Wild things: Why foodies are hunting for game

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Game is extremely cheap and healthy, says Clare Hargreaves

Does wild food make your heart sing? Do you believe a wild pigeon or deer beats a farm-reared sheep or pig, even if they're reared organically? Robert Gooch, who runs the Suffolk-based Wild Meat Company, certainly believes so.

"First you have conventional, farmed meat. Then you have free range, then organic. Finally, you have reared game, and right at the top, wild game," says Robert. "I call this the naturalness index."

Within the wild meat category, there's a hierarchy, too. Some creatures are more wild than others. Deer, woodcock and pigeons, for example, are born and live totally free. At the other end of the spectrum, pheasants and partridges are usually bred in fairly intensive poultry-rearing systems before being released into the wild for their last few months.

Wild meat is not only more nutritious than a lot of farmed meat, and arguably tastier, but is often far cheaper, too. You can pick up a brace of pheasants, for example, for £5 – significantly less than you'd pay for one organic chicken.

So are we ready to go wild? There are signs that we are. According to the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), sales of game doubled between 2004 and 2006, compared to a 5 per cent rise in sales of red meat and poultry.

To prove his point Robert is taking me out to shoot my own dinner in the wet scrubland behind his Suffolk farm. As we forge through the undergrowth, I understand what Robert means when he talks about wild meat's varied natural diet. Berries and fruits adorn the trees, and an impressive range of grasses, grains and insects are visible under foot. "It's these foods that give them their wonderful 'gamey' flavour and high mineral content," says Robert. "Like us, they are what they eat. The stronger the food they eat, the more flavoursome their meat."

Another big difference is the exercise that wild meat gets. When you live wild, you expend considerable energy on finding food and dodging predators. The result is that, compared to their farmed cousins, wild animals and birds are very low in saturated fat, which, in the case of venison in particular, is proving a major draw. Venison contains just 7 per cent fat, compared to farmed beef's 23 per cent, according to BASC figures.

A brightly coloured pheasant lifts off from the undergrowth in front of us. As it soars into the air, Robert takes a shot, and it plummets, lead-like to the ground. I feel mixed emotions. On a purely physical level, there's the satisfaction of having foraged our own dinner – much like the joy of digging up potatoes you've grown yourself. Psychologically, there's unease at taking the life of such a beautiful bird, but at the same time, the feeling that if I eat meat I have to witness this.

Robert, who was reared on a farm, feels none of my qualms. He admits he enjoys the shooting that, he says, connects him to the instinctive hunter in him. "But I shoot to eat, not as target practice, or to show off."

A decade ago, suppliers such as Robert exported virtually all their meat, but now he exports only around half. UK markets are opening up for venison, partridge, pheasant and even squirrel. We're still struggling with pigeon, so Robert has to export all his pigeons. "Our loss," he laughs.

There are still challenges. One is that we are not familiar with gamebirds such as teal and woodcock, or view them as rich man's food. Another is that wild meat can be hard to find.. Until recently the wild meat has market been a twilight zone peopled by gamekeepers, farmers and landowners,and poorly regulated. This is something Robert would like to see change.

Dusk is falling. We return to the farmhouse with our bag. Once it's been hung for a few days, it should make a tasty dinner. Are you ready to go wild too?

The Wild Meat Company: www.wildmeat.co.uk. For wild meat recipes by Madalene Bonvini-Hamel of the British Larder gastropub in Suffolk, go to www.inde pendent.co.uk/food

Eating it

Partridge

Good starter if you are new to game, as it's mild and delicately flavoured . The partridge you'll find in shops is most likely to be Red-legged or French partridge rather than the smaller, native, English Grey. Together with pheasant, French partridge is the least "wild" game, as chicks are reared in captivity and only released a few weeks before shooting.

Pheasant

A mild-flavoured bird with little natural fat that makes a great alternative to chicken. Hen pheasants generally taste best.

Rabbit

A truly wild, tasty, and economical, meat. With an estimated 45 million of them in the UK, there is plenty to go round.

Squirrel

Tastes a bit like rabbit. Low in fat, low in food miles, free range, and abundant, few meats are more sustainable.

