Monday, 11 October 2010

Game theory

When I was a child, we never had game at home. No, I don’t mean Monopoly or Snap, but the likes of partridge or grouse or venison or rabbit. I have vague memories of a family Christmas visit to an elderly and frankly, barking, female parishoner for dinner, and I seem to recall that she served pheasant. But I don’t remember anything about it.

Watching cookery programmes in recent years, I’ve become increasingly interested in trying my culinary hand with game. So I’ve had a couple of attempts with rabbit (nothing spectacular) and an odd one of the game birds – including woodpigeon – plus venison and duck.

Thus far, duck is the only game bird that I’ve had real success with. Years ago, The Other Half and I would have a whole duck for Christmas – it was plenty for two. But we bored of that, not least after reaching the conclusion that there’s wasn’t much to duck legs, that you could buy two breasts for a lot less than whole bird and that they were easier to cook too.

It’s only in the last couple of years that we’ve discovered confit de canard – the most perfect way to use duck legs. And I’m currently trying to find a supplier in London of duck legs so that I can do my own (there are apparently as many ways to confit duck legs as there are people who do it) – or if that’s not possible, I’ll settle for a supplier of the ready-made thing, to be taken from their bed of fat and bunged in the oven until piping hot and the meat is simply flaking away from the bone.

Oh, confit de canard, served with potatoes dau-phinoise, may be the most fabulous comfort food in the whole world!
The one pictured was not bad – although not quite flaky enough for my taste – and was served at Café Rouge opposite the Lowry in Manchester just over a week ago.

That's a rather solid slab of potatoes dauphinoise that you can see with it. The glass of house red that went with it was, it should be noted, singularly poor and went unfinished.

That said, I’m also rather fond of magret de canard, where you get a pan scorchingly hot, score the duck skin on a breast, salt it and place, skin side down, in the pan: press down with a palette knife.

You don’t need to add any fat, because that’ll come streaming out of the skin within moments. Indeed, you’ll need to carefully tip some of the fat out after a while, using your palette knife to hold the meat in place while you do so.

Cook them that way for about 10 minutes and then turn and cook until the flesh is just brown, then flip back.

Some instructions say you should pop them in the oven then for around 10-15 minutes. I prefer my duck to be a little pink in the middle – and indeed, that’s the way I’ve always had it in France. But if you prefer it cooked more, then that’s easy enough to do.

To give you more of an idea, the website French Food and Cook gives 10 minutes skin side down, then five to eight minutes on the flesh side, before putting the meat somewhere warm and deglazing the pan with some cognac, which you then flambé, before adding sour cream and then popping the meat back in for two to three minutes.

I’d cut the cognac bit and just serve with something like redcurrant jelly – you really cannot go far wrong.

And then there’s venison. If memory serves, the first time I tried venison was around five years ago, when I did it for Christmas lunch, served with a chocolate sauce from a Gordon Ramsay book, which had to be started a day before when I made a beef stock to serve as the base. The chocolate works really well, by the way – although it does have to be proper chocolate (at least 75% cocoa solids) and not the sugar and dairy fat excuse that we call ‘chocolate’ in the UK.

And venison it will be tonight – fillet, to be seared in a hot pan: again, you want venison pink in the middle.

I’ll be serving it with a blackberry sauce, together with puréed potato and pear, mixed with crème fraîche and watercress, which has previously been warmed and puréed. And there’s probably be a few carrots on the side.

There’ll be good red wine too – possibly a bottle of Chocolate Block, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauvignon, with a hint of Viognier, from South Africa’s Western Cape. It’s not available in huge quantities, so I picked up all three remaining bottles in the John Lewis wine hall recently while I had the chance. It will complement the meat beautifully, I think.

A few years ago, we had a game stall on Broadway Market, but that ended tragically when the stall holder killed himself.

Just in time for the start of the new season, Andy Waugh has launched The Wild Game Co on the market, selling produce that’s “fresh from the Highlands”. I picked up the venison on Saturday and am contemplating pheasant in the near future.

But it struck me that, in the UK generally, we still seem to think of game as rather posh food.

Yet in France – and other parts of Europe – la chasse, hunting and then eating what you’ve caught, is still an accepted part of life; and not just life for ‘posh’ people.

So why is there such a difference?

Well, I suppose it’s a very long time since ‘ordinary’ Brits (certainly the English) hunted for food. Working class blood sports were frowned upon for a long time and banned, while aristocratic blood sports continued until relatively recently. It became very much a class thing.

But then too, in France there was never the kind of enclosure of land and the deliberate policy of deforestation to force people into ‘economically productive’ lives. One of the results in the UK has been a paucity of land on which ordinary people could hunt for food.

In the same way, we no longer have any real culture of foraging for food: across the Channel, many pharmacists have a sign in the window telling you that they’re qualified to say whether the mushrooms you’ve picked that morning are safe to eat.

One of the results seems to be a sense of divorce from food production – and from food. Of course it’s always going to be more the case in cities, but it was still something of a surprise (and yet not entirely) to read a survey a couple of years ago that revealed that many inner-city children do not realise that meat comes from an animal.

But then again, I’ve been in supermarkets and seen adults who cannot identify celery or rhubarb.

And then there’s the faddiness of our food culture: rabbit was one game animal that used to be enormously popular up to and through WWII – you’ll still hear older people raving about rabbit pie. Of course, the introduction of myxomatosis into the UK after the war didn’t help, but try getting rabbit from your butcher now.

It’s particularly surprising that game seems to be seen as such an exclusive food when you think that these islands seem to be rather rich in a wide variety of game.

But then again, we have tremendously rich seas with a vast variety of fish and shellfish, yet Britons notoriously eat a very, very limited range of what is available. We export vast amounts of spider crabs and monkfish, for instance, while many people will scarcely move beyond cod, despite its endangered status (until very recently) and the consequent high price.

Mind, herrings used to be popular – until shortages drove them off menus. There has been no return, thus far, in mass popularity in the UK since the humble herring recovered.

There’s cost, of course – or perhaps that’s more a case of perception of cost. I’ve had a pack of diced venison for a casserole that’s cost just £2.50. Nobody can call that expensive.

And then there’s the whole supermarket culture, where you’ll be lucky to find any game outside of Christmas, which if nothing else, belies the real length of the season and adds to a sense that game is an expensive luxury.

Still, whatever the reasons for game being viewed as such a luxury on these shores – and all this is just game theory, if you will – I for one am game for a bit of game!


  1. Syb, you are very adventuresome with food. I'm not too adventuresome with food however I did taste moose for the first time this summer. Our youngest son has a friend whose grandfather hunts moose and his mother cooks what the grandfather catches. So our son's friend brought over some home cooked moose one day. The moose was breaded and seasoned so it tasted sort of like beef to me. It was pretty good but I think I'll stick with beef. :-D I know it's all psychological but I can't help it!

  2. I suppose we all put limits on what we'll try, Revised. Just as we put limits on everything else we do in our lives. Personally, I have a real problem eating flowers in salads – I don't know for the life of me why, but I really don't like the thought of it. And thank you.

  3. Andy says:

    Well said! I couldn't agree more about your theory. British people should know and care about where their food comes. I think we need to take a leaf out of our continental cousins and start eating what is in season and, more importantly, what is in abundance.

    I also think that we do have to be more "adventurous" with our food and start eating meats, fish and veg that aren't regarded as 'premium products'. If your local farmer rears buffalo, eat buffalo, if you have moose running around your back garden, eat moose.