Wild greylag goose: trials and tribulations of island life

Every time I open my freezer, something falls out and lands on my foot.  At the moment, the usual culprit is a pack of 2 goose breasts. Attempting to re-arrange the shelf results in a landslide of further goose cuts, precariously stacked behind the breasts on the ‘goose shelf’.  The signs are there.  I need to start using more of these greylag cuts before the shooting season comes round again.

Not that I am complaining, goose breasts are relatively benign compared with the (near) concussion that resulted from a large venison haunch joint falling from the top shelf and clouting me on the back of the head as I searched for something in a lower drawer.  Lesson learned. Large joints of meat to be consigned to the bottom of the freezer in future.

I was watching the greylags today on the croft behind our house, two adults and a brood of 4 well-grown goslings, all feeding on the grass.  It won’t be long before they turn their attention to crops grown by crofters, demanding time and energy to scare and / or shoot this resident bird that has an all too healthy, indeed burgeoning population.  I was involved in biannual goose counts for a number of years, covering my local township and the adjacent townships on and around the island of Baleshare.

Baleshare is always present along the horizon of any photos I have included of the view from the bay at the bottom of our garden and is joined by a short causeway to Clachan, North Uist. The island of Baleshare is a special place for us, and has been for many years, including those long before we eventually moved to North Uist.

We walk the dogs on the expansive Baleshare beach as well as try to catch seafish there, I enjoy running around the island’s single track roads and we fly fish at the Clachan lochs on the other side of the causeway for trout and sea trout.  The south end of the island almost encapsulates the small peninsula on which our house sits, acting as a barrier that protects us from the ravages of fierce Atlantic storms. Baleshare and Clachan are places that I identify with particular people and none more so than Ivan MacDonald.

Ivan MacDonald – One of North Uist’s finest

Ivan, who crofted the land on Baleshare and the surrounding townships, tragically died the weekend before last, being involved in a collision with a car while walking home after a dance at our village hall, less than a mile from our house and an even shorter distance from his own.

I know readers of this blog are scattered round the globe and that many of you will not have known Ivan.  However, my blog documents island living as much as food.  The repercussions of the loss of a young, popular and well-known person to such a small island community cannot be overstated. Testament to this was the amount of mourners who attended his funeral on Saturday. The church and hall were so full that we, along with many other mourners, stood outside to pay our respects during the service. It was an incredibly sad day for the community and beyond.

We had known Ivan pretty much since we moved to Uist over 6 years ago. At that time, we were playing a lot of traditional music and the first people we connected with were musician friends already living here.  We quickly met Ivan through our friends and would play with him often at parties or sessions, enjoying the craic.  He was a fine piper and whistle player and had a great tune repertoire from piping, his Gaelic culture and beyond.  I learned a lot of lovely tunes from him, and have a notebook with the names of tunes Ivan played that I jotted down, some I have learned, others I intend to one day.

Ivan was always fun to play music with because despite being a much better musician than I was, he was never elitist and would graciously play with whoever was at a session. He was a gentleman and simply loved playing and he loved the pipes. He was also the only person I knew here who, like I was a few years ago, was trying the challenge of learning to play Uilleann pipes and he would always want to know how I was progressing and sympathise with the associated challenges.

Ivan was well-known for being a talented Highland piper and I struggle to recall a wedding, dance, party, concert or dinner in Carinish Village Hall at which Ivan did not play his Highland pipes. I will always think of him when I visit the hall.

I associate Ivan as much with crofting as piping and Gaelic culture.  Any time I have been walking, running or fishing on and around Baleshare, I invariably saw Ivan at work in his tractor or tending his stock.  He chose to continue his crofting heritage as a career and was very successful. At 33, he was bucking the trend of an ageing demographic in crofting. I know I will have to check myself as I raise my hand to wave the next time a tractor passes me on Baleshare, a melancholy reminder of his absence.

Many people may have known Ivan a lot longer and better than me, and many will also have fond memories of him.  However, the loss of Ivan leaves a void for all of us that alters the cultural and crofting landscape of North Uist tangibly and irrevocably. As Eric said to me of his passing – he was one of the good guys.  Our thoughts are with Ivan’s family and those closest to him.

