Winter Squash

Having now seen off Hallowe’en and the threat of wasted Jack O’Lantern pumpkins, I’m turning my attention to other members of the Winter Squash family.

We probably have Hallowe’en to thank for introducing the British public to the delights of Winter Squash, although Jack O’Lantern not being the most flavoursome representative of the family, may also have put some people off exploring further.  If that includes you, please let me at least put my case in their favour.

In my book, first amongst their positive attributes is their keeping ability.  Provided they are picked undamaged, with a good “handle”, most of the Winter Squash family will store for several months, their eating quality absolutely intact.  As a rough rule of thumb, the thicker the skin the longer they will keep.

Secondly there is the sweet and substantial flesh.  This makes Winter Squash a candidate not merely for an interesting side dish (although they are certainly that) but they can easily stand alone as the star of a lunch or supper main course.  The sweetness makes them a vegetable that most children love.  And where I would use chicken stock to give depth to most vegetable soups or risotto, Winter Squash are punchy enough for a vegetable stock, or even, at a pinch, just water.

Is the flesh sweet enough to use in desserts? American Pumpkin Pie is perhaps the most famous of Winter Squash recipes, but I’m afraid this is one application that I haven’t yet learnt to appreciate.  That said, and having recognised the moistness provided by carrots in Carrot Cake, I have now started to use pumpkin in my Christmas Puddings as you will have seen in my Jack O’Lantern recipes.  I would also happily eat some pumpkin “savoury” dishes in place of dessert – pumpkin ravioli with a walnut sauce for example.

Of course not all Winter Squash are created equal, and whilst I may have personal favourites, it is probably more helpful to consider the characteristics of the most common members of the family and the type of dishes to which they are best suited.

Jack O’Lantern – because of their size the flesh is loose and watery, but this makes it good at absorbing other flavours, as in pickling, and also not too dominant to lend moisture to cakes and puddings.

Butternut – this is a great all-rounder and widely available.  It is not too sweet, neither is it too wet or dry.  The shape and thin skin make it easy to peel.  Good for roasting, soup and “speltotto”.

Crown Prince – This has a fantastic flavour but the flesh is very dry and the skin not easy to cut.  The dry flesh makes it ideal for gnocchi.  Iron Bark reputedly tastes even better, but as the name suggests, it is very hard to cut.

Acorn – the flesh is, frankly, watery and bland but it’s small size makes it ideal for one person – use like Jack O’Lantern.

Spaghetti Squash – the popularity of this squash appears to owe much to its name as it is now being used as a carbohydrate free substitute.  It certainly doesn’t warrant attention for its flavour, which is very bland, but this does mean it can absorb strong flavoured sauces.  Its texture does have some similarity to pasta (although more Angel Hair than Spaghetti).  The skin is very hard, so perhaps easiest to roast uncut.

Marina di Chioggia – the thick, knobbly skin makes this squash look somewhat like a toad!  The flesh  however is firm and sweet and makes an excellent ravioli stuffing. Crown Prince is the nearest substitute.

Growing

Growing squash takes quite a lot of ground and given how well they store I have now left the growing to others to free my garden up for vegetables that need picking fresh.  If however you would like to grow your own, and it is often the only way to get some of the more unusual varieties, the best selection of seeds are from www.seedsofitaly.com

General Cooking Tips

The flavour and sweetness of squash is intensified by roasting, my usual method of cooking squash.  If you have chosen one of the really hard-skinned varieties you may have to roast it whole before being able to cut.  For easy to peel types, like Butternut, I dice the flesh and then toss it in olive oil before baking.  I usually keep some olive oil flavoured with rosemary, which is perfect for this, but you can just scatter fresh leaves if using plain oil.

Whilst the uncut raw squash store well, once cut this is not true and it is best to cook the entire squash, no matter how large, and use the leftover cooked squash in another recipe.  Hence roast squash as a side vegetable is often followed by soup or ravioli for lunch the following day.  The fact that the squash has already been cooked just makes these follow-on dishes much quicker.