Woodpigeon

Thanks to their constant mission to find food, pigeons fly dozens of miles a day, making them one of the most truly wild foods. Its red-coloured, flavoursome meat is great eaten rare.

Wild duck (mainly mallard, widgeon and teal)

These can be either truly wild, or semi-wild if they've been fed on grain to keep them close to the pond, so ask your butcher where yours come from. Good now.

Venison

Apart from being very tasty, venison is one of the most nutritious red meats you can buy. Roe deer are usually considered to have the best flavour and texture. Other types you can try are Red, Fallow, Sika and Muntjack.

Grouse

The Red Grouse is found exclusively on Britain's high moorlands and their diet of heather gives them a superb rich, gamey flavour. Not cheap though – you'll often pay up to £25 for a brace.

Woodcock and snipe

These marsh-loving, long-billed game birds are so highly prized that it can be difficult to find them, as hunters tend to save them for themselves. Not cheap, but worth it.

Hare

The rich, gamey meat of the brown hare, the type found most widely in the UK, is one of life's delicacies. Most famously it's casseroled with its blood, as jugged hare.

Partridge with lentils and figs

Serves 4

Partridge
2 red-legged partridges
1tbs unsalted butter
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
3 banana shallots, finely diced
50ml olive oil
1tsp coriander seeds
5 black pepper corns
1 sprig of thyme
2 figs, cut into wedges

Preheat the oven to 200C.

Prepare a saucepan filled with water, one sprig of thyme, coriander seeds and peppercorns, bring it to the boil.

Remove the legs from the partridges; roast them in the preheated oven with olive oil and seasoning for 25 minutes. Flake the meat whilst hot. Heat the olive oil with the shallots and seasoning, cook until transparent and add the cooked flaked leg meat, cook until the shallots are tender, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Poach the partridge crowns in the boiling water for 3 minutes, leave to rest for 5 minutes and remove the breast from the bone. When ready to serve heat a frying pan with butter and caramelise the partridge breast in the foaming butter skin side down, caramelise the fig in the same pan. Serve immediately.

Lentils

300g cooked puy lentils
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1tbs unsalted butter
100g trompette de la mort mushrooms
All the cooked leg meat and shallot confit
1tsp of thyme leaves

Heat a saucepan with the butter and saute the trompette de la mort mushrooms for 2 minutes, add the leg meat, lentils and 1 tbs of the damson vinaigrette. Cook for 5 minutes, adjust the seasoning if needed and add the thyme leaves.

Salt Caramelised Walnuts
200g wet or dried walnuts, husks removed
50g caster sugar
25g Malden Sea Salt
1tbs unsalted butter

Heat a frying pan with the butter, nuts, sugar and salt, heat until the sugar has melted, cook until the sugar caramlises to golden brown.

Transfer the caramelised salted walnuts to a line tray, leave to cool. Break the walnuts into pieces for serving.

Damson Vinaigrette

100g damson puree
20ml sherry vinegar
100ml rapeseed oil
1tsp crushed coriander seeds
Pinch of sugar
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

Blend all the ingredients until emulsified, season and set aside until needed.

To Serve

Spoon the lentils onto a warm plate, arrange the partridge breast and figs on top of the lentils, arrange the rest of the figs on the plate and drizzle the damson vinaigrette round the plate. Scatter the walnuts and garnish with cress. Serve immediately.

Rabbit Wild Rabbit and Parma Ham Pillow

This makes a great snack or is perfect for a starter served with home made pickles and a crisp salad.

Serves 4

400g home made rough puff pastry OR all butter puff pastry
1 leek
1 onion
1 clove of garlic
1tbs chopped mixed herbs such as thyme, chervil, chives and parsley
1tbs unsalted butter
75ml white wine
100ml double cream
4 slices of Parma Ham
2 whole rabbit loins
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten
Poppy seeds

First prepare the creamed leeks: Cut the leek in half and wash, finely slice the leek and dice the onion, crush the garlic. Heat a non-stick frying pan with the butter and sauté the chopped onions, leeks and garlic until it starts to turn golden, season well. Once the mixture starts to take on colour add the white wine and cook until the wine has been completely absorbed. Add the cream and bring the leeks to the boil, gently simmer until the cream has thickened, remove form the heat, adjust the seasoning if needed and stir in the chopped herbs. Let the mixture cool completely.