Melancholy sunset towards Baleshare and Clachan

Melancholy sunset towards Baleshare and Clachan

Making the best of a (goose) problem

It would be fitting to include a recipe featuring the fine wethers that Ivan supplied us with, his sheep reared on the wild heather-clad east side of the island for a proportion of their lives – hardy beasts with a rich gamey flavour and essentially wild and organic. Sheep that good, however, do not last long and unfortunately, ours is finished.  I turn therefore to complete a suite of recipes featuring the crofter’s nemesis – the wild greylag goose.

I have already featured a recipe for greylag goose and apple sausages, pan-fried breast with balsamic vinegar and confit of goose legs.  All of these turned out to work pretty well and I had hoped to further demonstrate the versatility of the much maligned greylag.  However, recent experiments would suggest that perhaps I have pushed the boundaries of taste literally a bit too far.

As I have warned before, eating a goose you have been unable to reliably age can be like roulette and the chance is one day you will get a tough old bird. This recently happened to us.  I had planned to serve the pan-fried breasts with a Madeira and oyster mushroom cream sauce.  No amount of resting would help recover the Pirelli-textured breasts, and I must admit the sauce really was not one of my best.  I hate food waste but the only option was consignment to the bin.

Cured wild greylag breast ‘prosciutto’

The biggest faux pas, however, was my decision to dry cure two goose breasts.  The process was relatively simple and I know that it can work for duck, so why not goose? Olfaction alone should have warned me not to go there.  Raw greylag has a distinctive smell, one that is in no way lost through curing, I discovered.   It was very pungent, slightly fishy and I wasn’t at all convinced by it.  I reproduce the recipe is case anyone is very keen to prove me wrong about dry curing of greylag, after all, it may have been the bird we used, not cured goose per se, or perhaps the process or choice of cure ingredients. one breast was cured as described below, the second had the bay replaced with tarragon.

Ingredients

  • 2 goose breasts, skin on
  • 80g salt
  • 25g sugar
  • 1 tbsp. crushed dried bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp. ground fennel seed
  • 1 tbsp. ground black pepper

Method

Curing rates are very dependent on temperature and humidity.  There is also a risk of mould in prolonged hanging, so best gain a bit of experience before going for the more intense flavour prolonged curing gives, and check the breasts regularly.  I gave these 3 weeks in a cold outbuilding, wrapped in muslin, checking once a week for ‘flex’ and mould. White or green mould should be wiped off whenever seen.  If you find black mould, do not eat the meat. It should not hang so long that it becomes stiff and rubbery and should retain some moisture. Texturally, these appeared to be perfect, but the flavour was too powerful for my taste.

goosegoose 2goose 3

Cured - looks good, smells less so.

Cured – looks good, smells less so.

  • Mix the cure ingredients together, crushing the bay leaf with a mortar and pestle.
  • Coat the goose breasts in the mixture and massage it into the meat, and make sure every bit of it has cure on it. Put the breasts in a plastic container in the fridge for 2 days, turning over half way to coat in any cure mix on the bottom of the container.
  • Rinse and dry the meat thoroughly, pat dry then sit on a rack for a couple of hours.
  • Wrap each breast in muslin and tie with butcher’s string and hang in a cool place with moderate humidity for 2 weeks to 2 months. Prevent each breast touching the other as they hang to allow good air circulation.

goose 5

I am certain the cure time and salt content were just about right, the meat was yielding and evenly moist without being rubbery.  I have kept the breasts in the fridge and have the occasional nibble as they continue to dry out.  I am hoping the meat will be an acquired taste and also plan to dice it up and throw it in a casserole.

Bouncing back – Barbecued chipotle greylag goose breast

After the slight disappointment of the prosciutto, I was pretty confident that my most recent goose excursion would be delightful.  Of course, the odds were in my favour as you can’t go far wrong with barbecuing and we were not disappointed. The powerful flavour of the goose stood up well to the fiery smoky chipotle marinade which did not overpower the gamey goose flavour.