Recipes

In addition to the recipes given here for Jack O’Lantern pumpkins, you will find my recipes for pumpkin ravioli, gnocchi, soup and gratin here.  Recipes for using pumpkin in a dessert and for using Spaghetti Squash as a carb-free substitute have been supplied by Annie Levy of https://kitchencounterculture121.wordpress.com/

Traditional British Jam

It is a pattern that I noticed repeatedly during the  time I spent  recording endangered foods for Slow Food – not so much a food that dies out entirely but that a change in methods of production alters the very nature of that product until only the older generation can remember how it used to taste.   Sadly Traditional British-Set Jam looks like being the next food to go this way look.  I use the term Traditional British-Set Jam to distinguish this from what will shortly pass for Jam in this country.  We are already familiar with the “soft-set” jams that are made on the continent.  Actually we can make them here too if we like, but they must be clearly labelled “soft-set” if less than 55% sugar has been used, or “low sugar” if the percentage drops below 50%.

To be called Jam in Britain, without qualification, requires a minimum 60% sugar content, a formula that was calculated by scientists at the old Long Ashton Research Station (LARS).  Remember that sugar is the preserving agent in jam, so this is not a matter of preference, but the percentage required to safely store the jam, without refrigeration, for a full year, until the next fruit harvest.  Peter Hull, writing in The Telegraph points out that 67% sugar content is necessary to make jam microbiologically stable.  Home jam makers may be somewhat confused as they know that the rule of thumb is that you add an equal quantity of sugar to the fruit to be preserved.  This simple rule is generally applied to any fruit, so that when the sugar content of the fruit itself is included the final level will not be less than 60%.

During a parliamentary debate on the proposed changes http://www.bbc.co.uk/democracylive/house-of-commons-24742656 MP Tessa Munt asked Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Environment , Food and Rural Affairs whether any new scientific evidence had come to light to support these changes.  The short answer was no, but that technology and recipe development has moved on since the 1920s and that there is no evidence of greater food spoilage from low-sugar jams. So much for science – I will remember this response next time I hear Owen Paterson extolling the virtues of Fracking or GM.

Refrigeration is of course the biggest change in technology since the 1920s, and it will be up to producers to give clear instructions for how their “jam” should be stored, and for how long.  The existing standards for British-set jam were intended to give an entirely natural preserve, but now the option will be open to use Potassium Sorbate (E202).  Get ready to examine the small print when you buy jam in future.

As for recipe development, I feel highly offended on behalf of those original scientists at LARS.  If anything positive is to come out of these changes I hope it will be a greater understanding by the general public about the science behind the skill of preservation because there are some absolute howlers out there from so-called experts – chefs, cookery writers, small scale producers etc., that clearly demonstrate how little is currently understood.  When preserving you cannot just change a recipe to your personal taste – well not and expect it to still be safely preserved.   The moment you change the proportions of fruit, sugar, acid/pectin you change the taste, texture and keeping qualities of the product as Vivien Lloyd explains so clearly on her blog http://www.vivienlloydpreserves.com/marmalade/1888/no-more-real-jam-tomorrow.

Meanwhile, Owen Paterson looks set to steam ahead with these changes, pointing out that “those traditionalists who are resistant to accepting that technology and recipe development have moved forward can continue as they are”.  This is true, but equally it is true that currently no-one is prevented from making lower sugar spreads – they just can’t call them jam.  He mentioned specifically the Sweet Spreads Association, who are keen to be able to sell their product as Jam.  So what’s in a name?  Owen Paterson said that it was for Traditional Jam Makers to get together to market their product.  One MP suggested that a “Kite-Mark” might be introduced for the purpose.  Another option is to use the EU’s own tool by applying for a “Protected Name Status”, however, it should be noted that the main categories, PDO (Protected designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) both require the product to be associated with a smaller region than Britain, leaving TSG (Traditional Specialities Guaranteed) as the only viable route – actually to my mind it is the most meaningful of the three, but nonetheless a costly and time consuming process that could have been avoided had our existing jam Regulations been left in place.

You can hear Vivien Lloyd and myself talking to Jeremy Chefas about this subject on the Eat This podcast.

Going Wild for Venison

A recent article by Wendell Berry observed what happens when farming responds to market forces rather than working with nature to produce what the land wants.  Here’s another example: despite the fact that large parts of the UK are over-run with wild deer, which are causing great damage to woods and farmland such that their numbers need actively to be managed, in 2010 the UK imported 1000 tonnes of farmed venison, mainly from New Zealand.

The website of the Scottish Venison Partnership is trying to persuade more British farmers to rear deer to make up this shortfall, commenting that “Nowadays there are enough farmed deer to provide breeding stock for UK farms without recruiting from wild stock, and Scotland’s deer farmers, instead of trying to be store calf producers, breeding stock producers and finishers all at once have now become specialised, with store calf producers in the uplands, and finishers on the low ground on the better pastures, just like other livestock industries”.

