Sunday, November 20, 2011


Partridge shoot in Toledo.

Los Yébenes  spreads out on the flanks of a long ridge, where a pair of 16th century windmills rides the crest. The village, south of the medieval city of Toledo, about 90 kilometres from Madrid, is known as the hunting capital of the highland Montes de Toledo. Hare, rabbit, deer, and boar are abundant, but it is the native red-legged partridge that is the delight of both hunter in the field and gastronome at table.

I went to Los Yébenes a few years ago when I was working on a book about the food of La Mancha. I was tracking partridge from hillside to dinner, so I visited during the open season for partridge shooting (October to February) and went along on a cacería de ojeo, an organized hunt.

In the Field

It was a nippy winter’s day, with clouds hanging over the hilltops, when we met at a hunting lodge not too distant from Los Yébenes. The group of hunters gathered over steaming cups of coffee to draw lots for the puestos, blinds, that they would occupy on the hunt. Some of the hunters came from abroad and were staying at the lodge. Others, like Teodoro, a well-to-do businessman, drove down from Toledo for the day, bringing dogs and gear.

Partridge country.
The hunters (a few women among them) moved out in SUVs, bumping along rutted dirt tracks and fording a small stream. Leaving the vehicles, they trekked cross-country to the first shooting site. Sun broke through the cloud cover, glinting on flat outcroppings of shiny granite. Tramping boots released the powerful scent of wild thyme, marjoram, and red lavender.

Teodoro, dressed in cropped breeches with gaiters and loden green jacket, was flanked by a loader, who kept his guns ready to fire, and a secretario, who spotted and recovered the downed birds. Teodoro tethered his one-year old Labrador retriever to a stake.

The hunters with their entourages spread along the ridge, taking up ten blinds. The ojeadores, beaters, announced the start of the hunt with a blast on a conch shell. They moved along the ravine’s embankment, thrashing the bushes, banging, and yelling, “vamos, vamos”.

The first shots rang out, followed fast by many more. The beaters continued towards our blind, flushing birds before them.  Suddenly, with a rush of wings, a covey of partridge lofted skyward. They seemed to scatter in the air, some soaring high, others dipping towards the next ridge. Teodoro shot in rapid succession. One bird fell very near the blind, causing the dog to snap to attention.

When the beaters reached the end of the line, they signalled the end of the shoot with a horn and everyone scrambled to find the downed birds. The Labrador excitedly worked the hillside, retrieving partridge one after another to Teodoro. The secretario strung them on leather thongs and hitched them to his belt. The whole hunting party walked overland to another line. A light snow began to fall.

 At the end of the second shoot (typically, there are four or five lines in a day of hunting) the secretarios spread all the birds in a clearing on the ground, arranging them in braces. There were 126 partridge. Teodoro, the best shot, claimed 28. Some he would take home with him. He said his mother prepares them en conserva, packed in jars in a mild escabeche.

Behind the hunters came the pollero, poultyman. He buys the birds from the organizer of the hunt and hauls them to a processing plant, where they are cleaned and plucked, ready for sale.

In the Kitchen

 In the kitchen of Casa Apelio, a small hostel and restaurant sandwiched between the stone walls of two 16th century churches in the centre of Los Yébenes, three women were processing 600 partridge from several different shoots. The birds had to be singed, one by one, over a gas flame, chilled, and packed for freezing. According to Apelio García, the third generation to run Casa Apelio, his restaurant is one of the few in Spain that serves wild, native red-legged partridge. (Most buy farm-raised birds.)

In the dining room we sat at a table before the hearth, where a roaring fire toasted our toes. The room is hung with deer heads and racks of antlers (Los Yébenes has four working taxidermists). Caged partridge (they are used for hunting al reclamo, as decoys) cackled and called from a shelf on one side of the dining room,

To start, we savoured partridge pâté with toast. Next was a partridge salad featuring tender, boned partridge in a mild escabeche heaped on top of sliced tomatoes, sprinkled with oregano, and generously drizzled with the local extra virgin olive oil with denomination Montes de Toledo. We shared an order of beans stewed with partridge. A partridge feast, with a smooth reserva La Mancha red wine to accompany it.

Partridge with Beans
Judías con Perdiz

Partridge stewed with beans.
Beans stretch the servings of partridge, so a single bird, split in half, might serve two. If you choose to serve half a partridge, split the birds after cooking. If partridge is not available, use cornish game birds or turkey thighs. I prefer to cook the beans separately from the partridge, as beans can take well over an hour to cook. You could use canned cannellini beans (2 15-ounce cans). If using dry ones, put them to soak at least 6 hours before cooking.

Serves 4.

2 cups dry cannellini beans
1 head garlic
2 bay leaves
Sprig of rosemary
¼ onion
1 whole tomato or 2 sun-dried tomatoes
2 teaspoons salt
2 to 4 partridges (about 12 ounces each)
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup olive oil
2 cups chopped onion
2 cloves chopped garlic
1 teaspoon sweet pimentón (paprika)
2 tablespoons wine vinegar
1 cup white wine
10 peppercorns

Soak the beans in water at least 6 hours or up to 24 hours. Drain and place them in a pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil and skim off froth.

Slice the top off the head of garlic and place the whole head in the pot with the beans. Add the bay leaves, rosemary, onion, tomato, and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cover and simmer the beans 30 minutes. Add ½ cup cold water, bring again to a boil, and simmer until beans are very tender, 30 to 60 minutes more.

Sprinkle partridge with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large cazuela or deep skillet. Brown the partridge very slowly. After turning them, add the chopped onion and garlic to the cazuela. Continue sautéeing until partridge and onions are golden.

In a small bowl mix the pimentón with the vinegar. Add to the partridge with the wine and 1 cup of water. Add the peppercorns and 1 teaspoon of salt. Cook at a gentle bubble for 30 minutes. Turn the partridges and simmer 30 minutes more.

Drain the beans, reserving the liquid. Discard the bay leaves and rosemary. Add the beans to the cazuela with the partridge. Slip the skin from the tomato and break it up into the cazuela. Squeeze the cloves of garlic into the partridge. Add 2 cups of the bean liquid. Simmer all together for 30 minutes.

Hillside castle in Toledo province.

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