The labels on our supermarket cuts of meat work hard to reassure us that our chosen steaks and joints are "farm-assured" or "locally sourced", while the menus of Britain's gastropubs are cluttered with a collection of culinary buzzwords designed to make us feel happy about where their flesh comes from.
Quality is king, it seems, as more of us take an interest in what exactly we are eating. And that's what enterprising brothers Tom and Ed Martin are hoping. The owners of ETM Group, a small group of high-end London gastropubs, including the White Swan off Chancery Lane and the Botanist in Sloane Square, say that top-notch meat is so prized by their well-heeled clientele they are prepared to take matters into their own hands to provide it.
The brothers, who have a hint of old money-meets-ambitious-upstarts about them, had already made it their business to visit the farms and specialist producers who supply their eight establishments. But with British beef and Welsh lamb no longer enough to satisfy the carnivorous urges of their punters, they needed more adventurous meats for their menus. With sales of game booming – up nationally by 92 per cent since 2002, with Marks & Spencer reporting 40 per cent growth this year – wild boar seemed an interesting, if not obvious solution. For the brothers that means an annual pilgrimage to the forests of Cheb in the Czech Republic. The logic is simple, says older brother Tom: "Game is so much cheaper for us to hunt in the Czech Republic than it would be in Scotland or France, so it's a great way for us to be able to source great meat, including some of the best wild boar in Europe."
The brothers started hunting about seven years ago and it's clear the trip is at least to some extent a corporate jolly, but Ed is adamant it has a genuine aim. "We're both believers in real food from the wild," he says. "This gives our chefs, who come along with us every year, the chance to try something new and fill up a chiller van to dispatch back to England at the same time."
It's not just Tom and Ed who are wild about boar. Its flavour is somewhere between beef and venison and has attracted fans in high places. Michel Roux Jnr cooks with it at home for Christmas, while Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is taking a break from his latest vegetarian adventure to include it in his festive ingredients on Channel 4's River Cottage. At the Cinnamon Kitchen, one of London's smartest Indian restaurants, the founding chef Vivek Singh regularly offers it on his menu, with boar vindaloo a favourite among his regulars. Being a strong believer in the put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is school of meat eating (I've stalked deer in Scotland and seen farm animals butchered), I jump at the chance to tag along and help Tom and Ed stock their kitchens. But Cheb isn't Perthshire and the procedure is somewhat different to the Highland experience. Our group of half a dozen ETM Group staff, including the head chef and sommelier, each has a guide and a different patch of woodland set aside for us. Tuition and training consist of one round at a firing range.
As darkness falls I set out with my guide Zdena, a 65-year-old forester who has come out of semi-retirement to help me bag a kill. Wild boar, he tells me, is very common in the Czech Republic but the cloudy sky and lack of usual November snow means it will be tough to spot one. He doesn't look confident as he explains that like most European boar hunters he prefers night, when the animals are feeding and highlighted by moon against the snowy ground. "What about a fox instead or a deer? More likely," he suggests hopefully.
After a short hike into the woods, we establish ourselves three or four metres up in a hide to sit in wait for our prey. I try to put Zdena's expectation management to the back of my thoughts as the temperature drops. The hours drag by as my guide sighs in frustration with every rustle as I shift position to avoid the biting wind. My mind starts to wander, seeing shapes that don't exist in the gloom. Then I'm informed that others are having more success as a shot rings out from several miles away. But after another hour's cold wait we hear something real in the darkness. "Silence," Zdena hisses as he passes me the rifle, safety off, and raises his binoculars. Leaves rustle and twigs crack as two small wild boars approach. Zdena says he can just make them out darting playfully across a forest track before us. I'm not so sure. He points into the darkness and whispers, "shoot only when you are certain".
The shapes are just too blurred and too distant for me to be sure. I lower the rifle and the crashing moves into the distance. "Too hard," Zdena says. We return crestfallen to the hunting lodge, where a grinning Ed Martin is struggling to heave a adult boar the size of a cow off the back of a truck and into the cold store for its return to England.
Buoyed by his success, we feast on a traditional Czech meal of braised boar, stuffed trotters and fresh venison liver (our guns bagged 23 beasts in two days, including several fallow deer as well as boars) prepared by ETM Group's top chef, James Lyon-Shaw. "There's an element of Ready, Steady, Cook with hunting," he says. "We're never quite sure what we'll get back to England so our pubs have to be creative and change their menus quickly."
The next morning I rise early and head out again with Zdena to wait again. A small fallow deer obligingly walks into my sights. It's no boar but the chiller van still has space and I fire from 80 metres or so. The small beast turns as I squeeze the trigger and blood spurts into the air, while its organs and stomach fall from its body. The force of the bullet sends it tumbling down a sharp ravine in its death throes. A gun dog is called for and Zdena and I spend half an hour searching for its body in thick brambles and dense woodland. It's a world away from cellophane- wrapped "farm-assured beef" or "locally sourced lamb" in my local supermarket. When we finally track it down it's long dead, bent double in a pool of its own blood in a muddy riverbed. Not a pretty sight. Zdena doesn't seem annoyed with its end, or the extra work. "This is real hunting." he says. "Real experience. Good meat."
Roast boar saddle, braised shoulder, quince and beetroot
By James Lyon-Shaw
600g boar loin, 1 boar blade, 1 bottle white wine, 200ml Madeira, 1 star anise, 1 cinnamon stick, 5 cloves, 1 onion, 2 celery sticks, 1 carrot, 1 head garlic, bouquet garni of thyme, bay and parsley stalks, 1 large beetroot with 2 bunches of baby beetroot with leaves, 2 quince, 1ltr chicken stock, 750ml veal demi glaze, 275ml apple juice, 100g caster sugar, 30ml champagne vinegar
Marinate boar shoulder overnight with the celery, carrot, garlic, wine, maderia, and spices. Marinate boar loin in garlic, thyme and olive oil. Sear in a hot pan on all sides then set aside. Brown mirepoix in the same pan then pour in marinade and reduce.
Put shoulder back in pan and add the stocks (keep 250ml for the beetroot glaze), boil then simmer. Place in oven at 140C for four hours.
Remove the shoulder and press between two trays. Pour braising juices into a clean pot and reduce to a sauce consistency.
Grate beetroot and put in a pan with apple juice and chicken stock and reduce to a glaze. Roast the baby beetroots in a sealed foil parcel with olive oil, garlic, thyme, champagne vinegar and salt.
Peel baby beetroots and cut in quarters. Bake quince with the sugar and some water. Purée baked quince and add a splash of champagne vinegar. Wash leaves from the beetroot well and dry thoroughly.
To assemble, brown off the loin and place in a hot oven on 180C until medium rare. Reheat boar shoulder in the sauce. Wilt the beet leaves in an emulsion of butter and water with a splash of champagne vinegar.
Serve with dauphinoise potato, reheated quince purée and baby beetroot in the beetroot glaze.