Far better of course, that we rear all we need in this country rather than importing, but why isn’t the nuisance wild venison making up this shortfall?

The ability to supply in quantity is of course always an issue with supermarkets, and it requires organisation on a fairly large scale to achieve this.  A consistent product is another supermarket requirement, and one that doesn’t sit easily with wild food.  The following quote from the Scottish Venison Partnership gives these benefits for farmed deer:

“Prime farmed venison comes from deer of less than 27 months, this cut-off age being because the meat (especially from males) becomes progressively tougher after that. Older cull deer are used for manufacturing to ensure the consistent quality of farmed venison. Farmed deer are slaughtered and processed under the more stringent regulations for red meat. The main difference between farmed deer and other livestock is that it is permissible to shoot deer as they graze in the field, rather than transport them to an abattoir, though a small proportion of Scottish farmed deer do go through a specially designated abattoir. Most farmed venison sold in Scotland has been field-shot.”

So it is heartening to see that this year Marks and Spencer has launched a range of game, including wild venison, supplied by processors Yorkshire Game who in turn obtain their supplies from shooting estates on either side of the Scottish border.  A quote from a spokesperson for M&S explains their reasons for making the effort to stock wild game:

“As it is sourced from the wild, game develops stronger muscles than farmed meat and poultry giving the meat a firmer texture and a distinctive taste, derived from the land they live on.  They have a lean, virtually fat free meat, making game a healthier alternative to other meats such as beef.  The new range will be hung for two days to ensure that the flavour, whilst distinctive, remains mild enough for customers to enjoy.”

Whilst wild venison is likely to be more flavoursome, having had a more varied diet and active lifestyle than most farmed, this will also make it more variable. Understanding these variations and how to handle the carcase once shot, will make the difference between whether wild venison lives up to its full potential or delivers an experience that puts consumers off for life.

Much of what I have written previously about game in general relates equally to wild venison, but in the expectation that readers of this website will not want to buy from supermarkets but instead make the effort to understand how to source wild venison from independent suppliers, this article develops the subject.

Species of Wild Deer

There are now six species of deer living wild in the UK: Red, Roe, Fallow, Sika, Muntjac and the Chinese Water Deer. Of these the first two are native to Great Britain and are the most common, followed by Fallow deer, which are favoured in Parkland. Red and Fallow deer are the only ones that are farmed. There is some dispute as to when exactly Fallow deer were first introduced into the UK, the Normans definitely brought them here in the 10th century, but some believe that there had been an earlier introduction, with the Romans.  Whichever is the case, they have been here a lot longer than the other three species, which are all comparatively new escapees from deer introduced into captivity in the late 19th century/early 20th century.

As to which species predominates, and is controlled as a pest, it rather depends on where in the UK you live.

Sika deer, introduced to the Beaulieu estate in Hampshire and Brownsea Island in Dorset in 1896, have spread as far as Scotland where they are now cross-breeding with our native Red Deer.  It is possible that there are already no pure-bred native Red Deer in Scotland.  Meanwhile Muntjac, which escaped from Woburn Park in the late 19th/20th century, has become the most widely distributed of all the deer species living in the UK.  They are quite unfazed by humans and so can be found in urban areas or beside busy motorways as well as quieter rural habitats.  They are particularly destructive in forests, deliberately trampling young saplings and delighting in eating our native bluebells, primroses and orchids.

The last of the escapee group is the Chinese Water Deer, the smallest and least widely spread of the six varieties found in the UK.  Like Muntjac, these also were initially introduced to the Duke of Bedford’s collection at Woburn and from there some were given to Whipsnade Zoo.  They are still found relatively local to these two sites but have also spread east through the fens of Cambridge and Lincolnshire to Norfolk.  These wetlands are closest to their native habitat.

Taste Characteristics

The first of the variables that those eating wild deer will need to understand are the characteristics of the different species.  There is actually precious little written on the subject, even for the three species that have existed in the UK for a long time, but of the three more recent incomers even less.

