One of the things I notice more often on formal shoot days, is people’s evolving attitude towards the hospitality on offer. Take, for example, the offer of tea and coffee on arrival. Hot drinks are so often black, or with “just a spot” of milk. Sugar? Well, you’d be just as well asking if they wanted some crack cocaine with it.

The people taking and enjoying let days often earn a good salary. By their own admission, they pack in some hefty meals during the week. Many lead sedentary, desk-bound lives. The shrewder ones, hoping to see 50 and beyond, will cram in a few sessions at the gym, but just as importantly, they are careful with their diet. The day will undoubtedly come when some young city whizz, fresh from his first shave and six-figure bonus, says, “Sloe gin?

Yes please. Do you have a sugar-free one?” Not only are Guns being that little bit more reluctant to troff away a few bangers with the soup and snifters at 11 o’clock, it’s at lunch that the biggest statements are being made. Especially earlier on in the season, it’s far from unusual for puddings to be refused and carefully selected cheese courses are often returned to the kitchen untouched barring the celery and grapes.

I’ve even seen the supermodel’s trick of dividing the main course in two; half a chicken supreme, or four of the eight cubes of steak are eaten with any “clean” vegetables those without any sauce, such as cauliflower
cheese. The remaining half of the plate is then obliterated with salt to avoid any temptation to pick at the remnants. Models tend to use their own salt cellar containing truly unpalatable substances such as soap powder. Granted, this is pretty freaky, but it gives some insight as to how seriously people are taking their diets.

The shooting season aside, lunch, for me, is rarely more than a sandwich. So imagine my horror when, dressing for one of the last let days of the season, my wife and I stood toe to toe with matching waistlines. Kate was two thirds of the way through her pregnancy with Finlay, our son. Most sporting agents will admit to purchasing a tweed suit with a pair of XXXL 54in waist plus twos at the beginning of their career as shoot hosts, so that they can gradually swell in to them.

Don’t get me wrong, I relish a big, hearty casserole with a glass of spicy red to hand; nothing can touch it on a freezing cold day when you’re as blue as a Smurf, but I really do take my hat off to any shoot that strays from the well-trodden path of chicken and beef casseroles or stews. If the cook uses game from their own estate, what could be more admirable? What could be better, ethically and from a health perspective?

If we consider for a moment the shoot lunch staples hotpots, stews, casseroles and the widely popular roast joint when conditions suit, they’re amazing, but on an early partridge day, when the sun is splitting the stones, then what would be wrong with some poached salmon, coronation chicken with a well-constructed salad, or some barbecued or smoked game with a rice salad and a glass of Chablis or rosé?

Let’s take an average shoot lunch. A roll with your soup (flour and butter), beef stew (gravy thickened with beurre manié butter and flour paste), spotted dick and custard (eggs, butter, flour and milk, and cream), then “Ooh, look at that cheeseboard”. I can almost feel my left ventricle clapping shut. Do you mind if I miss the last drive? I’m off to the cardiac unit. It’s little wonder that we feel bloated rolling out for the final two drives.

I suppose when anyone asks what constitutes a shoot meal, we all think of huge winter dishes, which compared with lighter, more imaginative dishes, are easier to prepare and keep warm. If seasons do continue to get milder, unless the shoot captains, estate owners and chefs are aware of the change in climate and get their heads together and their menus sorted, I can see the day when the people behind the scenes get a wake up call from the Guns parting with their hard-earned money. Paying Guns will always vote with their feet.

A novel approach to lunch

One of the finest shoot lunches I’ve had was a huge game barbecue on a renowned wild bird shoot in Norfolk. The food was cooked to perfection and had been shot on the estate. I asked the chef there, Jonathan Townley, his thoughts on barbecuing game. “A good tenderising marinade is important. All my marinades are simple. They are there to help tenderise, but not always to impart flavour. I feel that anything harvested from the field or air has plenty of natural flavour.

“My basic marinade for game (for four pheasant breasts) is as follows: half a cup of olive oil, three or four twists of a black pepper mill, a couple of bay leaves and four or five juniper berries. You can omit the juniper with partridge and pheasant as they can overpower the delicate flavour. I never season a marinade with salt, as this will draw moisture and flavour out. I season with Maldon sea salt seconds before cooking not before. I like to marinade game for at least 12 hours before cooking it.

“A nice way to cook partridge on the barbecue is to take a whole bird, cut through its breastbone and flatten it out, or spatchcock it. Run two long skewers through the bird so that it’s completely flat like two splayed hands. It will then cook evenly. Lay the bird, cavity side down, on to the rack. Partridges generally need three to five minutes either side. Pheasants will need slightly longer. If you fancy a change, fresh thyme and some crushed garlic rubbed into the birds works nicely, or with pheasants, a marinade of olive oil, the juice and zest of a lime and some freshly grated ginger is a lovely combination that really works when cooked over coals. Don’t forget the resting time, too five minutes somewhere warm, at the very least.”

The humble pigeon, like grouse, is one of those wonderful birds you can serve on the pink side. If you have the time to pluck them completely, they are superb cooked whole over coals. Spatchcocked, just as the partridges already described, they need little more than six to eight minutes. Season them well and brush lightly with olive oil. If you’ve had a bumper day over the decoys, then breast the lot and make plenty of kebabs with the fillets, remembering to soak any wooden skewers well to stop them burning.

Because of the chargrilled, almost steak-like flavour of pigeon, I love them with Béarnaise sauce. The Maille brand is excellent, but if it’s too rich, you can always thin it down with a little mayonnaise. My favourite method of cooking partridge is to brush them with a little butter during cooking and finish them with a slathering of local honey a couple of minutes before they’re done.