Although pizza is the most popular food in France, according to a recent study that shows that the French consume a total of 881 million pizzas a year (just behind the U.S. but ahead of Italy), that doesn’t mean that certain traditional meals have been abandoned.
My friend Richard invited me to “un dîner gibier” the other night, or a game dinner. This one was centered on game birds – perdrix (partridge), bécasse (snipe) and faisan (pheasant) – all caught by the husband one of one of the guests.
Hunting remains an important pastime in France (there’s even a television channel dedicated to hunting and fishing), though game dinners aren’t exactly common. At least not in Paris. Or at least not among most of my friends here. Perhaps more rarified French gourmets regularly dine on game (or even indulge in secret in feasting on the forbidden ortolan, their heads covered with a napkin as they slurp down the protected bird). But game has an important place in the country and in French cultural heritage. One of the results of the Revolution was the opening up of hunting to everyone, rather than being the privilege of the aristocracy. Hunting regulations have evolved over the years, but the French government maintains stringent hunting laws to protect the environment and wildlife. Snipe hunting is strictly controlled, for example, and a hunter must make a record of each snipe caught.
Now, I’m not interested in hunting of any sort. And my taste for game hasn’t really extended beyond venison on the rare occasion when it happened to be served at a formal dinner to which I’d somehow been invited. But Annie, whose husband caught these game birds down in Brittany where he spends most of his time, had long waxed dithyrambic over their flavor, and since she’d brought some of his latest haul up to Paris just to have her friends taste them, Richard organized a little dinner around these prized game birds.
So I accepted his invitation, even if I was a little squeamish, in my timid urban and uncountrified way, of eating something that had fed generations of French yet that I had never consumed. Like a lot of people who grew up in cities, I am far from where food is produced, and haven’t become accustomed to a wide variety of foods that other people in other cultures take for granted. I was recently in Singapore, and several of us had a quick lunch at a Chinese restaurant that served a steamed whole chicken, cut up, soggy skin and all, that the server had arranged in glistening pieces for our delectation (or disgust). Patrons all around us were happily eating every morsel in their bowls. I, on the other hand, could barely look at the chicken skin that lay in unappetizing flaps on my plate. So even roasted, crispy-skinned French game birds were something of a stretch for my provincial taste buds. I told myself, however, that I should try at least once something that had sustained so many people for so long.
Philippe prepared the birds à la nature, that is, quite simply – covering them with slices of bacon and roasting them. To accompany the game he’d made four different purees – celery root, carrots, squash and parsnip. He’d also put together a sauce of mushrooms with a bit of crème fraîche.
Philippe is familiar with cooking and serving game, but nevertheless he spent a good quarter-hour wrestling the little roasted birds into serving sizes, first with an unwieldy fork and knife, then with a pair of scissors. Finally, after a few minutes of listening to the surprisingly satisfying crunch of teensy bird bones being cracked, we were served, Philippe placing on each of our plates a portion of pheasant, snipe and partridge.
I tasted the snipe first. It’s called bécasse in French because of its long beak (or bec). I don’t know which variety of snipe this was (there are several in France), but it didn’t really matter, since it was most likely the only snipe I’d ever eat. It didn’t win me over. I guess you really have to grow up with certain game such as this to appreciate the particular taste of snipe. It was like eating savory wax – perhaps a faintly dirt-flavored candle that had been uncovered in a dusty drawer and then slipped into a stew made of crayons. The unfortunate little beast should have been left to fly about rather than end up unappreciated on a plate.
The partridge was a little like quail: a lot of work for not much meat. Philippe, almost like one of the Singaporean diners I’d observed the week earlier, happily extracted slivers of savory flesh from each little roasted bone. I gamely attacked my piece of game and managed to wrest a few strands of partridge from the half carcass on my plate. But I was helpless to clean the bones as the others had done. The pheasant, a larger bird, was easier for me to consume, and had a nice mildly gamey flavor that was good on its own or paired with the mushroom sauce.
“Les pauvres oiseaux,” my friend Jean said when I’d told him later about my game dinner. The poor birds. I agreed.
And although I guess I can say I’m glad to have tasted these game-bird delicacies, just this once, I actually preferred the vegetable purees.