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A golden age for game meat?

Since the celebrity chef catapulted onto our television screens our nation has become obsessed with food and cooking like never before. Eating organic-only foods, grow-your-own, awareness about food miles, seasonal eating, ethical farming methods and eating British products are the culinary buzzwords with which we are all now familiar.

However, one food source left behind or ignored until recently is game meat. Thanks to endorsement from television chefs, and campaigns such as the Countryside Alliance’s Game-to-Eat and BASC’s Taste of Game, this has now changed. Waitrose reported sales of rabbit up 350 per cent at the beginning of the year after Nigella Lawson and Nigel Slater included rabbit recipes in their television series. The Game-to-Eat campaign is in its 11th year and has invested £1.5m to date in promoting game meat to the consumer through the retail sector and directly to pubs, restaurants and major food service operators.

“When the campaign started the only photos of game meat were in the feather and now you only have to look at the pages and pages of game meat recipes and photographs in glossy magazines to see how far it has come,” explained Game-to-Eat director Alexia Robinson. This year, wild rabbit has been added to the campaign and is being promoted together with pheasant, partridge and venison. “A new recipe booklet featuring specially designed recipes by Valentine Warner is being distributed to consumers through butchers and other retailers,” added Alexia.

Game meat at its best: A partridge in port.

Though the days of seeing rabbits and pheasants hanging in the fur or feather in the local butcher’s shop window are largely gone, supermarkets now stock a selection of game meat that is dressed and ready to cook. It is fantastic progress and provides the non-shooting public with easy access to healthy, free-range, low-fat, good-value meat.

It’s a change that has come about for a combination of reasons, according to Yorkshire Game’s Richard Townsend. “Campaigns such as Game-to-Eat and endorsement from celebrity chefs have undoubtedly made a big difference, but the crucial element has been that there are several processors now who can produce game meat to a high enough standard so that supermarkets and food manufacturers can buy game meat with the assurance that it is suitable to sell on to their customers.

“The game hygiene laws have also contributed to us being able to buy better quality game meat from shoots, which have had to improve their handling of shot game and refrigeration at source. And, of course, game meat dealers themselves are doing a lot to market and promote game meat too.

“The percentage of game meat that is being exported abroad is a lot less than it used to be 10 years ago. It’s difficult to put an exact figure on it, but if 90 per cent was being exported back then, no more than 50 per cent is going abroad now. For venison, the figures are even better – 90 per cent of all venison now stays in this country. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next couple of years we see 80 per cent of all our game birds staying here.
Chris Tory set up the Dorset Game Larder in 2007, in response to the change in the game hygiene laws and the fact that frozen game meat could be sold all year round.

Game meat at its best: Rabbit with pasta, tomato and capers.

“There was a situation several years ago whereby the game meat dealer would turn up to collect the birds, put them in the back of his truck on top of birds from another shoot and drive off. A few months later you might be lucky enough to catch up with him and draw a tiny bit of money for the season’s game meat. It wasn’t satisfactory.

“Now, technology has improved vastly, plucking machines are more sophisticated than they were and not as expensive as you might expect, so there are quite a few smaller businesses now able to supply high-quality game meat into the food chain. Part of our business is supplying dressed birds back to the big shoots, though we’re just as likely to take feathered game from a small shoot or walked-up day, dress it and supply it back to the shoot for their freezer or to distribute among friends.”

The great thing about game meat is that it is cheap in comparison with beef or lamb.

“Our prices at wholesale have remained the same as last year, whereas all other meat has gone up,” said Chris. “Most people discover game meat through venison because they can cook it rather like beef, and then they become more adventurous and start experimenting with pheasant and partridge.”

Game meat at its best: A venison and sour fruit salad.

Shooters’ responsibility

If the non-shooting public is this keen to eat game meat then shooters must keep their end of the bargain. On the larger shoots guns are more and more frequently offered birds that have been plucked, dressed and packaged supermarket-style rather than the traditional brace in the feather. It’s popular with the guns and saves the mess of plucking and dressing the birds at home, but it’s still important newcomers to the sport don’t miss out on learning how to do it so there is no wastage when they are presented with birds in the feather.

“All our shooting guests take away a brace of oven-ready birds after each shoot day,” said Roy Green sporting manager for Buccleuch Estates. “For £3.50 to get those birds ready for the oven, I think it is a small price to pay and it generally goes down well with our clients. Very few refuse to take ‘oven-readies’ and I think if more shoots were to do the same we would encourage more people to eat game meat. Who knows, those carefully prepared high driven birds that end up at the dinner party table might just inspire the non-game eaters to try it.”

Game meat at its best: Pheasant with gin and juniper sauce.

There is something very satisfying about taking a bird in the feather and presenting it to the table. The different species of game that we shoot and hunt are all beautiful creatures and preparing them with our own hands reminds us that it is a privilege to be able to harvest them to eat and affords them the respect they deserve. It is the part of the process that makes our sport justifiable.

“There is something special and tremendously satisfying about sitting down to a haunch of venison, a pheasant or other game meat that you have taken the time to dress or butcher yourself,” Roy continued. “Unfortunately today’s busy world gives very few of us the chance to prepare our own caught, shot or trapped meal, which I feel is a terrible shame. It’s very therapeutic to take the time to pluck a pheasant without tearing the skin and to see it presented in all its glory at the table. The same goes for a rabbit or pigeon as it does for venison – a badly dressed bird or animal just doesn’t give that sense of satisfaction that one has done one’s best by them.”

There are dozens of ways to find out how to prepare game meat – YouTube is a handy resource and there are cookery workshops organised by BASC and the Countryside Alliance. And there are countless game cookery books now available. Game courses are becoming popular at cookery schools around the country, where attendees can learn how to pluck and dress game, and cook it in the traditional way or discover new ways to spice up the home cook’s menu.

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