Preheat the oven to 200°C and line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.

Roll the pastry 1/2cm thick out on a lightly floured work surface. Cut it into approximately 12 cm long by 10 cm wide pieces.

Cut the rabbit loins in half. Place the slices of Parma Ham on your chopping board, place a half a rabbit loin at one end of each slice, spoon the cooled creamed leeks on top and roll it up.

Place the rabbit and ham roll up on the pastry and brush the sides with the lightly beaten egg, roll the pastry over to cover the rabbit, push the pastry down around the rabbit and use a fork to crimp the pastry. Brush the pastry top with more egg wash and sprinkle poppy seeds for a bit of effect.

Place the four rabbit parcels on the baking tray and bake in the preheated oven for 20 – 22 minutes. Serve immediately.

Pan-Roasted Teal and Pearl Barley Salad; Damson Vinaigrette

Serves 4

4 whole teals
1tbs unsalted butter
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
3 banana shallots, finely diced
50ml olive oil
1tsp coriander seeds
5 black pepper corns
1 sprig of thyme

Preheat the oven to 200¡C.

Prepare a saucepan filled with water, one sprig of thyme, coriander seeds and peppercorns, bring it to the boil.

Remove the legs from the teals; roast them in the preheated oven with olive oil and seasoning for 25 minutes. Flake the meat whilst hot. Heat the olive oil with the shallots and seasoning, cook until transparent and add the cooked flaked leg meat, cook until the shallots are tender, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Poach the teal crowns in the boiling water for 2 minutes, leave to rest for 5 minutes and remove the breast from the bone. When ready to serve heat a frying pan with butter and caramelise the teal breast in the foaming butter skin side down for about 2 minutes, cut the teal breast on an angle and serve immediately.

Pearl Barley Salad

200g pearl barley
Cooked leg meat from the teals
1 lemon, zest and juice
2tbs golden linseed
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 tbs rapeseed oil

Cook the pearl barley in plenty of water until tender.

Once cooked drain and add the rest of the ingredients, season to taste.

Damson Vinaigrette

200g damsons, stones removed
100ml water
75g caster sugar
20ml sherry vinegar
100ml rapeseed oil
1tsp crushed coriander seeds
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

In a small saucepan bring the damsons, sugar and water to the boil and cook until the damsons are soft.

Blend the damsons until smooth and add the rest of the ingredients, blend until emulsified, season to taste and set aside until needed.

To Serve

Spoon the warm pearl barley salad onto a warm plate, arrange the teal breast top. Serve the teal with a few sauteed girolle mushrooms, pea shoots and drizzle the damson vinaigrette round the plate. Serve immediately.

Venison Haunch Steak with Spelt Grain and Red Wine Sauce

Serves 4

4 x 150g venison haunch steaks
200g spelt grains, raw
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
2 leeks
50g unsalted butter
1tsb sunflower oil + extra to fry the carrot crisps
1 carrot
1 sprigs of fresh thyme chopped
150ml gravy or ready made red wine sauce

Cook the Spelt: Use a medium size saucepan and add 3 times the amount of water to spelt grain, bring the water to the boil, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and cook until the spelt is tender, add a teaspoon of salt right at the end of the cooking time. The spelt takes about 10 minutes to cook, drain using a colander.

Chef's Tip: Adding the salt at the end of the cooking time for grains and pulses is to prevent the grains from becoming tough(on the outside) and chewy. This method only applies to grains and pulses.

Carrot Crisps: Peel the carrot and use a vegetable peeler to create long carrot peelings, heat a deep fat fryer to 160°C and fry the carrot crisps until crisp, drain on kitchen paper and season with salt once cooked. Set the crisps aside until needed.

Sauteed Leeks: Wash and cut the leeks into 1cm rings, heat a non-stick frying pan with half the butter and saute the leeks until golden on both sides, season with salt and pepper and set aside until needed.

