With intensively farmed animals accounting for two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the UK, is it any wonder that wild game is on the up? But how sustainable is it really? With the season in full swing, Lizzie Rivera finds out.
Game for flavour
“In terms of richness of flavour, game really takes some beating. I’m drawn to it predominantly because of how delicious it is, but also because we live in times where the industrialisation of meat production has gotten out of control,” says chef and food writer, Gill Meller. “I strongly believe we should be looking at alternatives to industrially-produced meat and a lot of game is a great alternative.”
Wild venison, as opposed to year-round farmed venison, is also coming into season. It became wildly popular after it was chosen as the winning dish for the Queen’s 80th birthday banquet on TV show, Great British Menu over a decade ago and has been kept at the forefront of people’s palates by celebrity chefs ever since.
Truly wild versus managed game
Broadly speaking, game falls into two categories: truly wild and managed. Arguably the most ethical category is truly wild game, such as rabbit, squirrel, pigeon and (some) venison, which has had practically no human contact during its life. Stalking and shooting is largely done to control wildlife and protect the countryside. Managed game birds such as pheasant and partridge, however, will spend the early part of their lives in pens as they are now also bred for sport.
The reason game is affordable
A pheasant in the air is worth about 50 times what it’s worth once it’s been shot down to earth: £50 to shoot compared to 50p a breast when sold for meat. Often, gamekeepers are looking to get rid of excess and sell it direct to restaurants. The meat is simply not valued, and is largely wasted as a result.
The Game Chef, Tom Godber-Ford Moore, is on a mission to make game-eating more popular, starting with the people who shoot for sport. He says: “There is a real thriving, rural community in Exmoor that would not be able to survive without the shooting and the hunting.” It’s clear that we need as many eaters as there are shooters in order to see game meat not going to waste.
While there’s no longer a place in today’s modern society for birds in the feather, there is growing willingness to try oven-ready game. It can be fairly cheap too, a pheasant that feeds two people costs around £5; pigeon is about £4.50 a bird and a partridge is slightly more. Venison is roughly the same price per kilo as good native breed beef.
Game shakes off its posh label
With reports that intensively farmed animals account for two-thirds of all antibiotics used in the UK, it’s little wonder that game is slowly shaking off its ‘posh’ reputation and gaining traction with those who are looking to eat a healthier and more natural meat. Suspicious of the industrialisation of farming, and the chicken and horsemeat scandals that have arisen as a result, Tom Godber-Ford Moore says: “If you don’t know what’s happened to the animal every step along the way, it’s an opportunity for somebody concerned with profits to adulter it.”
How to cook with game
Game is surprisingly easy to cook if you understand two things; it’s likely to dry out quicker than prime cuts of farmed meat, and the birds can be tougher than your usual chicken because the animal has lived a truly free-range life and so has built up muscle tissue. This is why slow-cooked stews and curries are one of the most popular ways to cook game.
Here are some brilliantly simple tips to make the most of wild game.
Gill Meller says, “seasoning with salt and pepper and moistening with oil or butter is the basis of most game dishes”. But there’s a whole range of delicious cooking styles available, too.
VENISON | venison requires different handling depending on the joint. Generally-speaking, shoulders and haunches should be slow-cooked, saddle can be roasted or fried, and if the loins are taken off the bone they can be seared and thinly sliced for a tasty carpaccio. “Venison can be pretty lean so it benefits from a covering of pork fat or bacon if you’re slow cooking it,” says Gill. “It goes particularly well with sweet and smoky pancetta.”
PHEASANT | When you’re roasting pheasant you also want to treat the legs and the breast differently, because the legs will be tougher. Season the legs and thighs with thyme and rosemary in a roasting tin, add sliced onion and garlic, and brown off in a hot oven. Add half a glass of cider, cover with foil, turn the oven down and cook for two hours until the meat is coming off the bone. Roast the crown for a maximum of half an hour, allow to rest, and then serve the two together.
PARTRIDGE | Typically, each partridge is one portion. An alternative option to roasting on a high heat for 25 to 30 minutes, would be to split the partridge in half and marinate them in yoghurt, ginger, cardamom, chilli, garlic and cumin overnight, before cooking on the barbecue or under the grill.
PIGEON | One of Gill’s favourite ways to cook pigeon is to dry-cure it by scattering over salt, sugar, bay and juniper and leaving it to rest for 45 minutes to an hour. Rinse off, pan-fry and serve alongside roasted beetroot (scrubbed, not peeled) and horseradish.
DUCK | “Duck and figs is a fantastic combination,” says Gill. Make kebabs by alternating duck breast and figs on skewers, season with thyme and grill or cook over an open fire. Trickle with honey and scatter on some toasted flaked almonds before serving. Or try this Spiced duck and coconut curry recipe.