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

Wild greylag confit d’oie and more

For many British game species, 31st January is end of the open season, including wild greylag geese. I thought it would be fitting to mark the occasion by spending time exploring classic goose recipes by Julia Child. I was particularly thinking of confit of the legs.  I had another recipe in mind for the breasts courtesy of Cooking in Sens, a delicious balsamic goose breast recipe.  It is also a requirement, of course, to use the whole bird and the carcass was used to make goose or game stock (as I call it).

We have accumulated a number of wild greylag geese, shot and kindly gifted to us by a friend.  One never quite knows when geese will arrive at the door, but we are always pleased to see them, no matter how busy or inconvenient the moment – it is a pleasure to receive such delicious and free wild meat.

We recently took receipt of our final two geese of the season. Given the pretty awful experience of plucking the last two indoors (being forced to do so by darkness and grim weather), we decided our only option was to get out while it was daylight and the weather calm enough to deal with plucking, etc.  Since it was mid-week, and we both work full time from home, this meant seizing the opportunity at lunchtime to get on with the job.  Not your average lunchtime pursuit!

goose plucking bay cottage

So, down we went to the bay at the bottom of our garden, a goose each in hand and got plucking.   Fortunately, only the sheep can see us down there.  I had to abandon The Man Named Sous, (pictured finishing the job sitting on the rocks in the company of sheep as the tide came in) as I had to get back to work.

Room with a view

This is also the view from my office window and I work hard not be distracted by the ebb and flow of the tide and daily patterns of activities that the changing sea level brings, particularly those of birds. Waders including redshanks, greenshanks and curlews use the bay all year, as do a resident population of about 50 shelducks.

Female eiders nest around the edge of the sheltered bay in the breeding season, forming crèches with other females and their broods to try to protect their vulnerable chicks from predation, particularly by gulls.  Lapwings and oystercatchers nest around the house in the mosaic of marshy grassland, as do snipe.

Passing and hunting raptors including hen harriers, short-eared owls (both daily visitors in the breeding season), peregrine, kestrel and the occasional white-tailed sea eagle make use of the bay and the surrounding common grazings.

It’s a busy and beautifully noisy place most of the year, especially so in spring when lapwings display and snipe drum overhead. A bit later in the season, oystercatchers start to get excited as their broods hatch and they constantly circle anything that comes close, trying to see them off with their distinctive and relentless, loud piping call.

Of course, resident greylag geese also use the croftland all year and nest out on the islands, bringing broods in to the sheltered bay once they hatch. It is also why the location, overlooking the bay and islands sold the house to us – and that was before we realised how incredible the sunsets would be. It pays for us to remember these most sublime views when the weather is at its worst, as it has been on some days over the last couple of weeks.

sunset 1

sunset 2

sunset 3

Plucking complete, goose feathers were gathered up and added to our compost heaps as they make an excellent addition to compost, providing nitrogen and minerals (similarly, I also add wool gathered from around the common grazings that surround the house).

Preparing geese, I must admit, is a lot of work and was covered more fully in a previous post Plucking Hell, it’s an ‘een of evisceration but is well worth it.

Confit d’oie

As the season goes on, geese accumulate more fat reserves, so the bonus of late season geese is the ability to utilise this fat to confit part or all of the bird.  Although greylag geese can be difficult to age, I had judged this bird to be one of the 2012 broods, so was reasonably confident the breasts would be wonderfully tender and fit for the fine recipe I had in mind.

Wanting to maximise what the goose could deliver in both the number and variety of dishes, I opted to confit the often tough legs and wings.  Actually, only one wing was fit for confit as the other had sustained irreparable damage when the goose transited from sky to ground.

I used Julia Child’s recipe for Confit D’Oie. Salt curing the goose pieces first for 24 hours, I omitted the saltpetre (Potassium nitrate) from the original recipe and it still works. For this volume of goose, you need a lot less of the quantities than Julia suggests as her cure is for a large pork joint.

Ingredients

For the salt cure:

20g Maldon salt

2 bays leaves, shredded

2 springs of thyme

1 tsp. of ground black pepper

3 garlic cloves

  • Crush this mixture in a mortar and pestle and rub it all over the goose pieces, skin and flesh, massaging it in well. Refrigerate the pieces for 24 hours.

Goose confit, 1

goose confit 2

  • Scrape the seasoning off at this stage.
  • Brown the goose legs in a frying pan in some goose fat to colour them lightly.
  • Now the legs are ready to go into the goose fat.

goose confit fat

For the goose fat:

  • Use enough goose fat to submerge the pieces of goose, I used about 700 ml (melted).  Put in a casserole dish with a lid – it will be going in the oven.
  • Bring to the gentlest simmer on the stove top and preheat the oven to 140C.
  • Place in the oven, covered for about 2 hours.  Check it half way through to make sure all the meat is covered.

It should be golden brown and the flesh exceptionally tender when it is ready.  The smell was intoxicating when I took the lid off the pot.  Mine were perhaps a bit too brown, but it did not diminish the deliciousness.

goose confit 3

There was no way this goose was ever going to last long enough to be preserved in goose fat, the original reason for confit being to enhance the storage potential of the meat. Having made goose stock with the carcass,  I served the confit legs and wing with puy lentils cooked in the stock, with a bit of carrot, shallot and celery, folding through some tomato concasse at the end and garnishing with parsley.

goose confit 4

A final added bonus was all the spare fat which the goose was cooked in.  This was strained and stored for other recipes – not least wonderfully flavoured roast potatoes.

Balsamic goose breast with roast potatoes and braised red cabbage

Having boned out each goose breast, I use a goose breast recipe courtesy of Cooking in Sens, where the recipe can be found – delicious marinade of balsamic vinegar, honey and ginger.  The only alterations I made were to replace the chicken broth in the original with goose stock – and the alternative side dishes.

goose breasts

I also made a sauce by taking a decent splash of Madeira, simmering it to let the alcohol vapours leave the sweet flavour, then adding the reserved marinade.  This was then reduced slightly before whisking in some cubes of unsalted butter at the end, straining and serving over the goose breast which was served nice and pink and extremely tender.  Apologies for the quality of the photograph!

goose final

Potatoes were diced for a large surface area to absorb the flavour from the goose fat they were roasted in, reserved from the confit. Braised red cabbage was cooked in a bit of goose stock, sherry vinegar and a few sticky drops of pomegranate molasses.

In the end, the goose went a long way because the breasts were so big, we could only eat one between us.  We had the other one cold in a tasty winter salad the next day as we discussed how great greylag goose tasted and what we might do with the others in the freezer.