Game cookery workshops run by Game to Eat are exposing a new generation of student chefs to this unique meat.
Just writing “game” makes me hungry; the mere thought of a succulent venison burger smothered in Caerphilly cheese moves me to soothe my growling stomach with a gentle pat.
As has been documented time and time again on these pages, game, whether winged, hooved or pawed is everywhere now, and thank goodness for that. Shooting’s closest common link with the general public (and therefore crucial to its survival) can now be found on the shelves at Asda, hanging in the feather at London farmers’ markets and is exploiting the vacuum created by notable food scares as people demand greater tractability and healthier options in their shopping.
Game is nothing new to the people of the countryside, of course it isn’t, but even the most insular gamekeeper or cynical gun should celebrate the fact that somewhere in an ultra-ultra fashionable eatery someone is asking to try something like a rare-roasted partridge breast in raspberry coulis with a sorrel timbale. So when did game go (almost) mainstream and does the elitist tag still apply?
Leading the surge in popularity of game meat in the 21st century is the Countryside Alliance’s Game-to-Eat campaign. Established in 2000, the campaign seeks to educate and promote the buying, cooking and consumption of game to everyone from butchers and chefs to journalists and the general public through game cookery workshops, leaflets and public demonstrations in both town and countryside.
In his role as a Game-to-Eat development chef, Shooting Gazette columnist Lee Maycock is part of this drive, and since joining the campaign in 2008 has led the monthly game cookery workshops Game-to-Eat runs throughout the UK.
A concentrated approach
Each of the game cookery workshops is tailored to the members of the audience present, educating them about where game comes from, when and how it is shot, how it is prepared and, crucially, how it tastes. When the content for the game cookery workshops was first being developed that audience was made up of anyone from pub chains to catering companies, and while that still applies, in recent years there has been a shift towards educating those who will one day be working in the kitchens rather than the ones paying their wages.
“Most of the workshops now are for students from catering colleges,” said Lee. “Our thoughts behind this are simply that if we can encourage the next generation of chefs to come into the industry with a good depth of knowledge of British game they are more likely to use game day-to-day in their workplace. Like most things in life we tend to get involved in things we enjoy and understand.”
A nationwide workshop
The monthly nature of the workshops means Lee can get around the four corners of the UK and exploit the affinity which certain regions might have with a particular species. The beauty of game is the fresh and local nature, something not lost on Lee but which he has had to give more and more thought to as the months have gone by.
“In the beginning we worked closely with Yorkshire Game, however in one of the sessions I talk about the importance of provenance, food miles, local sourcing etc. and felt it a little hypocritical bringing game form Yorkshire to a workshop in Devon! I like to use game from the regions we are holding the workshops in where possible. I also use deer I have stalked myself as that brings a story to the workshop in itself.”
Learning by doing
Making the process fun is at the core of the workshops, which often bring students into contact with game for the first time. This gives Lee an interesting problem, as on some days everyone is keen to get involved or ask questions, whereas on others it will take one confident student to make the first move before others join in.
“I used to take the venison already prepared into primal cuts and place them back together to showcase how it was broken down,” said Lee. “Now I take a whole deer and break it down in front of the students, sometimes skinning it at the college and letting the students help. I used to take one rabbit to show them, now I take several so we can skin them together. I also bring pigeons for them to pluck. I try to make the workshops as interactive as possible as I believe we learn more by doing than by watching.”
Recent figures published by The Times suggest game sales are breaking new records: pheasant sales are up by 234 per cent from last year, partridge sales are up by a third and the Kensington High Street branch of M&S became the first in the company to sell grouse. Sadly there is still a class stigma attached to game, and while Lee celebrates its rise in popularity he knows there is much still to be done to improve its repuation and make it accessible to an even wider audience.
A growing presence
“Game has come on significantly over the past several years but still has a long way to go. Most high street supermarkets now sell some form of game while farmers’ markets and farm shops have had a massive impact selling game to locals. Game is still seen as a premium meat to a degree, so the biggest challenge is to get the price down similar to everyday chicken to make it available to the masses.” At the time of going to press, catering students from Boston College in Lincolnshire were about to become the latest to experience Game-to-Eat’s approach to game education.
The college, which counts Stefan Howells (Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois) and Bradley Cross (Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons) amongst its alumnus, was approached by Game-to-Eat and course leader Steve Cottrell (who has cooked for Tony Blair at Number 10) felt it was time his students took advantage of Lee’s knowledge, especially since game is not a permanent fixture on the curriculum.
Inspiring young chefs
“Workshops like the one run by Game-to-Eat are valuable, and the fact it is funded by the Countryside Alliance really helps us out as events like this come with a considerable cost attached,” said Steve.
“The workshop is also as much for my team and I as it is about the students. I have been out of the restaurant trade for a while so there are plenty of new things I can learn about game and its preparation which I wouldn’t have been sure about in the past.
“I would love to see game as a compulsory element on our curriculum. I’m a Londoner but having lived in Lincolnshire for over 10 years I’ve grown to appreciate provenance and food miles and I want to pass that on to our students. These guys are the chefs of the future and if we don’t teach them about game then what they pass on will be watered down even further. When I was a chef the only game that was really on the menu was rabbit that had been flown over from France.
“Some of our students might pass a pheasant walking on a road but unless their father or grandfather shoots they probably don’t realise what it is. We encourage students working in our restaurant to use game and during the season I bring in birds from the shoot where I beat. Shooting is seen as an elite sport so that elitist tag still applies but there is a shift in popularity in favour of game.”
The Game-to-Eat Workshop: One day. Five sessions
Session one: Presentation on British game explaining the Game-to-Eat campaign; the role of game dealers and suppliers; the different kinds of fur and feathered game; the game seasons; sporting shooting with shotguns (small game) and rifles (large game); the handling and storage of shot game; and the flavours, cooking, resting and serving of game.
Session two: Identification session involving all British game birds in feather – everything from pheasant to woodpigeon.
Session three: Butchery session involving a whole deer. Explanation of muscle groups and what cuts work with what cookery principles. Shoulders, haunches, loins, fillets and neck all removed and haunches broken down. Seam butchery is used to identify and remove the different muscles. Cost implications of different cuts and the potential revenue for deer also discussed.
Session four: Game cookery masterclass using the game examined during the morning session. Two/ three dishes are explained as is the importance of not overcooking game. Revisit the necessity of resting meat before serving.
Session five: Student’s opportunity to develop and cook a game dish using all the information absorbed from the workshop. Student dishes entered into an informal mini-competition. Explanation of annual College Game Chef of the Year competition with an invitation to enter. Q&A session and then presentation of individual certificates to attendees.”