High up in the snowy mountain terrain lives a small game bird called the Rock Ptarmigan. It is often referred to as the snow chicken for its remote habitat circling around the arctic across Alaska, Northern Canada, Scandinavia, Russia, Finland and Greenland. In Iceland it is particularly associated as a festive bird for Christmas fare.
The Rock Ptarmigan is a speckled brown and gray color during the summer months but its white plumage appears in early October ready for the bird to blend in amongst the snow. Its diet of various berries, buds, twigs and insects affects the flavor of this member of the grouse family, which can taste like not only red grouse, but hare too. Shooting Rock Ptarmigan is a popular sport in the areas where it appears as it is a very easy bird to bag. Some say this is because it has so few predators others say it’s because the bird is so dumb.
The meat of the Rock Ptarmigan is an excellent source of protein and iron, low in fat and high in vitamin B. It is a ‘dark’ meat and could be substituted with a Cornish game hen. It is often paired with sweet ingredients such as sweet potatoes or a redcurrant and port jus. Like most game birds the meat becomes dry if cooked incorrectly and needs barding if dry roasting. Rock Ptarmigan Carpaccio also features on menus in areas where this meat appears. The liver and the heart aren’t wasted either they are often mashed into a pate and served with bread fried in goose fat. A traditional Christmas dish in Iceland is steiktar rjupur a fried dish of Rock Ptarmigan accompanied by pickled red cabbage and a redcurrant jelly. This was originally a peasant dish which was only eaten by the poor, today however it is a sought after Christmas delicacy.
The Inuit people of the arctic tundra found another way of using up Rock Ptarmigan leftovers by using it medicinally. They placed skin from the bird’s thigh onto boils to draw them out and healed burns by covering them in dried Rock Ptarmigan skin. But, unlike us, the Inuit people probably didn’t have a first aid bag handy.
Photos courtesy of flickr - sindri skulason and ian C