Shooting game is a deep-rooted and popular tradition in Alava. From October to February, Gorbea and Izki Natural Parks are well-populated hunting grounds for pigeon, partridge and woodcock.
“I’ve liked game since I was a child when my grandmother used to cook pigeon and dove for us at home. I also worked as a sous-chef at a seminar on game cookery at the catering school and I think that’s where I really got into it,” explains Juan Erauskin, who, having worked previously at Zaldiarán, is currently the chef at restaurant Zabala and one the most-reowned experts in game cuisine in Alava.
“The stewed pigeon is really popular, but the woodcock, although difficult to come across, is the star of the show, thanks to the peculiar, highly nuanced flavour of the meat. It takes between four and five days to be properly hung and for the fibres to relax fully. Following the French ‘faisandage’ tradition, we allow them to hang by the neck until gravity takes its toll and they are deemed ready for consumption.”
“Nowadays, most game lovers order pigeon or partridge. But woodcock is really our star winter dish. We get ours from local hunters. We used to cook hare but people eventually stopped ordering it,” explains Koldo, in the dining room at El Portalón, where he works.
“We cook it in a stew, or roast or flambé it with cognac, and serve it with some chestnut purée on the side. And we normally stew the partridge too, but sometimes,” as Koldo points out, “we cook the thighs and legs separately. We grill the thighs briefly on a flat-top grill and serve them finely chopped, while we roast the legs separately in the oven.”
Larger game hunting is also very popular in Alava, where deer, roe deer and wild boar are readily found. “This kind of wild game needs to be marinated well for the meat to relax properly because they are very strong, muscular animals. Alcohol helps to tenderize the muscle and improve the texture of the meat,” adds Juan Erauskin.