'd been trying for a couple of years to make birch syrup, which is produced in exactly the same manner as maple syrup.  In outline, it's simple--tap a tree, gather sap, boil it down, voila, birch syrup.  But birch trees aren't as free with their sap as maples, in my experience, and they run later than maples, too.  The warmer weather can bring problems--bugs in the sap, or spoilage if you don't check the bags frequently.  Last spring I finally gathered enough sap--just a couple of gallons--to boil down for birch syrup.

The sugar in birch sap is less concentrated than maple sap, therefore, more boiling down.  More boiling down means more heat applied to the sugars.  The result is something nearly as dark as molasses, though not so thick.  My entire yield of birch syrup, in two boilings, was probably shy of a cup, but intense stuff it was, once I tasted it.  It's nearly as sweet as maple syrup, but with an appealing, very slight bitterness, as of caramel just starting to burn.  There are also vegetal notes, a slightly spicy tingle, and a hint of menthol. 

I'm so accustomed to the taste of maple syrup, I don't really taste the wildness in it anymore.  But the taste of the wild is pronounced in birch syrup, and that, along with the darkness of it, took my mind's palate to another season, the autumn, bird hunting season, and I imagined the woodcock riding the lashing north winds down from Canada and into our region, finding a respite in our charismatic coverts, the scrappy edges of woods and marsh, among the dogwood, prickly ash, alders and hazel, flanked by islands of tall white pine, oak savannah remnants.  And I thought, if a woodcock or two wound up in my game pouch, that a fitting seasoning would be a brushing of birch syrup, an appropriately northern condiment, and suitably wild, to match the dark, gamy meat of the woodcock.

I do love a recipe with a nicely conceptual, geographical and seasonal basis.  I rarely sit down to write about food without recalling Lévi-Strauss:  Food is not only good to eat, but good to think about, as well.

Getting on to the food, then: the remnants of the  previous night's grouse dinner provided a very nice starter to our woodcock delectation (I can't really call it a feast, since one woodcock provides but a few bites of meat).  I diced up the leftover grouse breast, combined it with what was left of the potatoes and cabbage, added stock: a delicious soup that tasted like anything but leftovers.

To accompany the woodcock I made chestnut mash.  These beautiful chestnuts from Iowa are available at local co-ops now, and I can't get enough of them.  For this dish I:

Roasted, peeled, and coarsely chopped 15 chestnuts;
Sautéed a chopped shallot and 2 tablespoons of finely diced celery root in 1 tablespoon butter until the shallot was translucent;
Added the chestnuts, along with 1 tablespoon dried apple minced, and 1 small potato peeled and diced;
Then 3/4 cup of unsalted chicken stock and a generous pinch of salt.

I simmered that, covered, for around 40 minutes, then removed the lid and cooked it gently until most of the liquid was gone.  I should have a food mill out at Bide-A-Wee--it's a great, non-electric kitchen tool.  But I don't have one there yet, so my "purée" was produced with the back of a fork, leaving an appropriately rustic texture.  You could use a blender or food processer, too.

Then on to the woodcock, which I halved, simply seasoned with salt and pepper, and put on the grill.  It took just a few minutes per side, little bird that it was, and on the final turns I brushed it a couple of times with the birch syrup, which gave the skin an appealing burnish.

And when it came to eating, did it live up to all the forethought and verbiage?  You couldn't taste the birch so much on the breast portion, though it did lend a subtle sweetness.  On the legs, my favorite part of a woodcock, the flavor was more pronouced, and it was wonderful--both sweet and a little bitter, melding wonderfully with the fatty skin and savory meat.  This is the definition of a delicacy, to me.  There's a book out recently detailing the last-dinner-on-earth requests of famous chefs; they didn't ask me, dang it, but this would be mine: a plate of grilled woodcock thighs with birch syrup glaze.

Next time, next year, if all goes well, I'll have another try at this dish.  I would do it pretty much the same way, although I think I would reduce the syrup a bit to make a stronger glaze.  It's nice to have something to look forward to.

Here's a pretty good overview of all things timberdoodle.

Text and photos copyright 2011 by Brett Laidlaw


Teresa Marrone said...

Hey Brett--

Good post. Did you overhear what Sam was saying out at Bide-A-Wee, about a different method of making birch syrup? He puts a potful of sap on his woodstove and lets it evaporate, withOUT ever boiling. He claims it is far, far superior to the boiled product. Something to consider.

Carry on!

el said...

Such odd little things. I agree though they are tasty (my dad was a birder). I don't necessarily think they're to be found around here (grouse either come to think of it) but you did a great job eliding their true characters, plate-bound or otherwise. Love the birch syrup!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your description of the woodcock mating behavior. I once volunteered on a bird banding project with the renown ruffed grouse expert, Gordon Gullion, and we actually sneaked up on the woodcock, taking advantage of the fact that the bird is momentarily slightly dazed after this rapid zoom to the ground from the extreme height, understandably ! ... and captured them by hand, and banded them at that point. Our sneaking was done while the bird was spiraling upward, knowing it would come down about where it took off from. Strangely, it was so exciting I thought I might faint! A lot of quietly running, ducking and covering... hoping you didn't happen to duck and cover into a patch of poison ivy. Thank you for your post. It brought a great memory to me!

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Teresa: I did not pick up on that, though I was eavesdropping intently on you and Sam when I could! I'll certainly keep that in mind, though by the time our birches start to run, it has been warm enough that we don't have the stove going full time. It's something to try with the maple syrup, too.

Hey, El: I'll bet you have woodcock coming through your region, though they may not breed there. As for the grouse, I know that southeastern Wisconsin doesn't have great grouse habitat, so perhaps the same is true of SW Michigan. Yes, woodcock are delicious, but not well appreciated here, it seems. In many parts of Europe they are the non plus ultra of game birds, and hence of gourmet fare generally.

Anon., wow--that is a great story. I never considered that the 'doodles would be a little whacked out after that descent, but it makes sense. I just think the whole spectacle is one of the most amazing natural phenomena I've ever witnessed, and find it curious that it's not better known.

I meant to note in the post that much of what I know about woodcock comes from a superb book by Guy de la Valdène, "Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock". It's part natural history, part poetic appreciation, part over-the-top picaresque of heedless gourmandise--the inimitable Jim Harrison plays a major role in the last. I pull it out every autumn when those chill winds start to course from the north, and we anticipate the annual passage of the woodcock.

Cheers, all~ Brett

cjh said...

Another great post! "[L]eftover grouse," however, strikes me as a purely theoretical commodity.

But your description of birch syrup -- particularly its menthol note -- reminded me of this, whcih we used to have out East:

Trout Caviar said...

cjh: You gave me a chuckle; it did indeed feel odd typing "leftover grouse"! I polished off my portion, no problem, Mary left some meat on hers, and there was no way it was going to waste--made for a very nice soup, indeed.

I had some "birch beer" not long ago, but it was ersatz stuff, full of corn syrup, etc. Would love to taste the real stuff.

Cheers~ Brett