To cook the venison steaks: Heat a large frying pan with the oil, season the steaks with salt and pepper on both sides, place the steaks into the hot pan and do not touch the steak for 2 minutes. After about 1 minute place three finger- nail size knobs of cold unsalted butter into the pan. After the 2 minutes cooking time turn the steak over, cook it on the other side for another 2 minutes, again add 3 small knobs of cold unsalted butter half way through the cooking. Transfer the steaks to a tray lined with kitchen paper and leave to rest for 4 minutes.

While the steaks are resting bring the sauce to the boil, add the cooked drained spelt and the chopped thyme, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.

Carve the steaks into 1cm thick slices and serve on top of the hot spelt, sauce and leeks.Garnish the dish with the carrot crisps and serve immediately.

Venison Shank and Chestnut Mushroom Suet Pudding

Serves 6

Venison and Mushroom Filling and Sauce
700g venison shank (one large shank would be enough)
50g plain flour
2tbs sunflower oil
2 carrots
1/2 leek
1 onion, peeled
2 stocks of celery
30g tomato puree
3 in number juniper berries, crushed
1 clove of garlic crushed
1/2 tsp coriander seeds, crushed
1/2 tsp sugar
160ml Port Wine
1L chicken stock
Sprig of rosemary
2 bay leaves
150g chestnut mushrooms cut in 1/4's
30g unsalted butter
Salt and freshly cracked black pepper
1tbs chopped continental parsley
1tbs chopped chives
1tsp sherry vinegar
500g Suet pastry

Preheat the oven to 160°C.

Pat the venison shank dry with kitchen paper, season the flour with salt and pepper and coat the shank in the flour.

Wash and cut the leek, onion, celery and carrots all the same size, drain well. Heat the oil in a large oven safe casserole dish and saute the shank until golden brown all over, remove from the casserole dish, set aside and return the casserole dish to the heat.

Saute the carrot, onion, leek and celery until golden brown, add the tomato puree, the remaining flour left over from the dusting, sugar, crushed coriander and juniper berries. Cook for 5 minutes over low heat, deglaze the dish with the port wine and cook until the Port is absorbed by the vegetables and becomes thick and sticky, return the venison shank to the dish. Add the stock, rosemary and bay leaf, cover the dish with a lid and bring the stock to the boil.

Place the casserole dish covered with a lid in the preheated oven for 2 1/2 hours. Once cooked, remove the dish from the oven and leave for 10 minutes to cool slightly. Remove the meat, set aside and pass the sauce through a fine sieve into a small saucepan.

Bring the sauce to a gentle simmer and reduce until thick and coating, reduce by half the original measure.

Remove the bone and sinew and flake the cooked venison meat. Heat a medium frying pan with the butter and saute the chestnut mushroom quarters seasoned with salt and pepper until golden brown. Transfer the cooked mushrooms to a large mixing bowl.

Add the flaked venison shank about (350g) , 200ml of the reduced sauce, the chopped parsley and chives, mix well. Set aside to cool while lining the pie dishes.

Add the sherry vinegar to the rest of the sauce and set aside to serve with the steamed suet puddings.

Lightly grease 6 - 5cm high x 7.5cm wide pudding basins with sunflower oil.

On a lightly floured work surface roll the pastry 3 - 4mm thick and line the pudding basins with the suet pastry. Fill each dish with 110g of well mixed pie filling, divide the liquid evenly between the puddings, dampen the rim with cold water and cover each pudding with a suet pastry lid, crimp and make a large steam hole in the center of the lid with a metal skewer. Steam the puddings for 1 hour, turn the puddings out onto warm serving plates.

Bring the sauce back to the boil and spoon a generous amount of sauce over each pudding, serve with cooked green beans.

Chef's Tips: If you like kidneys: dice two venison kidneys into 2cm pieces and saute them at the same time as the mushrooms, for about 3 minutes. Do not over cook the kidney as it goes rubbery, drain the mixture in a colander and add the sauteed kidneys and mushrooms to the cooked venison shank mixture.

These recipes are by Madalene Bonvini-Hamel of the British Larder gastropub in Suffolk, where you can take a one-day course in wild meat cooking, run by Food Safari.

www.britishlardersuffolk

www.foodsafari.co.uk

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