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The Countryman Sets Forth Again – book extract

‘Rotten fish sauce’ doesn’t sound appetising but it served to disguise the taste of high game, as Sir Johnny Scott reveals in his latest book, The Countryman Sets Forth Again

The Countryman Sets Forth Again is Sir Johnny Scott’s latest book

Colonel Peter Hawker, the father of wildfowling whose prowess as a Shot, while serving with the 14th Light Dragoons during the Peninsular Wars, earned him the soubriquet of Wellington’s Honorary Wildfowling Officer by the members of the duke’s staff, invented a sauce that can only have been intended to disguise the flavour of very high game.

It consisted of port, lemon juice, lemon rind, chopped shallots, pounded mace, coarse red pepper, strong vinegar, tarragon, thyme, brandy, grated horseradish and a healthy dollop of mushroom catsup. Hawker’s mushroom catsup, or ketchup, bore no resemblance to anything on sale today and was more a loose paste made from salted mushrooms boiled with mace, pepper and vinegar.

Professor John Wilson, writing under the pseudonym Christopher North, was a principal contributor to Blackwood’s Magazine from 1820 to 1835 and recommended a game sauce made with port wine, salt, caster sugar, lemon juice, mushroom catsup, coarse cayenne pepper — the quantity to be doubled if the game was particularly high — and a generous helping of Harvey’s Sauce. A household name, this was originally the invention of the mother of Captain Charles Combers and was simply known in the family as ‘rotten fish sauce’. It was made from fermented anchovies, vinegar, garlic, Indian soy sauce, cayenne pepper, mushroom ketchup, with an added dash of cochineal to colour it red and make it look less unattractive. 

Combers was a Meltonian, known for his breathtaking performance across country as the ‘Flying Cucumber’, in the days when Hugo Meynell was Master of the Quorn (1753–1800). Combers, who never travelled without a bottle of his mother’s sauce, was in the habit of stopping for the night on his way to Leicestershire at the George Inn at Bedford, run by a man called Harvey, who had previously been chef to the Duke of Bolton. Harvey was so impressed by Combers’s sauce that he acquired the recipe, refined it, made it commercially and went on to make a fortune from it.

Obviously, there were endless occasions when game sent by cart, carrier and even rail, once the railway system pushed through to Inverness in 1850, would be humming by the time it reached its destination and the happy recipients would take the view that game was meant to be eaten high. And yet, there were and always had been plenty of opportunities to eat game fresh — birds shot or trapped in the coverts of big estates, long before the days of driven shooting. 

Duck decoys were common on inland waterways, to say nothing of the waterfowl shot by the market gunners to supply local coastal towns. Hawker alone, once he was invalided out of the Army after the Battle of Talavera in 1809, spent virtually every waking moment in the pursuit of edible bird life, all of which could have been eaten fresh, or at least, not in a state of near decomposition. 

Even allowing for the jaded palates of the Georgians and their heavy consumption of sweet, fortified wines: port, Madeira, malmsey, marsala, the dark sweet sherry Jerez Dulce and the cherry liqueur maraschino — the Prince Regent once sent a naval vessel from Malta to Zadar on the Dalmation coast to collect 100 cases — there seems little reason to eat all game high, drenched in tongue-shrivelling sauces.

Sir Johnny is a keen countryman, enjoying fishing and hunting as well as his shooting

Nor did the Victorians and Edwardians change their attitude to hanging game and eating it high; the main culinary difference was in replacing the sauces of the previous generation with fruit. Oranges, plums, prunes, raisins, apples, redcurrant jelly, cherries, quinces, bananas — even in the 1920s, Boodle’s was still serving grouse and partridge stuffed with mashed bananas and, in Scotland, juniper berries. 

A popular sauce for game north of the Border was made with shallots, garlic, sugar, thyme, claret and juniper berries, simmered in game stock, while the berries were often used as stuffing and in game pies. Cumberland sauce, both hot and cold, was popular and made with port, the juice and zest of a lemon and an orange, dry mustard, redcurrant jelly and red pepper, to which French chef Auguste Escoffier added ginger.


Reform Club

One of the best and simplest was invented by Elmé Francatelli, the first celebrity chef, who worked for Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House, Crockfords and the Reform Club. His sauce was made from two tablespoons of port added to half a pound of redcurrant jelly, a bruised stick of cinnamon and the thinly paired rind of a lemon.

It will have been common knowledge from the dawn of time that the muscles of an animal stressed at the point of slaughter, particularly a bird driven to rapid flight, will be tense and therefore require a period of hanging to allow the meat to relax, tenderise and for flavour to develop. However, it does seem extraordinary that it has taken so long for people to realise that game need not be eaten ripe and that there appear to be no records of anyone bucking the trend. 

Victorian game larders were specifically designed to be cool, dry places and once the game laws were relaxed in 1832 and game shooting rapidly increased with the developments of the breech-loader and establishment of sporting estates, game became much more available. 

At one time, beams of game hung in Leadenhall Market and outside every provincial butcher’s shop during the season. You would have thought someone requiring a less rich diet would have discovered that game did not need to be eaten in a state of virtual decay. Nevertheless, the belief persisted century after century that the longer game was hung, the more the meat became tender and the flavour improved.

We can credit modern chefs and people such as Peter Barham, the author of The Science of Cooking, for our improved knowledge and thank heavens for them. Plucking game a few days old is immeasurably easier and a great deal more pleasant than anything that has been hung for longer. I remember the joy of shooting my first cock pheasant almost as vividly as being given it to pluck three weeks later when it stank to high heaven and the skin tore with virtually every feather. Gutting it when the job was finally finished,
is something I prefer to forget. 

The Countryman Sets Forth Again by Sir Johnny Scott is published on 14 April by Quiller at £20. Visit