Eat what you kill
There is nothing more pleasing than getting people to understand the true provenance of their meat, says Jack Knott of the Countryside Alliance's Game-to-Eat campaign. And what is wrong with having a little bit of fun along the way?
Earlier this spring, I was part of an elite team of eight Guns invited to Sussex for a weekend of highly regimented pigeon shooting at Selhurst Park. After a long night of whisky, short on time, we set off for an hour's recce at 8am. Overcast with a strong wind, we slowly began to get an idea of a few of the flight patterns and where the pigeons might like to spend their last hours.
The intended objective was very much to shoot pigeons, however, I spent the majority of the first day unsuccessfully stalking rabbits in an area of thick gorse – as fun as it was, the rabbits were not so obliging, and crawling through gorse was quite unpleasant. Fortunately, with plenty of leg-work and even more cartridges, by the end of the second day we had amassed over 180 extremely challenging pigeons, as well as a handful of rabbits (at long last), a couple of squirrels and a jay.
The weekend was nothing short of perfection and one that included the finest sport of them all – rough shooting, a type of shooting that provides a whole range of challenges, is never taken too seriously, is always enjoyed alongside friends and, most importantly, can provide plenty of food for the table.
Providing food for the table is something I take extremely seriously. So, too, did the rest of the guests, for once the guns were cleaned and packed away, we all set about plucking, gutting and dressing the goods to then divvy out and take home. After taking notes from a short video on YouTube, together we crowned all 180 pigeons in just under half an hour and packaged them up for safe travel. Even the rabbits and squirrels were not spared from this group of home-chefs. One guest was particularly excited to have a go at a squirrel pie that had recently been featured with some success on a Jamie Oliver show. I am yet to hear how successful it was though...
Throughout Europe it is tradition for hunting horns to be blown at the end of the day and the day's quarry to be laid out as a mark of respect. This respect is sadly seen far too rarely in Britain and is something that, for the benefit of shooting, should be increased.
I believe there are two choices, either I can start taking a French horn to every day's shooting and hope it catches on, or we can show our respect by utilising as much of the game ourselves.
For example, if the gamekeeper at the end of the day were to hand out three, four or even five brace of oven-ready or in-feather birds to each Gun and beater involved, the quantity sold on to the game dealers would practically halve. This will, of course, mean less produce for the dealer, but they will see prices paid by restaurants, pubs and butchers increase, creating a stronger and more revered game market. Wild game would become truly celebrated in the UK and hopefully go a long way towards halting the high levels of export to Europe. Whether this would be successful cannot be said, but within the shooting community there is no doubt that a stronger game market will benefit all of us.
Heading back to the real life from my parent's farm in Oxfordshire, my bags are always full of game, whether it is in-season pheasant and partridge, venison or vermin, a trail of feathers and fur often follows in my wake. This is very much in line with the annual Strutt & Parker and GunsOnPeg's census that shows those under 35 enjoy their game in-feather much more than their older counterparts. The simple reason for this is that the majority of the younger generations who enjoy shooting and cooking cannot afford the top quality meats they desire; on the other hand wild game ticks all the right boxes.
It is my opinion that after a day's shooting it will generally be the younger generations asking for an extra brace to take home compared to the older clientele. From some elders you may even be fortunate enough to hear the all-too-regular ‘I am sorry my freezer is full, I cannot possibly have any more pheasant'. Yet, there is one major issue with this statement – game doesn't have to live in the freezer; you can cook it straight away! Since university, Mondays in my flat have always been game night, where the fresh weekend's produce will be prepped and cooked up into a feast.
Partridges tend to be the chosen favourite during the season, commandeered from my ‘hard' work beating on the local shoot. Over the past couple of years the small and tasty birds have been roasted, smoked, slow-cooked, braised, sous-vide, fried and Kiev'd. To date, top marks have been awarded to a number of interesting and new methods, but one stands out as champion of them all – the infamous beer-can partridge (see the Game-to-Eat website), a dish that rattles the imagination but cooks the game to perfection, producing a tender meat greatly infused by whatever ale has been specifically chosen. Even the oldest of birds can be reborn using this method of cooking.
In comparison with the ‘usual meats' there is still so much experimental cooking to be had with wild game, and with that so much to learn. It is our motto that no two game meals should ever be the same, destroying the myths that wild game is both boring and has to be wrapped in bacon at every possible moment! Those who say game is dull are sadly the same as those who say their freezers are too full. The public are more than happy to cook and eat chicken two or three times a week – what is wrong with enjoying pheasant or partridge instead?
On the menu this week is a slow-cooked goat curry. After learning once that quick-frying goat striploin can be a wee bit tough, we thought we would go for an old time favourite! Even as I write this, half way through the closed season, the freezer still contains a ‘liquorice all-sorts' of game.
When larger game – like a deer – is shot, as much as possible is eaten fresh and the rest is packed securely away in the freezer. Last year with freezer space tight (it does happen occasionally), I stripped a whole muntjac down and turned it into biltong. Two days marinating in vinegar, salts and spices and four days hanging in the airing cupboard created the perfect pub snack that sadly did not last too long. Last season I also saw great success in pheasant biltong, showing that game can be stored in the fridge, freezer and larder.
My friends often respond with surprise when I offer them the opportunity to sample a venison fillet or some smoked pigeon, both of which generally demand high prices in the restaurants that serve them. But there is nothing more pleasing than getting one or two more people to understand the true provenance of their meat, and what is wrong with having a little bit of fun with it along the way?
Younger generations that have the opportunity to shoot driven birds generally have their parents to thank for bringing them up in the shooting community and giving them the chance to shoot. So it is incredibly encouraging that they are keen to take birds in-feather and enjoy their quarry. And I can assure you that all the guests down in Sussex for the weekend would certainly agree with that, whilst cooking up their pigeon crowns in an assortment of ways.