More game, please...
It has become the mission of many to promote shooting and the eating of game, says Matt Kidd. But, as our subscription prize-winner Graham Coley found out, the good folk at Vale House Kitchen are leading from the front.
(Photographer: Simon Kidd)
If you’re going to shoot it, why would you not eat it, too?” Victoria Knowles-Lacks, founder of the Shotgun & Chelsea Bun Club, was not impressed after witnessing one Gun turn his nose up after being offered a brace to take home. With the anti-shooting brigade and the hungry media ever-present, we must prevent this question being asked where possible. Gone are the days when Guns could acceptably turn down a brace.
Through no fault of their own, many of those who make up the ever-growing number taking up the sport have little or no knowledge of the traditions and ethics at its core. Thankfully, there are many people out there who are looking to help.
Tutored clay and game days are a good option for teaching etiquette, conduct, and respect for one’s quarry. Some provide convenient alternatives to taking a brace such as game patés, salamis and biltong. But one group in particular, comprised of a combination of culinary stars and knowledgeable country folk, deserve very special credit indeed – Vale House Kitchen (VHK).
Founded by Bod and Annie Griffiths in 2012, with the help of Tim Maddams (head tutor at VHK and author of Game: The River Cottage Handbook No. 15), VHK is the pinnacle for entry-level sporting interests. Their intentions are to provide a means for non-country folk to experience the Great British countryside, and offer novice anglers or shooters the opportunity to develop their skills, as well as learn about game cookery and foraging via top-class tuition. The aim is to teach people skills that will allow them to reconnect with their food and, most importantly, the countryside around us.
Memories are what make us who we are and form our opinions. “I remember the first time I ate game,” recounts Tim, now one of the leading gastronomes of wild food. “I had just turned seven and my mum was given a hare by a local farmer. I remember the stink of the guts, the crackle of the sinews and the high, gamey aroma of the meat as she transformed it into a savoury delight during an afternoon of slow cooking. And I remember the astonishing flavour of the stew. I was hooked, and there was no going back.” At later stages in life, new memories are less influential, but it is never too late to make positive and fulfilling changes to a person’s lifestyle or opinion.
Bod, on the other hand, grew up in North Devon where he learnt to love and appreciate nature from a young age through shooting and fishing, and cooking with his grandmother. But it wasn’t until 2009 – after 20 years in London working as an insurance broker – that his childhood memories took a firm hold. With a yearning to return to his roots, he decided it was time to relocate to the West Country, choosing Vale House in Somerset as a suitable residence to begin the next chapter of his and his wife Annie’s lives.
Now a few years down the line, they have managed to remould the opinions held by many non game-eating folk, so much so that game now appears regularly on the dinner tables of those who have attended their courses. “We must be thorough and concise with our teaching so the skills they learn are easy to repeat and transfer to different mediums,” explains Bod. “It is vital we teach safe practice, proper etiquette and respect for the quarry from the start, so when they do fish or shoot again it must not be dangerous for them or others,” he adds. One course that has proven to be particularly popular is a morning of simulated game targets with tuition, followed by a real pheasant drive or two in the afternoon, and a game butchery and cookery course under Tim’s tutelage the following day.
Although the game courses are relatively new, they have been incredibly well received and VHK now offer a full game experience – a full day’s pheasant shooting at Shellard’s award-winning shoot in Somerset with the hospitality one would expect on a traditional shoot day – but one that caters specifically for both keen novices and experienced Shots. And by teaching them clever and convenient ways to prepare and cook game the following day, and showing them just how tasty it can be, they hope to encourage their guests to eat more game at home.
Some of you may remember that we offered the chance to win a complete game experience with VHK in October and November last year. Well, our very lucky winner, Graham Coley, who happens to have 20 years of game shooting experience, ended up attending the very first weekend of its type at Vale House Kitchen.
“It was absolutely brilliant! It far exceeded all expectations,” was Graham’s response when I asked how the weekend went. “I take my wife Sue everywhere I shoot, but we were a little nervous attending this weekend as novices can be dangerous at times and their reasons for shooting a little obscure. However, our worries were short-lived as we were introduced to the shoot manager, Frank Shellard, and the rest of the party.”
Six of the seven Guns strolled to the first peg in bright sunshine and with high hopes. George Robertson, however – who had never shot at live quarry before – was given an extra special treat and was chaffeured to his peg by horse and cart with Frank’s daughter at the reins. He was then supervised and mentored by Frank himself, and sure enough, it can’t have been 10 minutes before birds were falling around him.
And by all accounts, the shooting didn’t disappoint. “In the 20 years I have shot, averaging 20–25 days a year, attending fantastic shoots in North Yorkshire and Lincolnshire,” remarked Graham, “I have never shot a bird as good as my last. A high, climbing, curling pheasant which fell just a few feet behind me – what a bird!” Indeed, Frank and his team did a tremendous job throughout the day, presenting great sport in tough conditions.
So it ticked all the boxes on the shooting front, but what about the food? Elevenses were kept relatively light – tasty savoury bites and tomato soup. All to allow room for a special, surprise dinner later on. “In order to achieve our aim of providing great hospitality,” said Bod, “we decided the best place to host the evening meal would be in the comfort of our own home, prepared and cooked by Tim, using produce collected or made during our courses.”
To tend to appetites, Tim served a selection of canapés, including venison salami (prepared six weeks previously on one of their butchery courses), breasted and pan-fried hen pheasants (collected and hung after the first drive of the day), and a delicious game terrine served with quince chutney prepared in the autumn.
Once seated, the guests were served a starter of slices of pressed venison shoulder with hand-picked chanterelles and Tim’s top-secret ‘Green Sauce’. Next to the table was something a bit different: Asian-style venison served with vegetables and noodles. And for dessert? Bod’s favourite – local Bramley apple doughnuts with a coconut parfait!
“The three-course meal was dining like I’d never experienced before,” added Graham. “And for all of us to be welcomed into Bod and Annie’s home only added to the level of hospitality experienced throughout the day. We were made to feel so welcome it was as if we were at a family Christmas party – they really are such fantastic hosts.”
With bellies full and thirsts quenched by fabulous wines, the guests returned to their accommodation, reminiscing about their day and looking forward to what the morning would bring.
The following day arrived and tweeds were swapped for aprons as the guests gathered outside the kitchen doors. “Day two really surprised me,” said Graham. “I have prepared and cooked a lot of game in the past – being a strong believer that you should only kill something if you are going to eat it and only if there is an abundance of it – but this was on another level altogether.
“We learned how to do things far more efficiently,” he explained, “such as new ways to skin rabbits and prepare pheasants which I will definitely be using from now on. And also how to make delicious pasta from scratch to accompany many meats, which I have tried since with great success.”
VHKs initial aims were to provide people with a route into country life, to give them a deeper understanding of where their meat comes from and how to prepare and cook it, and to impart skills that will benefit their lives and provide a basis to progress safely and ethically into the world of fieldsports. And by all accounts they are achieving just that. “The weekend was brilliant,” concluded Graham. “It really did deliver on the ‘peg-to-plate’ concept. And not only that, we all had a splendid time and were made to feel tremendously welcome. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.”
Clearly Bod, Annie and Tim are more than delivering on their aim to provide a weekend course that is both great fun and highly educational. And not one guest, I am sure, would dream of turning their nose up at the prospect of taking home a brace of pheasants at the end of the day. Besides, they will no doubt be itching to put their new gastronomic skills to good use.