Chef Jason King with his terrine

Terrines – compressed ‘loaves’ of meat or vegetables – may have humble origins, but these earthy delights are worthy of the top table, says John Walsh

Sometimes derided as the lummoxy country cousin of the paté, the parfait and the galantine, the humble terrine is a thing of beauty and rapture-inducing flavour. The happy result of combining bits of game bird, minced meat, pork fat and spices, the terrine can fulfil two functions: it can be served by the slab as a coarse picnic treat, a slice of Anglicised meat loaf; or dished up in exquisite marbled slices as a much more up-market teatime savoury. It can be posh or pauperish, depending on what you put into it. It can sit on the sideboard at a drinks party as a pungent snack, or be dished up, thinly sliced, as a dinner-party starter. And it wouldn't kill you to make it yourself and amaze your friends.

The word "terrine" doesn't mean a foodstuff, merely a container. In medieval French, then in 18th-century English, it meant simply an earthenware (earth = Latin terra = terrine) roasting dish with deep sides and a close-fitting lid. In time, it came to refer to the contents, which were, according to the Oxford Companion to Food, "a sort of 'loaf', suitable for being sliced, of mincemeat, poultry, seafood or vegetables (or even fruits). The terrine is often layered so that when slices are cut from it they present an attractive and multicoloured appearance."

Auguste Escoffier, in his cooking bible, Le Guide Culinaire (1903), seemed to dismiss them as hardly more than stuffing – "Terrines are really only pies made without a pastry crust" – but wrote fondly about the basic terrines that are household staples rather than restaurant dishes: "These dishes of the old Bourgeois kitchen deserve to be put on record rather than being forgotten."

A century later, a more contemporary good book of cooking, Leith's Meat Bible (2010), offers a far grander selection of terrines: such as Autumn Terrine with Kumquat Syrup and Hazelnut Salad, that pulls together several ingredients that are at their best in autumn: pheasant, duck livers, fresh hazelnuts; or Pheasant and Duck Liver Terrine with Morello Cherry Relish, both dishes requiring no more labour than picking the meat off a cooked pheasant, lining a loaf-tin with layers of ingredients, cooking in a bain-marie for two hours, and cooling the result with small weights placed on the top to press out spare liquid.

The once-humble terrine took a culinary step upward in May, 2010, when the Bar Boulud restaurant opened in Knightsbridge in the basement of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. It wasn't the owner's charcuterie that inspired admiration, but that of Gilles Verot, a master charcutier whose family have been making pies and terrines for three generations. Patrons were encouraged to try his terrine-strength Paté Grandpère (coarse country paté with foie gras, truffle juice and port) and his award-winning speciality, Pork Head Cheese Terrine, whose name conceals an earthy cornucopia of reeking country flavours.

Among the finest terrine wranglers in Britain today is Jason King, head chef at the Wellington Arms in Baughurst, on the Hampshire/Berkshire border. In May 2009, the pub came second out of 50 in The Times Guide to the Best Places to Eat in the Countryside. King was named Best Pub Chef in the Good Food Guide's 2011 Editors' Awards.

He grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and cut his gastronomic teeth at the nouvelle cuisine maestro Paul Bocuse's restaurant in the city. It was in his first restaurant, a Relais & Châteaux establishment, that he learned to make terrines. "I became quite famous for almost taking off my whole thumb cutting up ducks. I ended up going to the hospital, getting the thumb sewn back on, then I came back to finish off the terrine. It was that kind of kitchen."

This hard-knocks approach to cuisine has made him dogmatic about terrines. "I've made them with venison a few times but it's nowhere near as good as using rabbit or pigeon or pheasant. It's just a matter of how the meat works. Beef doesn't work – it tends to be too dense. Chicken is okay, provided you put plenty of things in it – you have to really spice it up with nutmeg, bay and cloves."

On the Wellington Arms website, the day's menu featured just one terrine, of local rabbit and wood pigeon with green tomato chutney and toast. King is very proud that the pub supplies every component from scratch. "It's a very simple recipe, it requires three kilos of the game, one kilo of pork fat and two kilos of minced pork. Because we raise our own pigs in the field behind the pub, we tend to have large amounts of pork around. There aren't many people who can say they're involved in the process from beginning to end."

And the local rabbits and wood pigeons – does he blast them out of the hedgerows himself? "No no, the fellow who mows my lawn, he's pretty lethal with a gun. I'm not keen on him shooting the pigeons on our lawn, but there's always one hanging on the door when I come in to work in the morning." It's that kind of pub. "We're very fortunate that customers often show up with a brace of pheasants and give us them for nothing."

Among the 12 terrines in King's repertoire ("ham hock with mustard, mayo and fennel" anyone?) is a vegetarian terrine. If it's vegetarian, you can't use pork fat to bind everything together. So how...? "It's a semi-raw terrine. The vegetables are all char-grilled beforehand and you make a sort of passata, then add roasted yellow peppers, fresh tomatoes and a few breadcrumbs. And then you can go a bit mad – you can put a lump of feta cheese in it, or some white lime, maybe a layer of courgettes or mushrooms." Mr King grew positively sweaty at the possibilities. "Sorry," he said, "I'm a bit obsessed about it. And about how things look."

Common-or-garden terrines, I said, look a bit uniform in colour – a mosaic of pink, purple and salami hues. Can you make a terrine with fancy colours? "Absolutely. The vegetable one is very colourful, it's got red, white, black and yellow in there. You need a few radishes to set it off, otherwise it looks a bit too intense." He's also keen to introduce little fruit items. "In the old days, they used to macerate prunes or apricots to add flavour. One day I was short of time, and I put dried prunes into the terrine – a cowboy thing to do, but it worked. The prunes sucked up the juices, and expanded inside the mould. They looked amazing. People said, 'these are the nicest tasting walnuts I've ever eaten'."

King is full of good advice for the would-be terrineur. "We use a Le Creuset cast-iron mould with a perfectly straight edge and lid of the same material, and it's fantastic, though I don't know if they're making them any more. You have to line it with aluminium foil before cooking, because it's such a pain to get the terrine out afterwards. Put a thin layer of aluminium foil, doubled over, in there, three in a row, so you can pull it out when it's cooked."

This advice is the result of hard experience. "When I was working at Bocuse, I'd spend days making these flipping terrines, and I couldn't afford to have one go wrong, because you'd lose so much time – you'd be working until 3 o'clock [in the morning]." He sighed. "Some of them were very soft. One had a piece of foie gras in the middle, with lentils and confit of pigeon around the outside, wrapped up in cabbage, then the whole thing was set in aspic to hold it together, and of course the truffles..."

Terrines, thank goodness, don't have to be as elaborate as that. It's time more people discovered the simple, strongly flavoured alchemy of pork fat, game, forcemeat and spices that they represent. A taste of the earth indeed.