I can see a time in the not-so-distant future when game in fur and feather will have pretty much disappeared. It seems hard to believe when you hear of the mass slaughter of pheasant and partridge on the big estates but there is a darker story — one of declining bird populations and habitats and the human activists, political and supposedly ecological, who want to see an end to the sport of shooting.
I am not a shooter but I desperately want the sport preserved, and not just to land a grouse or woodcock — or a rabbit or deer — on my kitchen table. I want to see grouse moors covered in heather and a landscape of coppices and hedgerows where pheasant and partridge can take cover. I don’t want the countryside to be turned into vast, monotonous acres of agrichemicals or left desolate and untended, and see people employed in rural industries forced into towns, trying to earn a living at Tesco.
The even greater threat to game is simply that not enough people want to eat it or know how to cook it. Even as pluralism thrives and we can get the ingredients for a laksa or kimchi, the actual variety of what we eat is getting smaller. We have chicken, occasionally duck, the three farm animals — beef, pork and lamb — and a fish counter increasingly dominated by tasteless farmed salmon, bream and sea bass. No wonder we use lemongrass and lime leaves to make the diet a bit more interesting and to mask the deficiencies of 99 per cent of the chicken that we eat.
I used to think the taste for game had been discredited by the habit of hanging it too long so that it developed a strong, almost putrid flavour. Thankfully that is rare now, with the idea that pheasant had to be rotten before it was edible — rather than hung for four days and simply cooked properly — forsaken, if only in the name of food safety. A sadder consequence of “food safety” and a more squeamish population is that we no longer see butchers’ windows festooned with game birds, hares and rabbits or the same artfully arranged on the outside of their shops. Those splendid displays existed at a time when there was still a connection between what we ate and where it came from.
It is delicate stuff, game. The nuances of flavour between a mallard and a teal, or a French “red leg” partridge and a grey, are distinct; the birds need careful cooking and appropriate accompaniments. I would never braise a grey partridge with bacon and cabbage and spoil its feral flavour any more than I would serve a mallard with red wine and bubble ‘n’ squeak — a favourite treatment for teal.
I could go on, and often do.
Wild duck salad with quince, radicchio and chilli
If you haven’t time to pickle the quince (it is not laborious but needs ‘a few days in the jar), simply bake the quince in a medium oven for two hours, peel and slice. Serves four as a starter, two as a supper.
I like the duck meat quite rare but cook it a little longer if you wish.
- Season the mallard very well inside and brush the skin with butter, olive oil and salt. Roast in a very hot oven (240C if possible) for 10 minutes only. The bottom of the breast meat should have firmed up a little. Turn the duck over so it rests on the breasts and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
- Shred the radicchio into half-centimetre ribbons, rinse in cold water and spin dry. Remove the seeds of the chilli and cut it into very thin strips. Slice the quince into thin segments and combine these in a bowl with the almonds. Season with salt, sprinkle on the vinegar and the oil and toss to mix.
- Slice the duck breast in long thin strips (either on the bone or having taken the breasts off the carcass), pile the salad on the plates and arrange the meat on top. Sprinkle over some marjoram leaves (flat parsley or mint would also work).
You don’t need to make a kilo — but why not? Little jars make nice presents and last a very long time.
- Peel and quarter the quinces, remove the cores and slice each quarter into two or three segments, depending on size. Put them in a bowl and toss with two teaspoons of salt, plus a splash of the vinegar and the juice of the lemon (having first removed the skin) to stop them discolouring.
- Put 10 cloves, 20 crushed peppercorns, a teaspoon of crushed allspice berries and half a grated nutmeg in a pan with the sugar, the cider vinegar, the cinnamon stick and the lemon peel and bring to the boil. Simmer gently for 10 minutes and then add the quince pieces. Stew these on a very gentle heat for 30 minutes until the pieces soften and the liquid has thickened a little. Lift out the quince pieces, put them in jars and strain the liquor over. Once cool, close the lids and keep chilled. The pickle will be ready in a week and will keep for months in the fridge.