The species I eat most of is Roe, it is the most prolific where live and luckily also considered by many to be the finest flavoured of the lot.  On French menus it is always referred to specifically as Chevreuil rather than the generic Venaison and I hope that the practice of naming the species, whichever it is, will catch on here so that people can begin to appreciate their different characteristics.  Chef Mike Robinson, owner of the Pot Kiln in Berkshire, is himself a keen shooter and specialises in game.  He recently founded Harwood Game to sell direct to the public on-line.  The website makes the following observations about the different species of venison:

Muntjac Eating qualities are amazing, they are a bit like lamb, with firm meat that is very fine in grain. CWDDelicious eating, with a thick layer of fat over their backs. More like lamb than venison. Roe – Eating qualities are really excellent, with the Roe Deer being considered the Rolls Royce of venison. Soft, mild, tender meat that is very easy to cook. The Fallow is the deer I stalk and cook most often. From a chef’s point of view, the meat is brilliant – grainy, not too strong and yields very well. If I had to choose one species only to shoot and cook, this would be it. Sika meat is nothing short of amazing. I think it is probably the best, but that is my personal view. The meat is firm, dark and delicious. Red DeerThe meat is very dark and can be delicious, so long as it is not hung for too long. This is the most prolific source of venison in the UK, and the meat you are most likely to find in the supermarket. It is also the species that is most often farmed.

I conducted my own tasting of 4 of the 6 UK varieties (Sika and Roe excluded).  They were tasted by 7 people and these were our thoughts:

Chinese Water Deer: The smallest and thus the fillets were awkwardly shaped small triangles, two were tied together to roughly equate to each of the other fillets.  It had the least flavour.

Muntjac: This had the strongest flavour, reminiscent of beef or mutton.

Fallow: This was everyone’s favourite (7 tasters), very tender (verging on pappy – could be cut with a fork) delicately flavoured, remained very pink.

Red Deer: The second favourite.  Well flavoured – not strong like the Muntjac but good recognisable venison flavour.  Tender and cooked quite rare.

Interestingly our findings do not accord with the taste guide given on the website of Wild Venison, who supplied the venison for my tasting, especially with regard to Muntjac.    They classify Muntjac as the least strongly flavoured of the four varieties, which they placed in the following order, starting with the strongest: Red Deer, Fallow, Roe and Muntjac.  In The Game Cookbook Clarissa Dickson-Wright highlights the diverse views on Muntjac noting “There are some who swear that it is their favourite of the deer tribe and some, myself included, who feel it is much ado about nothing”.  Whilst not necessarily agreeing with their findings, I do applaud Wild Venison’s attempt to categorise the species by taste and so recommend you read their findings in addition to those above.

Practical Considerations

In addition to understanding the taste characteristics of the different varieties there are practical differences to consider.

Season

The first is what is in season.  Apart from Muntjac, which has no closed season, the rest depend on sex, species and location – Scotland’s season are different from the rest of the UK.  These varying closed seasons do mean that one or other species should be available somewhere in the UK at any time, although you will probably want to buy venison when it is available near you.  The British Association of Shooting and Conservation has a table of the shooting seasons on their website.

The female of each species is usually more tender than the male, especially noticeable as the animal gets older, and the condition of the deer will be better in the autumn, after a good summer’s grazing, than in the spring after a hard winter.

Size

The next practical consideration is the size.  Roe deer kill out at around 25lb, making it feasible to buy whole and providing joints of a good useable size for most households.  Red deer by comparison can weigh up to 200lb, whilst in the smaller species, Chinese Water Deer and Muntjac, cuts such as the popular strip loin can be too small to cook evenly.

Hanging

Of course tastes vary, but the tendency seems to be to hang venison for the shortest possible time in order to avoid the flavour being too strong.  The hanging time should be proportionate with the size of the beast, although the largest, Red Deer, is one that some people find too strong in flavour if hung for long.  For my own taste, I like my Roe Deer to be hung for a week for perfect tenderness and optimum flavour.  This does however need to be at a cool temperature.  Deer shot by a recreational stalker who does not have a game larder in which to hang them are the cause of a large proportion of the bad experiences people have had of game.  In the cold conditions a garage will suffice as a game larder, but if the weather is warm and/or humid it takes only a couple of days for the meat to spoil.

