Gourmet Magazine: Pride of the Norwegian Wood

by Jessica Maxwell
featuring Ingrid Shumway

NORTH OF OSLO, A UNIQUELY LARGE POPULATION OF THE GIANT GROUSE KNOWN AS THE CAPERCAILLIE DRAWS HUNTERS FROM AROUND THE WORLD.

ON A NARROW FRET OF LAND between Sweden and the Norwegian Sea, Sea, the trees are alive with the sound of capercaillie, the largest species of grouse on earth. Big as a turkey, handsome as a hummingbird, male capercaillie (pronounced “caper-kelly”) can weigh up to 15 pounds and are detailed like race cars, with bright indigo backs, mahogany wings, and a blaze of malachite iridescence across the front, all of which the dusky females find irresistible.

Capercaillie are well known for the ruckus they make when startled, something like a pony crashing through the brush, hence their sobriquet, an old Gaelic word for “horse of the woods.” And the flesh of this woodland grouse has seduced hunters for centuries. Fine-grained and lilac-mauve, it has a pungency reminiscent of guavas soaked in retsina, the gift of a diet rich in forest berries and pine shoots.

Once common throughout northern Europe, capercaillie had been hunted to extinction in the British Isles by the late l700s. Small, scattershot populations exist today in the French Pyrenees, Slovakia, Scotland, Russia, and the Czech Republic, but a remarkably high ratio of forest to people supports hundreds of thousands of breeding pairs in Scandinavia. Especially in Norway, which is why I was stork-stepping through foot-high snow in a 30,000-acre family forest a few hours’ drive north of Oslo, trying to follow the poodle-yip of a little red Finnish bird dog, which, my Swedish hunting guide assured me, had treed an iibergrouse only a few miles away. “When Molly barks, she has found a bird,” explained Bertil Kainulainen, a renowned
shooting champion who had been recruited to lead our hunt.

“Now we have to find it,” added Knut Arne Gjems, the cheerful, sea-eyed 26-year-old son of our hosts, UlfErik and Gerd Gjems (pronounced “yems”), whose family has owned and hunted this forest for 150 years.

Being so heavy, capercaillie don’t really like to fly, and whenever Molly found one, she chased it into a treetop, then distracted it with her incessant yapping so we hunters could, theoretically, sneak up on it unnoticed. So far, every bird had escaped long before we’d gotten to it. Once, we found Molly barking at absolutely nothing. “She smells some oil from a bird,” Bertil explained. “But it flew.”

Moments later, the dog was off again on what we dubbed another “Molly bolt,” and so were we, navigating the cool beauty of the woods, which, given the lack of hunting action, had become its own reason for being there. Having lived in the American Northwest most of my life, I’ve seen my share of forests. But the Gjems’ forest felt enchanted, like the antechamber to Valhalla. A dappled land of birch, pine, and lake, it has, even at midday, a vespertine quality that makes you want to speak in whispers, which made Molly’s racket all the more jarring. But that’s bird hunting. And this was certainly the place to do it. Thanks to the exceptional management of Ulf, Knut Arne, and his older brothers, Ole Jorgen and Haakon Einarprofessional foresters all-this grand forest remains a virtual larder of ducks, geese, black and hazel grouse, and the elusive capercaillie, not to mention moose, deer, hare, trout, perch, pike, and even thrilling nongame predators: wolf, lynx, and brown bear. But the capercaillie is the most coveted game, a legendary staple traditionally served with lingonberry jam, Norway’s answer to turkey with cranberry sauce.

We’d been walking for something like five hours, not counting a break for a good camp lunch of bacon mooseburgers and hot coffee. Molly, as always, was off somewhere, barking like a crazy thing, and we were trudging up yet another snowbound hill, an army looking for a war. Then, without warning, a rapid swooshing sound passed overhead.

“Capercaillie,” Bertil announced with quiet admiration, like John Wayne pointing out Rita Hayworth. We saw nothing. But the closeness ofthose mighty wings had set my heart on edge. The hunt was on.

