Sunday, November 14, 2010


As the last days of summer start to disappear and those long cold nights start to close in, I am in good spirits. The season from early September through to Christmas is my favourite time of year for produce in this country. I really look forward to cooking with root vegetables from squashes to swedes. Those long slow cooking dishes like oxtail in red wine or suet puddings and of course the game season.

What Is Game?

I love the game season. It allows chefs to cook something a little different and also offers a little bit of a change on a menu that has featured beef, lamb and pork heavily up until then. The Glorious Twelfth of August is when traditionally the game season starts in the U.K. with people paying big money to shoot red grouse (up to £1000 per day) or to a much lesser extent ptarmigan.

Game broadly falls in to two categories, feathered and furred and can be truly wild or semi wild to not really wild at all depending on what it is and where it is found.

Feathered game starts as I have mentioned with grouse, next comes partridge and then pheasant. Woodcock and snipe are also available from the twelfth but they are much less common. Grouse, woodcock, wood pigeon, wild duck and snipe are truly wild but both pheasant and partridge are for the large part reared from chicks and then released into the wild in readiness for the shoot.

Furred game consists mainly of venison, hare, rabbit, and to a lesser degree squirrel (recently some chefs have been singing their culinary praises so to speak). Venison is the generic term for the meat of all species of deer found in the U.K. Venison can be either totally wild or farmed depending on the time of year and depending where it comes from. Most venison on menus tends to be Red Deer but you can find fallow, roe or muntjac from time to time.

Rabbits and hares can be shot all year round but hare especially is better eaten during the winter months.

Pros and Cons of Shooting

Shooting often gets a bad press. It is often perceived as a sport for "Toffs" done at great cost. While this does probably go on, it is not the norm and the vast majority of people who shoot do it for the right reasons.

Scottish wild deer need to be culled. A wild deer does not die of old age but dies of starvation due to it losing its teeth and not being able to feed in the winter months. Because deer no longer have any natural predators (the last wolf in Scotland was said to be killed in 1743) the only thing that can now check their numbers is Man. Gillies or Game keepers in Scotland regularly cull the deer and it has been known for the army to be bought in to cull the deer from helicopters in years of high population growth. Surely it is better for people to regularly shoot the oldest deer for food rather than either let them starve to death or be shot from helicopters?

Grouse, woodcock and snipe which are truly wild are encouraged to flourish by man for the purpose of shooting. Keepers will promote the growing of things like heather and wild berries, upon which they feed and also by killing their predators like foxes and weasels. People will say that this is just a method of farming and that the animals should be left to live in peace. This argument only goes so far, the money made from shooting helps to protect the natural habitat which might otherwise be ruined. It is also worth considering that wild game numbers have increased over the years and this must mainly be due to them being promoted and nurtured.

It is perhaps with the most common shoots of pheasant and partridge that the waters of acceptability are most muddied. As I have said above pheasants and partridges for the most part are reared from chicks for several weeks and then released into a controlled environment where they are fed grain from hoppers. They are then released at the time of the shoot. This can be seen as a sort of semi wild farming just for the benefit of someone with a shotgun.

It is certainly true that large shoots organised for the benefit of corporate bankers or `'Toffs`' is a bad thing. It is not right that someone should fire 1000 shells to kill 200 birds in one afternoon and this practise is generally frowned upon by the shooting community, not least as there have been cases of the birds being buried once shot because there is no local market for the meat. Small shoots with ten or so guns where the shooters can effectively eat what they kill or sell what they kill to the local restaurant are a much better bet.

When you compare the lives of even semi wild game to that of farm animals or heaven forbid battery or intensively reared animals then the game birds have a much better life. It is also worth considering that it is thought that up to 15% of game birds escape the shoot and live at least another year of total wildness. This has helped push up the numbers of wild birds who live locally. You only have to drive around rural Sussex near the Ginger Fox to see how many pheasants there are all year round.

Game Cookery

The cooking of game has changed quite a bit since I started cooking some 20 years ago. The hanging of game in restaurants no longer happens due to Health Departments not allowing game to be kept on the premises in the fur or feather. The days of pheasants being hung by the head until the head falls off or until Maggots appear are long gone. Today’s taste is much more for lighter fresher tasting food which doesn’t lend itself to hanging. Venison used to be marinated in red wine overnight before cooking to intensify its flavour but that again is seen as old fashioned with restaurants preferring just to simply cook the venison, brush with mustard, coat with pistachio crumbs and serve pink.

Often, as with most things, simple cooking and bread sauce are all you really need. I have done a couple of recipes below to help get you started and its worth remembering that you can now get game in most good supermarkets.

Pheasant Crumble

Serves 6
For the pheasant stew
1 large cock pheasant jointed
2 rashers streaky bacon diced
1 clove garlic chopped
1 onion diced
Sprig thyme
Bay leaf
50ml Madeira
250ml brown pheasant or chicken stock
Flour for dusting
Little oil for frying
20 button onions
20 small mushrooms

Coat the pheasant in the flour and shallow fry in a dish that can go in the oven. Brown the pheasant and then add the onion and garlic, stir for a few minutes, and add the herbs and madeira. Simmer for 1 minute and add the stock, bring to the boil, season, cover with a lid or foil and place in an oven on 150 degrees for about 2 hours or until the meat comes easily away from the bone. Leave to cool, shred the meat from the bones and set aside in an oven proof dish . Pass the stock and leave to stand. Fry the button mushrooms and onions until golden brown and add to the pheasant meat. Pour the stock over the meat, onion and mushroom mix.

For the crumble topping

100g plain flour
50g butter
20g toasted hazelnuts
4 rashers crispy bacon
Little chopped parsley

Put the flour and butter in a food processor and pulse until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, this can also be done by hand. Place a mixture on a baking sheet with Parchment paper, bake in the over on 180 degrees stirring every 5 minutes until the mixture is golden brown. Leave to cool and put in a mixing bowl. Add the bacon, hazelnuts and parsley and season well. Put the mixture onto the pheasant mix and heat through in an oven.

Serve with mashed potato and greens.

Quick Bread Sauce

This is the perfect sauce to go with all feathered game or roast chicken.
1 small onion chopped
400ml milk
1 clove
1 sprig thyme
1 bay leaf
4 slices stale white bread made into breadcrumbs
25g butter

Gently heat the milk with the bay, thyme, and clove. Bring to the boil and set aside to infuse. Sweat the onion in half the butter until soft, add the milk, bring back to the boil and add the breadcrumbs. Take off the heat and mix well, season with salt and black pepper and then add the last of the butter.

Posted by Ben Mckellar