Celebrity chef Nick Nairn is as passionate about the Scottish countryside as he is about the bounty of natural ingredients that it provides, says Marcus Janssen.
From restaurateur to celebrity chef, Nick Nairn has had a long and pioneering career in the UK food industry. Based these days at his stunning Port of Menteith Cook School in Stirlingshire, Nick now spends his working life teaching, writing and filming.
But he is just as famous for his passionate advocacy of healthy eating, staunch support for Scottish food producers and his love of the countryside. His grandfather had a farm on the south shore of the Lake of Menteith, so he was introduced to shooting and fishing at a young age. “My grandfather gave me a .410 when I was 11,” he says with obvious nostalgia. “I loved going out shooting with my father. There was a keeper who put the fear of God into me in terms of gun safety though, he gave me the worst bollocking I ever received for crossing a fence without taking the cartridges out of my gun! I had broken it, but hadn't removed the cartridges.”
Gladly, despite the residing impression it left on him, it didn't put Nick off! Indeed, such an early introduction to the countryside instilled in him an understanding and deep-seated appreciation for Scotland's natural resources. “We really do have a larder of unparalleled excellence up here, but it is so often overlooked and under appreciated,” he says with unreserved patriotism. “For instance, why import lamb or venison from New Zealand?! We have a huge population of wild deer in Scotland. One of the most delicious things on the planet is wild venison – a saddle of roe deer or haunch of red – it's completely sustainable, healthy and truly delicious. But sadly, it's still seen as the meat of the toffs!”
On that note, Nick believes that in order to shake off shooting's elitist tag – which he sees as being crucial to the long-term sustainability of the sport – it needs to become more accessible and family friendly. “I have a half gun in a small shoot, Arnprior, in Stirlingshire,” he says, “and it is very much a family shoot; kids come and beat and we're trying to get everyone to take their turn in cooking the shoot lunch. It's important to involve wives and kids and turn shooting into a proper family affair.
“The kids who come beating learn about the countryside and invariably end up being keen Shots themselves. My daughter Daisy (11) is mad keen – she went beating last year and she desperately wants to shoot this year. We've got to make shooting more about a day out for everyone. It has to be less elitist. And less male.”
But equally, Nick recognises the difficulties in promoting shooting and stalking to the general public. “The mainstream media is so influential, but it's difficult to get shooting and stalking onto television. I have filmed stalking three times for TV, described the whole lot – gralloching, why we have selected a particular beast, the importance to the ecosystem, the habitat management aspect, the whole story – and then the TV companies cut it out. Unfortunately there is the whole upper middle class hangover that is difficult to shift.”
Clearly, rural issues and the country lifestyle are close to Nick's heart and it is obvious the he feels passionately that the way of life and traditions that he grew up with should be maintained. “Protecting the countryside itself is a major issue,” he says. “The financial viability of the estates themselves is crucial if there is to be a countryside for our kids to enjoy. In order to maintain the delicate balance that exists between land management, traditional countryside industries, country sports and local employment, we have to be proactive, and a good place to start is in getting more people eating game.
“The Countryside Alliance's initiative to get curry restaurants to use game is good – that seems to me to be a good place to start. It's certainly slow progress, but every year more people seem to be eating game. The thing is, it's very healthy, very low in saturated fat, cheap and versatile. In terms of gamebirds, the cost is covered by the Guns, so you can get a pheasant for £2 a bird, despite it costing the shoot or estate £21 to produce! So as the consumer, you are the beneficiary! And there are so many great flavours there,” he adds.
At the cookery school, Nick runs a class called Game Birds to teach people how to cook the things they or their husbands (or wives) bring home. “We show them how to prepare and cook snipe, woodcock, pheasant, partridge, mallard. There's often a bit of work involved in properly preparing game for the table. For instance, you really must hang it. I hang snipe for three days, mallard for a week and pheasant for 12 days.” As the conversation shifts from sport to cooking and eating, Nick becomes noticeably animated. “Roasting gamebirds whole is one of the best ways – a few roast potatoes or other root vegetables, a gravy made from the game stock, some bread sauce – what's not to like!”
Before I have time to agree, he continues: “If you do roast a pheasant whole, always wrap it in streaky bacon to stop it from drying out. Never overcook them. They shouldn't be rare, but must be moist. I have to stress though, something that gets overlooked is the fact that all of these carcasses are brilliant, and I mean really brilliant, for making stocks. Mallard, teal, widgeon, pheasant – you name it – they're perfect for soups, casseroles, gravies, risottos, sauces etc. Don't ever chuck a carcass away, it's such a waste and it doesn't matter if it's raw or cooked. If you do make a stock with raw carcasses, you must skim off the froth just as it simmers. Then add onions, celery, carrots, bay leaves and thyme. Out of all of the gamebirds, the pigeon makes the best stock. Whip the breasts off and use the rest for stock.
“Another tip I have which makes using pheasants very easy is one that not many people know about. If you take a feathered bird and place it on its back on the ground and then place your feet on the wings, close to where they join the body, and then take hold of the legs and pull slowly – it needs to be a strong, hard but slow pull – it will skin and gut the bird so that you end up with the legs, wings and innards in your hand and the breasts on the carcass, ready to use. But it only works with fresh birds, within about eight hours of being shot.
“I have to say though, I do prefer the wilier birds at the end of the season,” he adds. “They've been on natural food for longer, they're fitter and tend to have a better flavour to them. And of course because they fly higher, not only are they more of a challenge, but they end up with less lead in them!”
So, are high January pheasants Nick's favourite quarry, I wonder? “I do love a good pheasant shoot but woodcock and snipe are my favourite,” he says without hesitation. “I like to shoot in woodland, and being near a river is always lovely – I love natural settings. And I don't like spectators! And the less time I have to think about the shot, the better. So small fast things like woodcock, snipe and partridges are my preference.
“But the quarry isn't that important to me,” he adds. “What I really love is the atmosphere and ethos of a family shoot. I love the tradition, the drawing of pegs, the chat, the dogs, the sloe gin. I love seeing the kids involved in it all. It all creates a proper connection to the surrounding countryside, and that is so important. And that's the kind of shoot that is right for the future.”