The British have rediscovered game. Marks and Spencer increased its sales of venison by 340 per cent between 2010 and 2011, while last year wood pigeon sales rose by almost 40 per cent in Waitrose. The UK Game Company says overall game sales were up 30 per cent last year. And this year, for the first time, M&S has started stocking pheasant, rabbit and partridge.
It's easy to see why. Partridge and pheasant are more interesting than chicken, venison than beef. Game is leaner than farmed meat; it's free-range and sustainable; and many Britons eat more adventurously than they used to. But many of us are still unsure about game, nervous at its perceived cost, worried that it's difficult to cook or concerned about its problematic association with bloodsports. I went to a shoot in Sussex to see for myself. M&S, who paid for me to go, say that the shoot is typical of the meat that ends up in their stores.
It starts with the kit. Jeans were outlawed. "A tie is not essential," they said, so I knew it was. I bought a woollen pullover in what I hoped was a rural shade of green, and a hideous checked shirt. With these, a pair of brown cords, a red tie and a charity-shop Barbour, I felt pretty ridiculous. When I arrived, I was the only man not wearing plus-fours.
Who were these people? Someone who introduced himself Daniel Day Lewis-ly as "an oil man" and lived in Kazakhstan. A partner at a City law firm. A hotelier. A grey-haired, solitary German. And Tom Harvey, M&S's avuncular meat buyer, who was to teach me to shoot.
All blokes, and blokey blokes at that. The oil man's Kazakh wife arrived later and stood dutifully behind him, complimenting his aim. But no woman fired a gun, and the only other women I saw were 'beaters' or 'picker-uppers'. The beaters are local people paid to stamp through the undergrowth where the birds are hiding and drive them towards the people shooting; the picker-uppers have trained dogs that collect the wounded and dead. The beaters and 'guns' seem barely to speak to each other. There's also a man directing things: he communicates with the beaters by walkie-talkie and blows a horn to signal the start and end of each drive. The slaughter is remarkably efficient.
There would be six drives that day: I was to watch Harvey for the first, then have a go myself. The guns were positioned perhaps 20 feet from each other. The horn blew, we put our earplugs in, the beaters started beating. Nervous, you notice the landscape properly: a beautiful autumn morning on the dipping downs. Nothing happens for ages, just the whoomph-whoomph of the beaters, the crackle and chatter of the walkie-talkie, the odd caw of a crow.
Suddenly, the first frightened bird comes flapping over the corn. Harvey lifts his shotgun – bang – it tumbles and thumps to the ground. But it's only wounded, and flaps about in panic and agony. "Grab it and wring its neck," shouts Harvey. Somehow I catch the bloody, terrified creature and ineptly strangle it. "Leave it. The dogs'll get it." The bird's shit is on my hands.
I wasn't sure if I would be able to shoot after that, but I decided to try. You feel – or I felt – nervous when holding a shotgun. There are dogs and beaters everywhere, and you're always aiming above a hedge or hill which could be hiding other people. I was grateful to have Harvey next to me, loading the gun and making sure I didn't kill anyone.
My first two shots went cack-handedly into the grey sky, but I hit a partridge with my third. Harvey roared, "Ye-e-e-e-es!" like a football fan at a goal. He clapped me on the shoulders. "Well done man! It was dead in the air." I 'bagged' two pheasants over the next four or five minutes. My heart was thumping when the horn sounded. It wasn't a pleasant feeling.
That first partridge was separated from the other birds, perhaps 50 carcasses, strung together and loaded on a truck. Someone brought out champagne slugged with sloe gin for the guns – I needed a drink and was grateful for it. The beaters tramped to the next drive; the picker-uppers organised their dogs. I watched two labradors race each other towards a flapping, wounded pheasant, grab opposite ends and rip the bird in two.
I felt guilty, almost complicit in something. But then a strange thing happened. As the day went on from drive to drive, and the birds rained from the sky, you somehow forgot – or forgot to remember – that they were living creatures. I'd decided to stick the shoot out: I soon became more confident and started to aim properly. I hit more, and the pity of it didn't strike me as it had before. After a good lunch at The Earl of March pub with a couple of glasses of red wine, I felt almost relaxed. By the end, they'd stopped being birds at all: they'd become targets, and I winced when I missed them. On three drives, I killed three partridge and nine pheasant. "Very respectable for a first-timer," someone said. The total 'bag' for the day, between nine guns, was 290 birds, which one person who shoots a lot tells me disapprovingly is "carnage".
Killing your own dinner can be a worthwhile experience. I went deer stalking last year and found it thrilling, even though I didn't take a shot. But this was different. That these birds would be eaten was incidental to the people shooting them: it was the pleasure of killing, or at any rate the pleasure of shooting things, that mattered. Game – the word is instructive.
And there was a depressingly feudal feel to the day. Each gun was spending more than £1,000 to be there; the beaters are paid perhaps £30 for hard, physical work. At the end, you're expected to tip the gamekeeper in a quintessentially English and embarrassing way. You shake his hand and say thanks: he slips the notes in his pocket and offers you a couple of birds. I wouldn't mind paying him outright, but the rules and shibboleths are weird.