A few minutes later we saw them: five rufous-throated females and a dark male, pecking at pea gravel not 20 yards away.

“I have never seen so much capercaillie here,” Knut Arne whispered to me.

Diving behind a tall snowbank, Bertillay down sideways and motioned for me to steady my gun barrel across his back. This was crazy. And dangerous. And it worked. Despite my raging pulse, I got the male squarely in my rifle sight… then he ducked, and moved out of view. As with making sauces and taking photographs and broaching delicate but necessary subjects with a loved one, a hunting shot requires good timing. There is a right moment, then it is gone.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” Bertil asked.

Why? Because I’d never gone bird hunting with a rifle, only a shotgun. Because I’d only shot a rifle three times in my life… at target practice the day before. I hit the sweet spot on the cardboard capercaillie each time only because I love animals and cannot bear the thought of wounding one and want to take it square or not at all. And because when the capercaillie ducked, the sweet spot ducked with it, and I was unwilling to take a chance on anything but certain, pain-free death. “It is a rifle,” Bertil replied. “You would have killed it.”

WE WALKED DOWN MANY MILES of frosty lane that day, hot on the trail of Molly’s promising bark. She seemed to find a capercaillie in every cardinal direction, only to have it vanish on the wing. We walked until around three that afternoon, when the light was falling and so was the temperature, and my fingers felt like frozen fish sticks. That’s when Bertil’s foxy little bird dog became a cinnabar comet streaking up a slope. He took off after her, and I after him. Forty-five minutes and five uphill football fields later we found the tree.

“There,” he said, and pointed up at such an obtuse angle I thought he meant the sky.

“No, Yessica, there,” he repeated, turning my head toward the top of a very tall spruce. But all I saw was a thatch of branches.

“I don’t think that’s a bird,” I ventured.

“It is a bird,” Bertil declared. “Shoot it.”

It’s hard to disobey the John Wayne of Sweden. So after a Keystone Cops episode of Berti I trying to get me to use his shoulder as a rifle rest and my chickening out three times for fear of ruining his hearing (or worse), I knelt in the snow, leaned into a tree, and took aim. My heart hopped like a pogo stick and so did the thatch of branches in my scope. My blood played kettledrums inside my ears, my arms cramped from holding the heavy rifle so high, and I was panting like a lover. There was no way I could hit anything. Then something hard and true fell into my solar plexus. My pulse slowed. My mind cleared. And soon the capercaillie hung on the cross in my rifle scope. And I pulled the trigger.

“You got it!” Bertil hollered, then ran to get to my bird before Molly did.

It was a yearling male, nearly eight pounds, dropped against all odds at 65 yards in the dark, in the snow, in the good Norwegian woods. There in my arms, the blue and green of its feathers playing against the black, it looked like a gigantic collapsed petunia, the warrior’s corsage.

My capercaillie was prepared that night by Jorgen Bestum, who is the gifted young chef at Skaslien Guesthouse (062-94-6666), in nearby Kirkemer, and whose cooking trumps that of chefs at many big-name restaurants. Jorgen made us a starter of crisp-skinned lake trout with leeks and asparagus done in a light butter cream sauce, followed by a champignon consomme with tomato concassee and fresh parsley, so rich with the essences of capercaillie bones, it could have held its own in Paris. As could the rounds of walnut bread that Jorgen baked himself. Our third course was Ulf’s mother’s recipe, the Gjems Capercaillie Sandwich, a hache of thigh meat on toast with a ragout of Lithuanian chanterelles, crowned with half a roasted capercaillie heart.

But the prize went to the edgy, sexy roasted breast of capercaillie served sherbet-pink in half-inch slices as generous and aromatic as the woods from which the bird came.

“Capercaillie is the grouse de resistance!” I proclaimed.

“And I am Yohn Wayne of Sweden!” countered Bertil. “And I say it is the time for the hunting toast!”

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