Chipotle marinade ingredients

  • 2 dried chipotle chillis, rehydrated
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • squeeze of lime juice
  • salt and pepper
  • some groundnut oil

The marinade ingredients were pulverised in a small blender before being rubbed onto the goose breast that were then left to sit for 3-4 hours. The goose redeemed itself entirely on the barbecue and was one of the highlights of our local meat-fest barbecue – to be featured at a later date.

goose 7goose 6

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31 thoughts on “Wild greylag goose: trials and tribulations of island life

  1. Talk about extremes. One minute I was close to tears reading about the death of your friend Ivan. The next minute I’m close to the same state laughing at the phrase, “I am hoping the meat will be an acquired taste…” One does so hope.

    Great minds and great fridges. I have a (small) haunch of venison, along with other parts in our freezer now, thanks to a hunter-brother in Texas, who has also contributed a wild turkey to our frozen larder, which we intend to thaw and confit. I’m wondering if confit would be a better way to approach aged goose. (By the way, if you don’t know this already, making confit is the real raison d’être for owning a slow cooker.)

    We’ve cured duck breasts successfully, but never tried it with goose. The problem with so many wild geese in New England is that they’re not migratory, so they feed in local marshes and acquire a not terribly pleasant fishy aroma and flavor. Sounds like something similar to your greylags (am I alone in wanting to type that “graylegs”?). Your prosciuttoed breasts look fabulous, but I defer to your “acquired taste.” Lovely post. Sorry for your loss, especially in your community. Ken

    • Thanks Ken, our greylags certainly do sound similar to your resident geese. It’s a pity, the cured breasts looked just right, maybe it’s me. I will persevere. I did confit the legs as they are tough, but good suggestion for the breasts too, and it never occurred to me to use my slow cooker, makes total sense. I’ll give it a try! Thanks, Tracey

  2. What a beautiful post. The recipe looks like a beautiful delicious and full of life tribute to Ivan. I’m so sorry for your loss. You really do have an incredible way of expressing that life and death are one and the same. I was laughing at the “near concussion that resulted from a large venison haunch joint falling from the top shelf” and I saw how this kind of humor was tied into your moving tribute. Community will keep each other strong in the coming weeks.

    • Thank you. So many people, including friends, have came here and moved on again in the short time we have lived here. Because of the degree separation that inevitably occurs due to living on an island, they are by nature transient places for some people for one reason or another, I made the assumption that Ivan would always be here, so it doesn’t seem real.

  3. I think I have the same kind of freezer problem, though the things that fall out are nowhere near as exciting.
    It’s a shame the cured greylag didn’t work well, I wonder if smoking it would be better? I’m glad the barbecued goose was better 😉
    I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your friend, but good that you’ve written about him in your blog, so that he will be remembered.

  4. What a shame about Ivan. Given the correlation between traffic and pedestrians where you live, what are the chances? He should have bought a lottery ticket! A fitting tribute to Ivan’s legacy, and the delicious Goose recipe. I think that says a lot about British people, and a lot about life in the Islands. Great stuff Tracey, Ivan will be looking down on you, proud as punch. Well done. Regards as ever, Pete. X

  5. Sorry to read of the loss of your friend. You wrote a beautiful tribute to the man.
    I, too, have a freezer stuffed beyond belief. Opening that door too quickly had better be accompanied by a jump back or toes are sure to be smashed. You may have had problems with dry curing but you grilled that goose breast perfectly.

  6. Very nicely said Tracey.

    Shame about the first two dishes, but it’s all a learning curve isnt it? I really should post my ‘warts n’ all’ as I have my fair share of disappointments and maybe, as you said, someone may have had better ideas!

    But, it all ends well with a good old BBQ obviously and they do look beautifully cooked.

    • Thanks Phil, if in doubt, get the barbecue on for goose in future I think. I have mastered the art of the cooking disappointment the last couple of weeks and tonight I managed a perfectly dense ‘pancake’ gingerbread. Back to the drawing board…

  7. Beautifully written as ever, you paint a great picture of Ivan and I can feel the gap that is left with his passing.
    Pirelli-textured 🙂 I’ll try to drop that one in the next time the occasion allows.

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