Partridge is in season now, and it’s one of the most delicious game birds you can buy. One partidge per person is the rule, and it’s best cooked just slightly pink; but if you prefer it well done, that’s fine.
It has a delicately gamey taste and a fine texture, and you can play on those autumnal notes with this gratin of root vegetables, which is deliciously sweet and nutty – and rich. Don’t skimp on the cream; it really is worth it.
It’s also worth taking the trouble to cut the vegetables thinly and evenly. A mandolin can save time here, but a sharp knife (get it really sharp!) works perfectly well.
Partridge is a treat, so push the boat out with a fine, mature Gran Reserva Rioja.
2 oven-ready partridges, cleaned and trussed
4 rashers streaky bacon
salt and pepper
For the gratin
2 parsnips, peeled
1 small celeriac (or half a bigger one), peeled
salt and pepper
1 clove garlic, peeled and finely chopped
284 ml double cream (the pouring kind, not the extra thick)
200 ml milk
Preheat the oven to 150º/gas 2. The idea is to cook the gratin first, and then keep it warm while the partridges – which need quicker, hotter cooking – go in.
Season the birds and drape the bacon rashers over the breasts. Put them in a roasting tin and leave them aside for the moment.
Slice the parsnips and celeriac. This is what takes the time, and the more even your slices are in thickness, the more evenly the gratin will cook. They must be thin slices, or they might not cook through. A hard gratin is horrid.
Butter a wide, shallow gratin dish and layer the vegetables, with a layer of parsnip followed by a layer of celeriac. Season each layer with salt, pepper and a little garlic, but don’t overdo the seasoning. The idea is to have it seasoned all through, not over salty. Stop layering before you get to the top of the dish: you want the vegetables to be a few millimetres short of the top. Now pour the cream over – yes, all of it – and top up with milk. You don’t want it to be absolutely awash so that it runs over in the cooking, but the top layer must be in the liquid.
Bake it in the oven for 40 minutes, or until soft and browned, with all the liquid absorbed. Check it halfway through: if it’s getting a bit too brown put some foil over it. And if the top layers are looking a bit dry, top up with milk.
When the gratin is cooked, take it out and put it in a warming oven. Increase the oven heat to 180º/gas 4, and put the partridges in. Half an hour should be fine for them; check them after 20 minutes by sticking a fork between thigh and body. If they run red, they want another ten minutes.
Serve with something green: some runner beans dressed with lemon zest and parsley, perhaps, or a watercress salad.