Bécasse — its the Season for Gourmets

In France woodcock season is an anxious wait for local hunters but even more so for gourmets who if lucky enough to get their hands on them, prepare the birds in foie gras, champagne and dozens of other expensive ways.

The elusive and much sought after woodcock

The hunting season writes our nature columnist Mike Alexander, starts mid-October and runs through to mid-February. Bécasse, as it is known in France, is a migratory bird that passes the summer months in Russia and it was once believed that they flew to the moon in the months when not found in France, thus depriving local menus of a great delicacy.

Here is how to cook the birds:

Bécasse are one of the most sort-after game birds in Europe, in part because they are so difficult to shoot. They are small, not much bigger than quail or pigeon, but they fly very fast and with a fluttering twist that requires extremely swift reactions on the part of the hunter. They are almost always hunted with the help of dogs which point to where a bird is sitting so that the hunter has a few seconds to prepare himself for that explosive burst as they leap from cover.

A hunter films his dogs:

The favourite hunting dogs are the English setter and the pointing Griffon and these are often trained exclusively for the bécasse hunt. It is also normal for dogs to wear old fashioned bells as opposed to the modern electronic devices which are frowned upon in what is a very traditional hunt. Indeed there are many other traditions to which the bécassier adheres. One of these is that he will religiously collect the small sharp feather, known as the plume du peintre, which the bird has on each elbow. These feathers are often framed along with a picture of the dog used in their hunting when said dog dies or retires.

Naturally, this being France, the hunting of these birds is interwoven with a complex gourmet tradition – an array of recipes that are closely followed in preparing the birds for table. Many regions have their own traditional secrets and each will swear that their own recette is the best while everyone elses’ are not worth considering.

Here in the Midi Pyrenees for example birds are hung for a few days and then, with their feathers removed but their heads still on, they are dangled over an open fire by their necks and allowed to slowly turn. As the bird cooks the intestines will ooze out and these are caught on a piece of toast, preferably made from two day old pain de campagne, which is then eaten as a highly prized starter. The remainder of the bird once roasted, is enjoyed as the main course.


Read all Mike Alexander’s gardening advice here and here


Alexander Dumas said : “You must pay great attention to giving forks to the guests in the fear that they could devour their fingers if those touched the sauce.”

It is not possible to buy bécasse on the open market and so you really need to know a hunter if you are going to sample this delicacy, widely agreed as being the best eating of all game birds. The daily bag limit is three birds and they are highly sought after so you will know you are in good standing if you are invited to share in a bécasse meal.

It is said that while village priests do not see much of the bécassier at mass during the hunting season the hunters know there is a God because only God could have invented such a wonderful bird.

Story: Mike Alexander


More info:
Club National des Bécassiers

A selection of recipes:
Bécasse des bois
Cuisiner des Bécasses comme autrefois!
Bécasses au foie gras
Bécasses au Champagne

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