I took home a brace each of partridge and pheasant. I curried the pheasant using Henry Harris's recipe that accompanies this piece and roasted the partridge whole. All were excellent. The first partridge has gone to the taxidermist: Harvey told me he regretted not having stuffed his first bird. I await its reproachful stare.
Game is good: it's sustainable, sensibly managed, free-range and delicious. I can see how shooting might "support the local economy", and I know that running a shoot is difficult and expensive. If the punters want to wear stupid costumes and drink gin, that's up to them.
But structures like this entrench a public perception of game as rarefied and elite. It's probably less cruel to shoot a wild bird than to raise one in appalling conditions on a factory farm before electrocuting it and slitting its throat. But, equally, it seems somehow more ethical to kill an animal for food because you're paid to do it, rather than paying to kill it for pleasure. As more Britons discover game, and start to ask questions about where it comes from, these issues will only grow in importance.
HENRY HARRIS'S GAME RECIPES
Venison à la cuillière
A la cuillière – a lost culinary term for cooking a casserole until it falls apart – is a wonderful way to prepare the fibrous forequarter-cuts of venison. The pig's trotters add the rich gelatin needed to give the sauce its glossy depth. A buttery, mashed potato or some ribbons of pappardelle can provide the ideal accompaniment. This recipe will prove to be very successful with hare, too.
1kg forequarter venison, ideally chuck and brisket
4 pig's trotters
A few sprigs of thyme
A bay leaf
3 cloves garlic
1 onion, quartered
1 carrot peeled and quartered
1 stick of celery, quartered
1 bottle red wine
1tsp redcurrant jelly
100ml double cream
Cut the venison into large dice and place in a bowl along with the trotters. Add the herbs and vegetables then pour over the red wine. Cover the dish and leave in the fridge to marinate for 24 hours.
The next day, strain everything in a colander. Season. Preheat the oven to 160C/gas mark 3. Heat some vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry the venison in small batches to give it a good colour; do the same with the vegetables. Use the wine to deglaze the pan. Place everything along with the trotters into a heavy cast-iron dish; bring it to a simmer.
Top up with some water or light chicken stock. Add the redcurrant jelly. Cover and transfer to the oven and leave to cook gently for 3 hours. Check occasionally to make so that you are happy all is proceeding well.
After 3 hours, the meat should be on the verge of falling apart and the trotters soft and slippery. With a large slotted spoon, lift all the meat and vegetables from the pan on to a tray and leave to cool for 5 minutes. Strain the braising liquor through a fine sieve into a clean pan and reduce by half to give a good, rich gravy.
A pair of rubber gloves proves useful for the next stage. Work your way through the tray and discard the vegetables and all the bones from the trotters: it's fiddly work but worth it.
Return the venison and trotter meat to a clean pan and pour over the reduced braising liquid and cream.
Bring to a simmer. Take care, but stir and reduce so everything starts to break up and becomes a shredded, glossy ragout. Add the Cognac and cook for a further minute.
A sort of vindaloo of pheasant
I love pheasant on a cool winter's evening and this recipe is a lovely foil to the traditions of Christmas. This approach to a vindaloo also works exceptionally well with duck, both farmed and wild. Don't be scared by the title, as vindaloo's origins are not based on the searing of chillies rather the sharpness of a little vinegar and the warmth of all the garlic. I am sure an expert in Goan cuisine would find inaccuracies in the authenticity of this recipe, but the final result is very tasty.
3 small dried red chillies
100ml rice vinegar
4tsp cumin seeds
3tsp coriander seeds
2cm-length of cinnamon bark
10 small cloves of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 golf ball-sized piece of fresh ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 pheasants, jointed into quarters and with each breast and leg being divided into two
A little vegetable oil
3 onions, finely chopped
2tbsp unrefined sugar
1 litre game or chicken stock
½ bunch of fresh coriander, peeled and coarsely chopped
Crumble up the chillies into a small bowl and add the vinegar. Set aside for 1 hour. Place the cumin, coriander and cinnamon in a dry frying pan and roast gently for 2-3 minutes.
Transfer the spices to a pestle and mortar or liquidiser and grind to a fine powder. If you can't get the spices fine enough, then strain them through a sieve to remove the larger pieces of spice.
Combine the chilli mixture, ground spices, garlic, ginger and turmeric in the liquidiser and blitz to a purée.
Then place your pheasant pieces in a large bowl, pour over the paste and massage in well (rubber gloves are a good idea here). Cover the pheasant and leave in the fridge for at least 6 hours or, even better, overnight.
Heat the oven to 180C, gas mark 5. Take a large shallow pan and heat the oil over a medium flame. Then brown the pheasant on all sides and transfer to a casserole dish.
Next, fry the onions in the same pan until golden and transfer them to the casserole dish; add the sugar, a generous seasoning of salt, the remaining marinade and enough stock to just cover the pheasant. Bring it all to the boil, cover the pan and transfer it to the oven.
Cook for at least 1 hour or until the pheasant is tender, stirring occasionally. Remove from the oven and skim off the fat; check the seasoning, if it is a little too sharp, add a little more sugar. If the sauce is not strong enough then strain it into a separate pan, and reduce it by boiling until the required intensity is achieved.
Pour it back over the pheasant and give the whole pot a final blast of heat. Finally, scatter over the chopped coriander.
Henry Harris is chef-patron at Racine, London SW3