Partridge with aubergine and pistachio crumb
Rather a cheffy dish, I’m afraid, but cooking the partridges like this keeps them very juicy, and the compliant birds enjoy these various flavours. A nice butcher might joint them for you. Recipe for four.
- Stud the aubergines with the garlic slices and bake in the oven at 200C for 50 minutes until they feel completely soft throughout. Allow to cool a little, cut in half and scoop away the flesh from the skin. Season and blend with the yoghurt until completely smooth. Peel the lemon zest and cut into very thin strips, place them in a little pan of cold water, bring to the boil and drain in cold running water.
- Remove the legs from the partridges by running the knife down between the breasts and the legs, pulling the legs back and cutting them away at the joint. Then run the knife down either side of the breast bones, follow the knife down against the bone and cut the breasts away from the carcass at the shoulder joint. Lightly beat out the breasts to form little escalopes.
- Place the legs in a saucepan with the stock and a little olive oil and stew them gently for 30 minutes. Chop the peeled pistachios (peel them by dropping in boiling water and then rubbing them in a cloth) coarsely and mix with the breadcrumbs. In a separate bowl, beat the egg with a tablespoon of milk. Season the flour, then place it on another plate. Dip the partridge breasts, skin side down only, into the flour, followed by the egg. Then press them down into the breadcrumb and pistachio mix.
- Before cooking the partridge, warm the aubergine purée and the chickpeas. Cook the spinach, throwing it into a very hot frying pan with a little olive oil, seasoning it well and draining it when wilted. Keep the legs hot and reduce the stock they were cooked in to a syrupy glaze. Add a squeeze of lemon and stir in a little knob of butter.
- Heat a frying pan and add a large knob of butter. Cook the partridge escalopes with the breaded side down, moving them around a little and cooking to a nice colour, say for three or four minutes. Season the undersides and turn, cooking them for just another two minutes.
- Put a dollop of aubergine on each plate, add some spinach and then arrange the meat around. Scatter with chickpeas, lemon zest and a little trickle of the reduced stock. Sprinkle with sumac to sharpen the flavour.
Just about any game can be put in a pudding, including rabbit and hare. Serves a minimum of six.
- Mix together the self-raising flour, suet and baking powder in a bowl with a pinch of salt. Slowly add 150ml of very cold water, stirring it in with the tips of your fingers. Work gently, adding up to another 50ml of water until you have a pliant, kneadable dough. Roll out on a floured board into a quite thin circle (three to four centimetres thick) and then cut out a quarter segment to form a lid. Butter a two-pint pudding basin and drop in the pastry, pushing it well into the corners, with the two edges joined and a small amount of pastry overlapping the sides. Cover with a damp cloth.
- Cut the venison into long thin slices. Joint the birds into legs and breasts and save the carcasses for a game stock. Place all the meat in a bowl and sprinkle over the flour, a teaspoon of salt and some finely milled white pepper. Toss together so that the meat is well dusted. Cover the bottom of the dish with slices of bacon and layer the meats in the basin, with more bacon and the herbs in the middle, then finishing with another layer of bacon. Pour in the wine and the (cold) stock.
- Brush the exposed pastry with a little cold water and then roll out the remaining segment of pastry into a circle and press it down on top. Crimp the edges with the tines of a fork and then cut away the excess pastry. Cover the pastry with foil or greaseproof paper and tie in place with string. Gently lower the pudding on to a trivet in a deep pan and add just enough boiling water to cover the trivet. Place a lid on the pan and steam the pudding for six hours, regularly checking to ensure the water does not evaporate.
- Place a plate over the pudding and invert it. Let the pudding sit on the plate for a moment. Give the base of the basin a couple of taps and then lift off the basin. Serve the pudding with some buttered greens and a pot of English mustard.
Rowley Leigh’s ‘A Long and Messy Business’, a collection of his recipes printed in the FT, will be published by Unbound on October 4, £25
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