Where to buy

The subject of hanging brings me to the important decision of where to buy your game.  As mentioned above, lack of appropriate storage conditions is the single most frequent reason why I decline to buy from some recreational stalkers.  That said, I do still buy most of my venison direct from such individuals, you just need to be confident that they know what they are doing.  The shooting community has taken steps to ensure that those who shoot deer do so in a safe and professional manner.  There are many places that provide training with the most widely supported certification being the Deer Management Qualification.  Currently 17,896 people have completed Level 1 of this qualification, which covers species identification and deer ecology, shooting skills and Large Game Meat Hygiene.  The Level 2 qualification can be obtained by submitting evidence of this in practice and has been completed by 3913 people.

Cooking

The cooking method will depend on the cut, with the saddle being the prime cut, suitable for roasting, frying and grilling.  The haunch (rear leg) makes an excellent roast whilst the shoulder (front legs) and neck are best casseroled.

There is very little fat on venison (apart from Chinese Water Deer, which have a thick layer of back fat) so additional fat is often needed to prevent the meat drying out.

For more cooking information see Recipes.

Related articles: http://www.campaignforrealfarming.org/2010/11/good-game

Herb of the month – Bay

(Laurus Nobilis)

The bay tree is a species of laurel sometimes called sweet bay or bay laurel to distinguish it from other laurels, such as the cherry laurel, whose leaves contain the poison prussic acid.  Although indigenous to Asia it grows, and is widely used, throughout the Mediterranean.  Its history dates back to the legends of ancient Greece when it is said the god Apollo was in love with a nymph named Daphne who hid herself from him in a bay tree.  On finding her there he declared the tree sacred and wore a wreath of its leaves around his head.  This gave rise to the tradition of crowning victors in battle and sporting events with a wreath of laurel leaves.  The word laureate means “crowned with laurels” hence Poet Laureate for poets and Baccalaureate for students.

Bay is one of the most frequently used herbs worldwide and is an essential element, along with parsley and thyme, of the classic herb combination known as Bouquet Garni.  Its main role is bringing together other flavours, giving them depth and adding richness.  The leaves are however very potent and should be used sparingly, especially when fresh.  Once dried the flavour mellows somewhat, but otherwise is perfectly acceptable.  This is one of the few herbs that I do bother to dry to save me a trip outside if it is raining!

Owing to its frequent use in combination with other herbs and flavourings the characteristics of Bay are not always clearly apparent.  Its aroma is quite pungent and slightly bitter although not unpleasantly so, with a hint of menthol.  The flavour is spicy and woody with a slightly astringent taste that leads to comparisons with tea.

Although predominantly used in savoury dishes it can also be used in sweet especially milk based dishes, for example to flavour a custard or rice pudding.  Examples of savoury dishes that use Bay in isolation are barbequed eel, in which chunks of eel are threaded onto a skewer alternated with bay leaves, or potatoes, which sometimes have bay leaves added to the boiling water or, once par boiled, inserted into a cut in the potato before roasting.

Bay leaves stored in flour are said to deter weevils, although presumably every dish in which the flour is used then tastes of Bay.  Added to bath water, an infusion is said to be good for aching limbs.

Recipes

Fireside Cooking

When planning how to entertain a group of Italian students and show them typical British cooking, one of the hosts commented that we had better have a barbeque, as, certainly during the summer months, this seems to be the most frequent form of entertaining in modern Britain.

In fact, it is only for a short period of our recent history that we really moved away from cooking over an open fire.  It was during the nineteenth century that the enclosed kitchen range gradually began to replace the open fire for cooking purposes, but it was a slow process, slower here than in other countries, where, with our cold climate, we continued to see the value of combining heating our house and cooking in one operation.  At the end of the 18th century, Count Rumford (Sir Benjamin Thompson) began to apply scientific methods to the design of cooking and heating stoves with the aim of directing energy more efficiently to exactly where it was required. An early prototype was installed in the kitchen of Baron de Lerchenfeld in Munich, Germany.  But here in Britain Count Rumford’s theories on heat conservation proved to be well ahead of their time and it was not until after 1900 that they were put into practice.  In the meantime, ranges were built into the kitchens of new houses, and gradually incorporated into existing houses, to replace the open hearth, although the latter was still to be found in cottages well into the twentieth century.

