The five branches of the grouse family can be found across the northern hemisphere, all the way into subarctic regions, in forests, moors and even mountains. Grouse can range from 10 ounces at their smallest to the 14-pound Capercaillie (from the Gaelic capull coille meaning “horse of the woods”).
The Red Grouse of Scotland
The red grouse is endemic to the British Isles, developing, as most island species in complete isolation. The red grouse is sometimes called “moorbird” in Scotland, since it lives in the moors amidst the heather. Grouse eat the shoots, seed, and flowers of the heather, will eat berries and insects, and have been known to cruise newly mown oat fields to pick up leftovers and fatten themselves for winter.
The male grouse is larger than the female, for whom the males will perform rather extravagant courtship dances that have been translated to folk dances imitating the male bird’s moves in both the Alps, and on the American prairies (winters must be very long for this to have become a tradition).
Many grouse habitats in the UK are managed by gamekeepers who burn small patches of heather in late winter to create new shoots for the grouse and manage predators to give the birds a chance of survival before hunting season begins. The hunt begins with dozens of “grouse beaters” crashing in the brush to frighten the birds into taking flight so they can be shot by sportsmen. Dining on pheasant, quail and grouse served from giant silver-domed dishes from sideboards the size of airplane runways has come to represent a certain country lifestyle of the British ruling class that is fading in the 21st century.
The grouse is much prized as a game bird for its meat, and for its feathers, used to decorate hats. In the United Kingdom, the start of the red grouse season is much anticipated! It was named The Glorious Twelfth (of August) and since the Game Act passed in 1831, it has been diligently celebrated with much shooting and chasing of grouse (the season ends December 10). This is the earliest of the hunts in the season, so it was determined by law that no grouse would be had before August 12th.
It’s always a competition among chefs to be the first to serve grouse. This has been taken too far, as in London at the end of the 19th century, when the famous chef, Louis Eustach Ude, was hauled into court for serving grouse at Crockford’s Club before August 12th and was fined and reprimanded. The Scottish lord who had tattled on him came back to the Club to make sure grouse was no longer on the menu. Satisfied it was not, he ordered salmi de fruit defendu (salmi of forbidden fruit). The forbidden fruit was, of course, GROUSE!
Red grouse average 10 to 12 ounces dressed weight, and might be considered an acquired taste. The meat is dark, reddish and quite unlike its relative the chicken. There’s no other way to say it: grouse is gamey! Although grouse is popular in Europe and the UK, it is a taste shared primarily by the hunting community in the U.S., but is not common on America’s supper tables. That should be changed. The problem is, it’s illegal in the U.S. to sell shot game, and grouse don’t respond well to farming so they are not as available as they might be.
Although grouse is usually roasted and served whole, Queen Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert was fond of famous chef Alexis Soyer’s Grouse Salad. This was made with hard boiled eggs, anchovies and pickled vegetables (beets and gherkins), tarragon chervil, shallots, chili vinegar and sugar in a cream enhanced mayonnaise and roasted grouse (either the cut up whole bird or just the breast) on a bed of lettuce. The chef warned the shallots might be too much for the ladies and that this was a salad better for the gentlemen!