Brett Graham is not only passionate about using game and venison in his two Michelin-starred kitchen at The Ledbury, he has a strong ethical conscience too, as Marcus Janssen discovered.
Recently, I feared the worst for the world's dwindling Sumatran striped rabbit population, one of the rarest members of the Leporidae family. Having read a few of the Tweets directed at novelist Jeanette Winterson, in response to her public killing of a rabbit, I naturally assumed that the sicko must have either tortured some poor bunny for several hours before bludgeoning it to death with a hammer, or have thoughtlessly killed the last of a highly endangered species. Such was the venom directed at her from the Twittersphere.
Turns out she did neither. Jeanette had merely cleanly dispatched one of the garden (raiding) variety (yes, the one that numbers in excess of 40 million in the UK), before turning it into a delicious casserole. Shock! Horror! Woman eats rabbit. What a story. After my initial relief at hearing that the last of Sumatra's precious rabbits hadn't snuffed it, I was left feeling a mixture of anger and concern; my fellow Britons had apparently lost the plot entirely.
A few days later, however, I was most relieved to hear that Britain might not be turning into a nation of extremist bunny-hugging vegetarians, after all. I was at London's two Michelin-starred The Ledbury – which was recently ranked in the top ten restaurants in the world – speaking to chef proprietor Brett Graham. “Game and venison have never been more popular in the UK,” he said, his words like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata to a jack hammerer's ears.
“I think people are, on the whole, becoming more willing to try different things.” And he should know; he is not only one of the world's best chefs, but is particularly keen on using natural and wild ingredients, rabbit included. “Between the Harwood Arms (the Michelin-starred London gastropub that Brett co-owns with Mike Robinson) and The Ledbury, we sell as much game and venison as anyone else, maybe more. And let me tell you, British diners are definitely becoming more open-minded about eating different things.” Phew.
Brett, who grew up in Australia, before coming to London to train under Phil Howard at The Square, is truly passionate about the wealth of natural ingredients we have in the UK, from obscure herbs and vegetables to venison and game. “A wild muntjac, for instance,” he says, with infectious enthusiasm, “has a lot more appeal for me than a piece of spring lamb. From an ethical point of view, that animal has lived a fabulous life. Wild and free in its natural environment, browsing and grazing on a wide variety of plants and with no idea of what is about to happen – killing that deer quickly and cleanly with zero stress is surely the ultimate way to harvest an animal?” Food for thought for Jeanette Winterson's Twitter followers, perhaps.
“People are also becoming more aware of the seasons,” continues Brett. “We do what we can to educate our customers by including as much information as possible on our menus. We will include the species and sex of a deer, so people learn what is in season and when. And they will ask questions such as: “What is a sika pricket?”
I think it is really important to introduce them to new ingredients. It is easy to serve lamb or beef, but in the past year, we have served woodcock, snipe, grey partridge, pigeon, mallard, pochard, teal, grouse, golden plover, roe deer, muntjac, Chinese water deer, sika, hare and rabbit.”
All of this bodes well, of course, but Brett is quick to point out that we could and should be doing more. “We still have a long way to go,” he continues. “We definitely need to eat more pheasant and partridge and it is my belief that if the big estates are going to put down a lot of birds and shoot big bags, then it is their responsibility to ensure that those birds are properly utilised. Why aren't we making pheasant schnitzels and pheasant nuggets, for instance? Prepare game in a way that makes it appealing and easy for your average consumer. Game is cheap, lean, healthy and tasty.”
When asked what the estates can do, Brett doesn't hesitate. “They should all be serving game and venison for lunch. Places like East Allenheads in Northumberland, Raveningham in Norfolk and Well Barn in Berkshire always serve game and venison that has been shot on the estate – that's how it should be. But on so many other shoots it's beef or chicken pie. Why? If the estates aren't using their own pheasants or partridges, they can't expect others to. People who shoot game must eat game – end of story.”
He doesn't stop there. “And estates should care more about what happens to their birds after they are shot. People like Jake Fiennes from Raveningham and Jamie Sadler from Kirby Estate set a great example, but, on the whole, there should be a better selection process of sorting and grading the birds: those with heavy meat damage should be put aside and donated to charities for mincing and turning into pheasant bolognaise, pheasant meatballs, nuggets or keeper's pie, and those prime birds in good condition should be sold whole to restaurants, hotels and pubs. That would make it a lot easier for chefs to achieve better consistency. If you up the quality, there will be a greater demand and you will be able to up the price, too.”
Clearly, Brett's ethical conscience and views weren't formed entirely on the inside of a kitchen – he has had plenty of exposure to the British countryside, and tries to spend as much of his spare time as possible out deer stalking and game shooting with friends. “I got into shooting in 2006,” he explains. “I was invited to a shoot for the release of a whisky by Ardbeg, and was sharing a peg with Mike Robinson – my partner at The Harwood Arms – who introduced me to stalking. And I loved it, absolutely loved it. We shot pheasants, partridges and duck, and I just adored the whole thing.
I haven't looked back since.
“What I really love about shooting is the social aspect, spending quality time with great friends like Alan Hayward (of Vicars Game), Mike Robinson, the late Justin Llewelyn, William Asprey, John Coe and Andrew MacKenzie from the Vineyard. For me, it has very little to do with the size of the bag but who you shoot with.” Indeed, Brett has since shot in some esteemed company. “I once shot grouse with Will Garfit,” he adds with a sheepish grin. “I'll admit now that I didn't know who he was at the time and thought to myself: 'This old boy better look out or I am going to have his birds!' Ha! What a joke! He was incredible. I saw him take a brace in front and brace behind on numerous occasions. He was an absolute joy to watch.”
This brings us to the ingredient that Brett is, possibly, most passionate about. “I absolutely love, love, love grouse, he says. “Right from August 12 through to the end of September, it is so hard to beat.” But are his customers as keen on it, I wonder? “You'll be pleased to know that grouse is as popular as ever! When I shot at Hornby on August 12 last year, I dropped some birds off with Tom Kerridge at The Hand and Flowers on the way back, who described them on his menu as ‘Grouse shot by Brett Graham'. They apparently sold out in two hours!” Clearly, not all is lost.