Nineteenth Century Ranges

The ranges that were installed during the 19th century basically fell into just two designs, one being more enclosed than the other.  The open type had an open firebox with bars across the front, the upper ones being fitted to swing down to act as a trivet for pans or kettles.  At one side of the fire-box was an oven, at the other a small hot water boiler or warm closet, with a hob above for simmering.  This type of range was, in general, more popular in the north of Britain than the south because it both cooked the food and warmed the kitchen at the same time, of great importance in the colder climate.  The second type, known as a closed range or kitchener, became available in about 1840.  The fire-box was covered with a metal hot plate on top, which was fitted with boiling rings and the front firebars were enclosed by a metal door.  Ovens were placed either side of the firebox, or one of these could be substituted for a hot water tank.  The kitchener was designed to cook or heat, but not to carry out both functions simultaneously.  Although gas slowly became available during the nineteenth century, the gas cooker did not replace the solid fuel range because the latter, already installed in most people’s homes, carried out more than one function.  These nineteenth century ranges were temperamental and took a considerable amount of time each day to maintain, so as domestic help became rarer, and household sizes smaller, so too the ranges decreased in size.  A popular model had an oven at one side adjacent to a living room grate, while the hot water boiler was situated behind – or, where the living room was adjacent to the kitchen, the back-to-back version (with the open grate in the living room) was more convenient.

The Eagle B5 "Bijou" Grate
Instructions for Use

Twentieth Century Cooking and Heating

Although by the 1920s the solid fuel kitchen range was considered outdated compared with gas or electric cookers, there were still many homes in Britain without a supply, particularly of gas.  Then the solid fuel method of cooking received a new lease of life with the design of the Aga by Swedish Nobel-prize winner Dr Gustav Dalen.  The Aga continues to be considered a style icon in Britain, although now also available fuelled by gas or electricity, and it seems that for some people it has taken on a role that goes much further than being simply a cooking and/or heating device and they refer to it as if it was a friend or family member.

But with the exception of the Aga, heating and cooking were generally achieved by separate devices during the second half of the twentieth century. It was however advances in heating that signalled the greatest change in the way we cooked and lived.  In 1970 central heating was still regarded as a luxury, yet by 1980 it was considered a basic requirement.  It had a massive impact.  Before central heating the whole family still gathered around the fire (even if a gas fire had replaced an open log or coal fire) because only one room was kept warm enough to be comfortable – you ran to the loo and back as quickly as possible!  The fireside tea therefore continued to be popular even if some of it was now cooked in an enclosed oven in a separate room.  Heating chestnuts or toasting crumpets were activities to be carried out in the living room rather than the kitchen.

A twenty-first century return to real fires

Whilst there are very few people who would wish to live without central heating nowadays, there does seem to be some return to the pleasures of a real fire.  Wood burning stoves are increasingly popular, and a wood-fired oven is sought after in both restaurants and residential gardens.  No matter how refined and expensive your cooker is, none of them can match the wonderful all-round even heat that comes from the domed shape of a clay or brick oven.  Wood smoke also imparts its own flavour, and hunger is sharpened by being in closer proximity to your food as it cooks.  But even if you no longer have any form of real fire indoors, the long months during which the barbeque has been put away need not spell the end of the pleasures associated with cooking on a fire.  Remember that with all the time taken to heat an oven with solid fuel, baking in it tended to be kept to just one day a week and we have a plethora of recipes that were designed to be cooked on a griddle over a fire (or on the hotplate of an enclosed range).  With a good solid cast iron skillet you can bake on top of the stove and enjoy watching a dough rise and bake before your very eyes.

Click here to see Fireside Tea recipes.

Good Game

Brace of Pheasants

Substantiating what happens to all the game shot is nigh on impossible, as the records are so fragmented, but my personal experience suggests that this particular objective has been met, and according to a survey by Mintel in 2008, UK game sales have increased by 64% since 2001.

So where does game fit, as regards both sustainability and good eating?  To answer this I think we first have to consider the variables that exist under the heading of Game.
Firstly there is truly wild game, some of which is a pest for farmers, such as rabbits and pigeon.  In Argentina, where a much greater gap between rich and poor exists than in the UK, organised shooting holidays help keep these pests under control and at the same time provide a daily meal for as many as 1500 underprivileged children.  Don’t let this mislead you into thinking that there is anything substandard about the game as food – it is also served to the paying shooters who eat to a wonderfully high standard throughout their holiday.

