The definition of ‘Game’ is the meat of a wild animal that is hunted for sport or for food- the most operative word being the latter in my books.
There are a few things I love about game. One of them is that it is utterly delicious. Another is that it is wild, and therefore has lived a happy, free life away from the constraints of farming. Another is the archaic nature of hunting the food we eat- something I feel we have completely lost touch with.
So yeah, personally, I am game for game- but I can completely understand why you wouldn’t be. In case you want to give it a try though I am going to give you the complete 411 on British game so you know where to find it and what to expect.
First off, I want to tackle the elephant in the room. Lots of people talk about ‘the game taste’, which I realise if you have never tried it- you will have no clue what they are banging on about.
In short, game means that it tastes wild. It has less fat, more iron, less sweetness and a strong earthy flavour of the forest which is dictated by the natural foraged diet these animals live on. Game meat also tends to be stronger in flavour because it is ‘well-hung’ which is a process used to tenderise the highly muscular meat.
Now that’s out the way- let’s dive straight in.
I’m going to start with my favourite game meat – and that is Venison. When I was little, my mum used to call it mutton, perhaps she was fearful that I would stop eating it if I found out that it was Bambi’s poor mum- and being Scottish, she liked to cook it a lot.
Here in the UK we have four main breeds of deer – fallow, red, sika, and roe. We tend to just eat fallow, red and roe varieties with the red being the largest. They are native to this country and tend to live wild in mountain ranges and remote moors- but it is also common for large estates to have a flock of fallow deer gambling around.
The stalking season runs from the beginning of summer until the spring of the following year, but there are times within that where the shooting of hind (girls) is strictly prohibited.
I would say that it is most common to tuck into a bit of venison in the cooler, winter months and the meat makes dishes which are rich and hearty. The meat is red and so is comparable to beef, but is much leaner with little to no fat and is packed full of that earthy game taste.
Venison can be both comforting and refined depending on the dish. The loin or the haunch are the finest cuts of the meat, and are often used in restaurants as a luxurious centre to an elegant dish. Brasserie Abode, for example, serves a Venison Haunch with red cabbage and creamed mash – a classic combination of flavours.
It can also be pretty provincial and comforting at times also- often being used in various stews and dishes that will warm the cockles from the inside out. One of my favourites is the Deer Stalker Pie from Pie Minister which is a delectable concoction of venison, bacon, red wine and green lentils all encased in a buttery pastry case. It doesn’t get more comforting than that.
Just as an honourable mention also – I can’t get enough of the Venison Samosas from Asha’s. I’m just going to put it out there – and if you don’t think venison goes well with Indian spices – you would be wrong.
You might be sensing a running theme here, but when I was little I also didn’t want to eat rabbit. For pretty obvious reasons. I had a fluffy Angora rabbit called Toffee when I was a kid, and for years to come, I couldn’t bear the idea of someone, or something, gnawing into her tiny, fluffy little back legs.
Fast forward fifteen years, my moral compass melted into an empty void of nothingness and I was quite happy to get my teeth stuck into Thumper without batting an eyelid. The reason for this being that hare and rabbit are delicious – and I hate to say it but – it does taste a lot like chicken.
Historically speaking, us Brits have eaten a lot of rabbit in the past – mainly because they plentiful, nutritious and easy to hunt. But they seem to have fallen a little out of favour in the decades following the Second World War.
Sure, top end chefs are unafraid to cook up a rabbit loin or two, but I feel many restaurants steer away for fear that customers are still a little on the squeamish side. But don’t get me wrong – you do see it occasionally, especially in the cooler months.
If you want to eat rabbit, you are going to have to look to Mediterranean cuisine. A good place to start would be the Valencian Paella over at Tapeo and Wine. Paella is made with rabbit and chicken traditionally speaking, so not only is it a great entry level dish it is also authentic. Top marks.
My favourite way to eat rabbit is in a slow cooked ragu with a bit of pasta. Last weekend I tucked into a banging plate of Rabbit with Pappardelle with Sage and Hazelnuts from La Cucina at Mackie Mayor – but I believe this was only on for that weekend only…so, sorry about that.
What I can offer you, however, is a recommendation from the The Pasta Factory which is similar to the one I tried at La Cunia but available all year round.
The Agnologtti Piemontesi (no I didn’t sneeze on my keyboard) is a delectable concoction of wild rabbit, pork and beef pasta parcels served with parmesan and cabbage tossed in sage butter. This dish is certainly one for the meat lovers out there- and a great way to give rabbit a try for the first time. Belissima!
On to the birds, of which there are many. I’m just going to dive straight in with duck, because it is perhaps the most familiar game bird and most certainly the easiest to find. Duck is a great big part of our diets these days, but it is important to realise that not all of it is wild, and therefore isn’t really game meat at all.
If you want the real stuff, the ones with the real game flavour, you are going to want to go for something like mallard. If you go to Hispi, you will find a fantastic dish of Roasted Mallard served with beetroot, grape, hazelnut and green onion. The Hispi chefs have perfectly matched the earthy notes in the duck with fruits and nuts of the forest to take this dish to the next level. Honestly, it is absolutely sublime.
Most game tends to go well with the flavours of their natural environments – so things like mushrooms, fruits, nuts and root vegetables are what you are looking for in a dish. Another ingredient is red wine, and you will find many sauces made with it to match the strong flavours in the meat.
Grouse and Pheasant are not to everyone’s taste and this is for a couple of reasons. Firstly the taste is strong- which normally comes from the fact that the birds are often left to hang for quite a while (sometimes up to a week or even more) to tenderise the meat. For some people, this is just what they are looking for, but for me, it is certainly an acquired taste.
The second reason it that it isn’t uncommon to come across a bit of shot (bullet) in your bird, and for me, the threat of breaking my teeth stops me from entirely enjoying my food. There are some beautiful dishes out there though, so don’t let me put you off too much.
If you aren’t accustomed to the stuff, I would start off with Guinea Fowl- which pretty much tastes like a slightly tastier chicken. Harvey Nichols Second Floor Brasserie has a delicious Guinea Fowl dish on their menu right now which is paired with mushrooms, pancetta and of course that token red wine sauce.
Finally, I wanted to talk a bit about pigeon, which probably has the biggest flavour to surface area ratio. We’ve all seen how teensy pigeons are (and for the record I don’t mean the kind you find missing feet and eating a leftover kebab on Piccadilly Gardens), and their breasts are just as small as you would expect.
Pigeon has an incredibly rich, meaty flavour which is sometimes comparable to liver. I reckon pigeon is one of the greatest game delicacies and if you want to give it a try, you should look no further than The Creameries down in Chorlton.
They have a Whole Roasted Wood Pigeon on their menu served with a ruby red beetroot, rainbow chard and smothered in roasting juices. The Creameries is known for changing their menu more than I change my outfits in the morning before work, but this one is so good it has stayed since they opened back in spring- so that says a lot.
For me, pigeon is the one, but there is so much amazing game meat out there just waiting to be gobbled up. The cooler months are certainly drawing in now, and it is time to get cosy and start enjoying the native produce from our rainy shores.