Grey partridge is our native feral bird and immeasurably better than the commercially reared and released French, or red-legged, variety. I find the French are generally not at their best with game dishes, often cooking the animal when it is too fresh. We have some of the best game in the world, but it is often spoiled by over-hanging and undercooking. If the French are often guilty of under-hanging, the British aristocracy’s continuing love affair with rotten game beggars belief and should be ranked alongside Bombay Duck as a national culinary perversion. Partridges are expensive, but this combination of British game at its best cooked in the traditional French way with cabbage - which is much easier to do than it sounds - simply cannot be bettered. This technique applied to the British Grey makes a classic and delicious combination.
Preheat the oven to its highest setting • Peel and dice the carrots, celery and onion finely into a brunoise • Cut the cabbage in half, cut out the base stalk and coarsely shred the leaves. Wash them and spin dry • Cut the pancetta into lardon strips but do not blanch.
Melt a little of the duck fat or butter in the roasting pan and roll the partridges in this to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper and roast on their sides for 7-8 minutes. Turn to roast on the other side for the same time. Remove from the oven and put to cool (leaving the oven on if intending to finish rather than hold).
Melt the remaining fat in the large casserole and sauté the pancetta lardons over a medium flame for 3 minutes, stirring constantly. Add the vegetable brunoise and continue to sauté for another 3 minutes, until the vegetables start to colour. Add the cabbage but do not stir. Turn the heat down low and press the cabbage down into the pot It will be very full to begin with, but the cabbage will shrink down as it steams over the pancetta and brunoise mixture.
Cover and cook for 5 minutes. Stir, cover again and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the juniper berries and ground black pepper but no salt (because the pancetta is already imparting its salt to the dish).
Push the partridge into the cabbage, breast sides up, so they are half buried. Pour the stock over the cabbage. Grease a piece of foil with duck fat or butter and cover the birds loosely so the breasts do not burn.
Holding Point - the dish can be held for several hours at this point.
Put to heat in the oven for 15 minutes to complete the cooking process.
Serve a bird per person on its own bed of cabbage. Large hot plates, please. No need for any further sauce as the cabbage will be moist enough. Finger bowls will indicate to your guests that they should use their hands to finish every morsel of the partridge.
© 1993 Alastair Little and Richard Whittington estate. All rights reserved.