Within the wild game/pest category in the UK is venison and although many food writers will tell you that farmed venison is better, I’m certainly not one of those.  But then I’m used to the full flavour of game, and perhaps wild venison is not the best place to introduce someone to game – for that I would probably choose the mild tasting partridge.  Another possible reason for preferring farmed venison could be that they have eaten wild that has been inexpertly shot, hung or butchered.  Those who have not reared meat for the table, whose livelihoods may not depend on repeat orders, may not have the facilities, nor pay the care and attention that these matters require.  This is also a potential problem in reared game, for it is reared not with the consumer in mind but the shooter.   Since the beginning of 2006 rules to meet an EU directive on food safety have required that any game supplied to a game dealer approved by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) must comply with certain rules for meat handling.  Whilst stemming from a concern for food safety, game is in fact one of the safest meats you could eat as according to the FSA there has never been a case of food poisoning either directly or indirectly attributed to any form of game.  Nonetheless, whilst food safety is not the concern, if you don’t know and trust the abilities of those supplying your game, buying from a registered game dealer provides some assurance of quality, but note – only some.  My experience has been that many game dealers, and not just the large ones, actively prefer to purchase game that has been hung for only a minimal period, believing that this will extend its shelf life.  A very unwelcome development, from a taste perspective, was the inclusion within the shooting fraternity’s Code of Good Shooting Practice of the suggestion that shoots should provide their “guns” (shooters) with an oven ready brace at the end of a day’s shooting.  I understand that this was all part of the measures taken to ensure that all game shot was eaten – thus transferring the onus for preparing game from the shooter to the shoots, but I will always ask for my game in the feather.  Some quarter of a century ago, when I first learnt to cook game, I was shown how to tell the age and condition of a bird in the feather, decided how long I preferred them to hang, and finally plucked and dressed them with care.  When people of a similar age tell me that game doesn’t taste like it used to, I don’t think it is just in their imagination or faded taste buds.  Sadly the traditional skills of preparing game are now practised by only a few.

So how do you go about acquiring game that “tastes like it used to”?  Direct from the shoot is often the best way because then you can select a shoot on the basis of its management practices.   The best breed their own birds rather than transporting young poults, and concentrate on creating a naturally attractive environment rather than being heavy-handed with the feed to keep their birds.   This answers the part of my original question that asked about the sustainability of game.  As with other farming, there are sustainable shoots and those whose methods I would not describe as such.  A sustainable shoot would work either in partnership with other food production on the land or, as is often the case, make viable land that would not be suitable for farming.  Some of the best shooting is to be had over deep wooded valleys or on moorland that would revert to scrub were it not managed for shooting.  I have explained many times to those not familiar with shooting why its main representative body is called the British Association of Shooting and Conservation and how these two aspects are, or should be, entirely complementary.

Having found a shoot that meets these criteria, those that are prepared to do the hanging, plucking and dressing themselves might even not have to pay for the game.  Typically it will cost a shoot around £4 to present each shooter with an oven ready brace, whilst foreign buyers will pay them £1.50 to take the birds in the feather.   The cost of rearing game is paid for by the shooter making it the best value meat you can buy.  Shooters will pay far more to shoot game than most people would to eat such free range meat, so that where a farmer can incorporate a shoot within his other farming activities it can make the whole operation viable.   If you want the hanging, plucking and dressing done for you, you will need to look to the larger shoots that can afford to have their own cold storage and preparation facilities.  Don’t forget though to check that their hanging times and preparation methods are also up to the mark.

Having so far discussed both reared and wild game, a few more words are required for a sort of hybrid category.  Some wild game is actively managed to provide shooting.  Grouse is one example, and in this instance it is usually a shining example of how shooting helps conservation.  Duck are another matter.  These are not in the “pest” category, could be encouraged to the benefit of wild life, but sadly are often fed to an extent that they are semi tame.  Ducks are greedy birds, and there is a world of difference between eating one whose diet has been obtained through natural forage (and the exercise involved in this) and one that never moves from the same pond being fed corn regularly.

So, as with all other food, the consumer has a lot to investigate when buying game.  But the best is fantastic value, extremely healthy, wonderfully tasty and, I believe, has a role to play in feeding our nation.  Once you have such a source, what the shooting campaigners really need to do to win converts is spend time and care on preparing it for eating.  In their efforts to make it attractive to the masses, I think this point is often missed.  For example, sausages may be reassuringly familiar in their presentation but game, with its low fat content, does not make the best sausages, nor sausages make the best of game.  I think it is hard to beat a bird roasted on the bone with all the traditional trimmings to really appreciate their flavour and for my tips on achieving this see this month’s seasonal recipes.

(This Article was first published in November 2010, updated November 2019)