How our game dishes have evolved
Tim Maddams asks if our great-grandparents would recognise the game dishes of today and investigates what we can learn from the past
These days, even folk who hunt their own meat are sometimes missing the odd opportunity to experience something out of the ordinary at the table. Perhaps because of busy lives, a lack of thoughtfulness or simply because they have had a bad experience with a certain meat in the past and are now prejudiced against it forevermore. We all have the odd thing we simply won’t eat.
It is worth noting though, that except the stalkers, wildfowlers, rabbiters and pest controllers, the majority of Shots will mostly encounter pheasant and partridge on their hunting forays. That’s probably part of the problem; not only has the sport become commonplace and more or less guaranteed, and in my opinion lost some of its allure along the way, these meats are the least fragrant and textural of all the game.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of pheasant meat and partridges have their merits of course, but are they really that interesting? Do they have a distinct flavour? Not really. I mean no disrespect — obviously a pheasant tastes like a pheasant and a partridge tastes like a partridge and that is all well and good — but by comparison to a rook, a hare or a snipe they dwindle, wain almost, in comparison. This got me thinking — are we missing something special here? Would our great-grandparents recognise the dishes we eat today and should we try eating a few of theirs?
There can be little doubt that, in some ways, our tastes have mellowed. I remember, for example, my grandfather eating kippers for breakfast most days, something
many people would find unimaginably odd now. On the flip side, I can’t imagine he had access to a good curry very often, so in some ways we are more exposed to strong flavours and exotic tastes these days, but the meats we eat seem to become an ever-more narrow selection of
We must resist the temptation to become too nostalgic and imbue the everything that came before with a glitter of wanderlust. I do think, though, that we are missing a certain something from culin days of yore, especially within game cookery.
I am a bit of a part-time collector of old recipe books: the likes of Good things in England by the formidable Florence White (published in 1932) and The Sportsman’s Cookery Book by the almost unbearably forthright Major Hugh BC Pollard (published in 1926). Within the pages of these books you will find lots of breakfast dishes that are made of offal, something that would certainly turn a few heads, and probably stomachs, if announced today.
Rook or jackdaw pie, boiled venison pudding, humble pie, stuffed baked carp, stewed lamprey, stalkers’ breakfast; all would raise an eyebrow today, but I can’t help but think that we’re living a less full life without these robust characters on our tables.
I remember the very well-respected game cook José Souto offering some thoughts on this when giving a demo at a game fair some years ago — he spoke of the shift away from hanging birds head-down (we now tend to hand them head-up). He thinks that in times gone by, before the advent of refrigeration and supermarket chill chains, the birds were hung head-down so the guts would sit against the ‘bland’ breast meat and flavour it somewhat during hanging. These days, the tides have turned and the breast meat is hallowed as prime, and as such the birds are now hung the other way up to protect it from being ‘tainted’ by the guts.
Meat, in those distant times, was kept fresh by being kept alive, and once animals were killed their parts were used in the order of which would become spoiled the most quickly. Offal was first, then the areas nearer the guts and sites of trauma, then the larger cuts. Stronger flavours would develop in the better-keeping cuts as time ticked by, and these would have changed in character far more quickly — particularly in the warmer months, without modern refrigeration and hygiene practices.
Meat would traditionally have been hung in cool larders, some even with the benefit of ice to help keep them cold, but still nothing like the modern super-chilled walk-in larders we see in operation in the meat industry today.
Another famous game chef, Rachel Green, once told me how much of a shame it was that people were so reluctant to try bolder flavours these days, strong meat being central to her meaning. While we both pondered that, she said something like: “The brilliant hygiene standards we have these days, coupled with the removal of the realities of meat-eating from the public domain and the dominance of ready meals, has really robbed people of something special.” A crying shame in her view, and mine.
However, there is, when you dive a little deeper, some hints that may help us to re-introduce some of these stronger dishes and more edgy game meats to the diet of the fine sportsmen and women who contribute so much to the national larder, and hopefully to those of the general public too, whoever they may be.
I allude to a well-known cooks’ gambit, that of flavour balancing. Serving something strong like old grouse? Add some cayenne pepper and plenty of wine. Cooking some kidneys? Add a lot of mustard and some cream, maybe a dash of brandy. In short, add strong flavours to strong flavours to create balance from discord. This has been used countless times in modern-day cookery to add a little distraction from the inherently obvious. While every curry shop in the land sells a lamb curry, it’s likely that they all include mutton — and rightly so, for the stronger flavour works far better with spiced dishes of all types, and on the flip side the spices work to balance the texture and flavour of the more vigorous meat.
Old game cookery books abound with devilled this and that, and they also use other tricks to get the best from the hard-won fruits of the field. To return to Florence White, an obvious example for me is her collected recipe for rook pie, which calls for young rooks, salt, pastry and diced beef.
Upon reading the recipe, you find that the rooks are essentially being used to season the rather dull taste of beef. Yet, this (a collected recipe from Nottinghamshire apparently) is an evolutionary footprint of our move from flavoursome and varied to bland and staid — a previous fightback, perhaps?
Another of her collected recipes (which incidentally gives the lie to the title of the book), from an Aberdeenshire gillie’s wife for venison roll, features minced venison rolled up in a cloth and boiled, but not before the addition of almost 50% by weight of fatty bacon. The likely very strong meat of the minced venison is overlain with the indulgent and salty richness of bacon before the addition of onions and lots of black pepper. A theme emerges. I have used the same trick myself for many dishes I have created and written about — it is a keystone of my cookery ethos.
Do perhaps look again at some stronger meats, things that have fallen from favour — they will certainly enhance your life. But perhaps take a lesson not only from history but from other cooks of today, and balance the enthusiasm for the less commonplace with the care and sense of those who have gone before you. Celebrate and venerate the dishes you make from the parts other discard or the meats others avoid. Yes, you can make a very decent haggis from pheasant innards, and yes, you can make a very tasty liver on toast from that roe liver — just don’t forget the mustard sauce and the Henderson’s Relish.
Popular recipes of the past
Humble pie: a pie made with venison offal
Jugged hare: a stew, braised in an open vessel, the sauce thickened with the reserved blood of the hare
Devilled kidneys: venison, calf or lamb kidneys fried in a spicy flour and then served on a mustard and cayenne sauce, either with cream or with béchamel as a base
Jackdaw pie: a raised hot water crust pie, often including pork and beef along with jackdaw meat, served cold
Stags’ tongues: lined and boiled stag tongues, cooked and served cold as a side cold cut
Fried venison cutlets: breadcrumbed venison cutlets, fried in hot lard, served with a green herb sauce
Rook pie: a cold ‘dish pie’ made with young rooks, seasoned with bacon and herbs
Read here to view or archive of game recipes