British culinary fashion constantly dictates change, but few have remarked on the radical shift in our attitude towards game. Gone are the days of tail-dropping, highly-flavoured birds. They've been replaced by neatly portioned, mild-tasting game, with no hint of feather or gut. Gone too is any sense of exclusivity. Grouse may be too elusive or expensive for some, but during peak game season (now) anyone can buy partridge or pheasant and, since the millennium, supermarket sales in game have grown each year.
Shane Osborn, head chef at Pied-à-Terre in London, has noticed the difference. "Game used to be regarded as the preserve of elderly gents," he says. "You had to go Rules or Simpson's in the Strand to eat it, but now it appeals to a much younger clientele." It seems that, from September to January, the thirtysomethings can't get enough of teal and mallard, let alone venison. According to Osborn, the latter outsells beef on his menu. "The only bird that doesn't sell that well," he says, "is grouse. It can be just a bit too strong for many people."
Most city-based chefs try to create a sense of seasonality by their choice of ingredients on the menu. Thus, Osborn conjures up images of late autumn by serving a game consommé with wild mushrooms, or a game terrine with a beetroot jelly and port wine sauce. Yet, in reality, the seasons have very little impact on city menus, as a supplier can usually find whatever the chef desires somewhere in the world - with the exception of British game.
To experience seasonal cooking you have to go somewhere very remote, such as the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. Here, Tim Martin, chef-owner (with his wife Patricia) of hotel and restaurant Scarista House, is limited by what grows, swims or flies locally. Pheasant and partridge, for example, will never appear on his menu, as the wild, tree-lorn environment doesn't agree with them. Instead, lucky diners will be given a tender roast woodcock or snipe for their dinner. However, Martin refrains from serving them in a traditional manner - plucked and roasted undrawn with their heads intact.
"I think we now have a subtler approach to cooking game," says Martin. "When I was a child, game was hung to a point of putrefaction, but these days I prefer it less hung, with a lighter flavour."
The island estates supply Scarista House with grouse, woodcock, snipe and wild red deer loin or fillet and, at this time of year, they are accompanied by seasonal root vegetables and greens. The venison is seared and served with roast shallots and salsify, turnips or Jerusalem artichokes. The accompanying stock-based sauce is finished with a little sweetness, perhaps a hint of sloes or a little rowan jelly.
Running a small kitchen and serving a set menu, Martin has adapted his cooking methods for woodcock and grouse. They are very briefly part-roasted in an oven then, once they are cool, they are jointed and the carcasses are turned into a jus with lots of diced vegetables. (Incidentally, this method of cooking also works well with duck if you need the bones for an elderberry, red-wine or port sauce.) Martin then finishes his grouse or woodcock sauce with some Armagnac or a little Madeira and Marc de Champagne, and some cream. The birds are then cooked to order and served on some creamy Parmesan-flavoured polenta which has been mixed with rocket - rather than a piece of toast.
One man who has been pivotal in making game more accessible to urban cooks is Morris Bond, managing director of the UK Game Company. Based in Lincolnshire, the company has developed a system whereby it coordinates with shoots across the country to ensure that it collects only young venison and young birds on the actual day of the shoot. (This eliminates the need for marination or slow-cooking.) The game is then transported to the factory in Lincolnshire where it is plucked, cleaned, portioned and packaged within 72 hours. In other words, the game is not hung, so has a mild flavour.
Initially, Bond concentrated on his export market, which gave the company a turnover of around £2m per year. He then set about trying to convert the supermarkets to the benefits of consumer-friendly game. Waitrose gave him his first break in 2000 and he hasn't looked back since. He now supplies Sainsbury's, Booth's and Marks & Spencer - and the market is growing steadily. Bond is keen to reassure that all his game is sustainable. In fact, according to this jovial man, the only endangered creature we should worry about are the old buffers who love their game as high it can be hung.Reuse content