The Spectator: Wiltons vs the Ritz: who wins the great grouse race?

Imagine a sort of Beaujolais Run – but with birds.

‘Bang! Bang!…..thud’. It’s Friday 12th August, better known to tweedy types as The Glorious 12th, and the inaugural grouse on the West Allenheads estate in Northumberland has met its maker. The 26-degree temperature yields a slow morning, with the moorland birds reticent to come out of the shade and the beaters and guns mopping their brows yearning for elevenses. After the first drive, the bagged game is slung in the back of a Defender and divvied up in the gun room. This is where the journey begins in my quest to become the first London diner to tuck into grouse this year.

The destination for ten brace – i.e 20 birds – is Wiltons. Celebrating its 280th birthday, this Jermyn Street restaurant is longer in the tooth than America. It earned a royal warrant from Queen Victoria, and has spent much of the last century lulling florid and round City bigwigs and Tory ministers into soporific food comas. It brings such gastronomic satisfaction that in 1942 the banking scion Olaf Hambro asked for the price of the restaurant to be added to his bill.

The St James’s institution is perhaps best known for its oysters and Dover sole, but it specialises in other fine traditional British fare, hence the race upon which these grouse are about to embark.

Wiltons and the Ritz have had an unofficial competition going on for decades to see which restaurant receives the first grouse. There used to be others in this avian grand prix – Rules and the Savoy, for example – but the pandemic has made it more challenging these past few years, with even these storied maisons of digestive debauchery having to concede that money is of some object. Getting ten brace from Northumberland on the first day of shooting season is, we shall discover, not an inexpensive undertaking. Rules will begin serving grouse tomorrow, on the 13th, while others will wait until late the following week.

For Wiltons and the Ritz, it’s about principle. Jason Phillips is director of the former and previously worked at the latter. “We’ve always had a desire to serve the best British products, and to have them first,” he tells me. “We get excited about the 1st September, when the native oyster season starts, when the first British asparagus arrives, and also gulls’ eggs and white truffles, which is simply down to when the first are available. The 12th August is a key date, and getting the first grouse here is a proper race. These traditions are romantic and evoke nostalgia.”

Imagine a sort of Beaujolais Run, except instead of getting Gamay wine from France to Fleet Street our mission is to dispatch grouse from Hadrian’s Wall to SW1. The time is now 12:06. A man with a van set off from Essex at 05:30 to be here. The best-looking birds have been selected, loaded, and now he’s powering south to London. It’ll be a 702-mile round trip. 

At 19:17, the small white Transit bombs up Jermyn Street, flashes its lights triumphantly and darts into Wiltons’ parking bay. The back doors pop open and inside is a single pallet of tightly-packed feathery little creatures. I feel like I’ve ordered the Sloaniest Deliveroo on record.

The birds are hauled straight through the front door and down the lift to the kitchen, where the cooks cheer and clap. “Right, let’s go to war,” smiles head chef Daniel Kent, making space on the counter and immediately setting to work plucking the first bird. The feathers are torn off in clumps over the dustbin and the head and feet get the chop. Fresh purple heather spills from its gut. Daniel sparks up a blowtorch to remove any excess plumage. The liver is taken away to be made into creamy parfait, but the heart remains. Its legs and body are trussed with string and then it’s sent straight to the oven as the chef starts on the next grouse. The plucking and stringing process takes less than five minutes, and another 45 to roast.

Taking a booth in Wilton’s cosy dining room, one peruses the menu and finds grouse is already on it, with the requisite shot warning. At £60 a plate, it’s one of the more expensive mains on the list. Yet if you factor in the £37.50 delivery cost per bird, one could argue it’s something of a bargain.

“A lot of these traditions are starting to wane,” laments Mr Phillips. “Covid disrupted things like this for a lot of restaurants, and it’s no longer a top priority. That’s a shame, because it’s nice to make the effort. Yes, it can be pricey, but we buck the trend.”

At 20:00 on the dot it arrives, pink and grey in hue and sweet, aromatic and delicate in taste, served off the bone with game chips, ruler-straight crispy bacon, a generous dollop of bread sauce, breadcrumbs and jus, a l’Anglaise.

Someone puts in a call to the Ritz. Their grouse are still en route. Wiltons are this year’s winners, and I have succeeded in my mission to be the capital’s debut grouse-mangler of the season. My compliments to the chef, and the man with the van.

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