Monday, 7 October 2013

It's all in the game

Autumnal Hackney sunset
The weather has been so all over the place for the second year running that, according to some reports, English apples are only now appearing on supermarket shelves – a full three weeks later than normal.

But while the temperature may yet be clinging to levels that are unusual for October – and even producing an unwelcome mugginess – the days have shortened and, in London at any rate, a certain greyness has been the dominant theme of the last fortnight.

In the carpark at the back of Voluptuous Villas, the slender silver birches are yellowing fast, while leaves are starting to fall steadily.

That it is autumn then, can no longer be in doubt.

If apples and pears are now arriving – actually, I’ll let you into a little secret: English apples have been available on Broadway Market on a Saturday since early September – and if parsnips are but a frost away from adding their sweetness to our plates, then another thing is sure: the game season is upon us.

Back in June, when all anyone cared about was summer, given that spring had gone missing in inaction, a new book landed on my doormat.

Bruno Loubet’s Mange Tout offered a selection of recipes that perfectly fitted the long days and the rising temperatures.

As I mentioned here, the confited salmon with asparagus and green gazpacho is a delight and will be done again when the English asparagus pops its head above the soil next year.

But amid all the excitement over summer food, an autumn dish stood out for me from that early browsing: pigeon with cauliflower done two ways, and a blackberry sauce.

One of the delights with Bruno’s cooking is that, even when you haven’t heard of a dish or a food combination before, they always sound so completely natural.

It’s classic and modern all at once.

And so I’ve been waiting to try this one since we returned from France.

The first problem, however, was that Andy and Wild Game Co have disappeared from Broadway Market.

Not, I should say, of his own volition, but with various summer festivals offering him better seasonal business opportunities, it seems that the market managers said that he couldn’t take a break and then return in the autumn.

All of which is slightly annoying – not least since much game is seasonal. The pheasant season, for instance, only opened on 1 October.

Thankfully, Andy has been incredibly helpful, and we organised a way to get me a couple of bags of game. Most has gone in the freezer, although it won’t be staying there very long.

In many ways, last year was the breakthrough one when I finally learned how to cook some game decently, and I have no desire for that to be halted any time soon.

Anyway, the first dish was venison fillet, seared and served with roast veggies and some of the Balsamico drizzle that I swear by both for taste and making a dish look a bit more artful.

The veg in question were swede, carrot and sweet potato, roasted for 35-40 minutes at 200˚C (fan) with a few (drained and dried) tinned spuds thrown in late; all tossed in olive oil, salt, pepper and dried thyme – a wonderfully earthy background to the meat.

The second dish was pigeon.

Now Andy supplies me with pigeon breast – to be honest, my butchery skills are not that good that I’d particularly like to attack a bird myself: the breasts are small enough that you don’t want to risk losing any.

However, Bruno’s recipe calls for whole birds, the breasts of which are cut off, while the carcass is used to make a sauce.

Bruno also starts his sauce with a shallot and a parsnip, and since we haven’t yet had the first frost, I am avoiding parsnips until they’re really worth eating.

So I didn’t follow the instructions to the letter, in other words, but started with a mirepoix lite of shallot instead of onion, carrot and celery.

You soften those gently - the first opportunity to do this in one of the Le Creuset saucepans, and what a difference that makes – and then add booze.

Bruno's chicken – before cooking
Now Bruno recommends port and brandy. Again, you can improvise a little – a small bottle of red wine isn’t going to cost as much as port and it won’t insult the final dish. And a miniature of brandy is more than enough.

Reduce, reduce, reduce – and then add stock and reduce again. It’s pretty classic sauce stuff. Strain and add the blackberries to cook briefly before serving.

In the meantime, you bring some milk to a simmer, letting it infuse with a few caraway seeds, before cooking cauliflower florets until tender, then draining and blitzing. Add a drop or two of the milk if you need to for a smooth purée. This has the advantage that it can be made early and then warmed gently before serving.

Mash up some juniper berries with salt and pepper, coat the pigeon breasts and leave them to absorb the flavours. The smell of doing all of this, incidentally, is wonderful.

Near the time, you reheat the purée, then slice the remaining florets as thinly as you can and dress.

Again, improvisation, since I didn’t have walnut oil. I used olive oil and, instead of red wine vinegar, some of my thicker raspberry vinegar, plus salt and red pepper.

To cook the pigeon is simple and a brief matter: just a couple of minutes a side in a hot pan with a drop of olive oil.

Now I have to point out, at this stage, that the picture in the book cannot be the real dish: the raw cauli, once dressed, is NOT going to appear as immaculately white. Hey ho – food porn is as generous with reality as the other sort.

But in taste terms there is nothing false.

This dish packs a wonderful punch. It is a superb combination of flavours and textures and, even if I couldn’t manage quite the studied informality of presentation as that photo suggested, it doesn’t look bad either.

Next up was Bruno’s roast chicken with a parsley, garlic butter stuffing.

Not a stuffing in the usual way, but one that is gently pushed between skin and flesh, meaning that the bird, in effect, self bastes. That was about as far as I stuck with that recipe, but again, wonderful tastes and aromas.

It’s a recipe that can also be used for a guinea fowl, apparently.

Which point keeps the game theme going.

It'’s not easy if you don’t have a specialist supplier or a local butcher that does it, but game is a wonderful meat. Well, lots of wonderful meats, to be rather more accurate.

If you’re worried about fat, then game is lean – and still absolutely bursting with flavour.

Indeed, a couple of weeks ago, we tried kangaroo for the first time: bought from the Exotic Meat Company (Gamston Wood Ostrich Farm) at Borough Market a few months ago, it was the result of a cull in Australia and had been frozen at source.

It was fillet and, as suggested above, as lean as anything. All I did was to bring it to room temperature and dry it off, and then sear it in a little olive oil, and serve with pretty standard veg on the side. Game really can be so easy and so quick.

And when flavour is so good and so strong, you don’t have to do a lot with it. It becomes a brilliant midweek meal.

There’s a moral to all this.

If you can, get hold of game in season and learn to cook and enjoy it. It’s plentiful on these islands, and there’s also plenty of variety.

And in spite of the UK’s history of deforestation and enclosure by the ruling elite – or maybe even also because of it – let’s not get caught up in a belief that game is only for them and not us.

As it is in France and many other places game should be for all of us. It’s great food – but not ‘posh’ food.

And before I forget to suggest it – get Brunos book.

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