A day with game cookery guru Tim Maddams
Author of the acclaimed River Cottage Handbook on Game, Tim Maddams is just the person to get your game cookery out of a rut
If Tim Maddams had taught me maths, I wouldn’t have dreaded afternoons of double maths and had to retake my maths ‘O’ Level. In fact, I’d probably have got an A straight off.
That’s because Tim’s one of the most engaging speakers and teachers I’ve ever come across and what he doesn’t know about game cookery really isn’t worth knowing. Anecdotes, quips and useful information trip off his tongue as he plucks, butchers, chops, sears and seasons. A day watching Tim cook is a feast day.
In fact he wrote the book on it – River Cottage Handbook No15 ‘Game’ which was published in 2015.
A date in December
So at the end of last year, I was excited to be invited to spend a day with Tim on his game butchery and cookery course at Vale House Kitchen in company with half a dozen other rapt game students (we’d been on the learn-to-shoot course a day previously, so we weren’t strangers). I’d been feeling my culinary skills were rather stuck in neutral and I needed some new ideas …
Vale House is stunning, built from warm Bath stone and tucked away in a village outside the city. We entered the kitchen to a warm greeting from Tim – and a deer suspended from a beam, ready for butchering.
Tim started by telling us all about the various species of deer to be found in the UK – from the indigenous to the imported. Sika, fallow, roe, muntjac, Chinese water deer …
There’s nothing like watching an expert in action and Tim made light work of skinning the deer, starting at the point where the back leg met the belly area right until he pulled the skin from the carcass, ending with the neck.
All the while he was telling us to look out for live ticks – which are fairly keen on sourcing a new host once they’ve outlived the previous. Tim also had some advice on Lyme Disease and how important it is to check yourself for ticks whenever you’ve been out in the field.
He wiped down the carcass with vinegar and water to get rid of any straggly fur. Tim dismisses the notion that you should never wash meat – and in fact vinegar is mildly antibacterial which is a good thing.
If you are doing your own meat preparation then you need to regulate yourself carefully and follow a process every time. Make sure you have all the correct equipment to hand and, as with any raw meat, you need to minimize the risks of contamination. These might include dirt and grit, faecal matter or physical contamination from shot/bullets.
Tim covers this aspect of preparing game very clearly in the Game Cookery Book and it’s well worth a read.
So how long should deer be hung in the fur? Tim recommends three days minimum in a fridge for a medium size animal.
Bit by bit Tim butchered the deer, all the while talking us through the different cuts. The easiest is the shoulder. He then followed with the saddle and haunches, moving onto the neck. Once you have these primal cuts you will need to have decided what you are doing with the meat. Are are you going to use it for steaks, stewing? Again, I would recommend that you get hold of Tim’s book which gives clear instructions for the whole process.
If you’re keen on stalking and want to learn your own butchery skills or brush up on them then this really is a day for you and in fact Vale House runs another butchery day that focuses on venison entirely.
Moving onto rabbits and pheasants
We all picked up a rabbit from the counter top. I’d done this before, so I was on the lookout for a rabbit that was on the small size (which would mean it was younger and therefore more tender).
Tim showed us how to skin and butcher the animal and after sharpening my knife I was off, removing the offal and creating the different cuts – I focused on getting the rabbit fillet out carefully as I knew this was particularly useful for recipes.
Once we had all our butchered meat ready on our chopping boards, Tim showed us how to make a rabbit pasta dish – including making our own ribbon pasta with spelt flour and eggs. Why spelt flour? It has much less gluten than normal plain flour and is apparently fabulous for making cakes too (although you’ll have to add the baking powder to make them rise).
It was a fabulously quick dish to prepare, with store-cupboard ingredients and one I mentally stored for future use when I’m in a hurry. You’d just have to remember to take the rabbit legs out of the freezer beforehand.
I’d never made pasta before – I’d always dismissed it as fiddly and unnecessary but now I’ve done it I realise just how easy it is.
Oh, and the joy of having a sharp knife to cook with. I won’t go back to sawing away with anything blunt again. Having a knife that cuts through meat like hot butter does a great deal to making one feel like a practised cook and is one of the easiest things to achieve – simply sharpen your knives every time you use them.
And the pheasants?
A game cookery day wouldn’t be the same without an indepth look at pheasant preparation and recipes. And we all had to cook the pheasants we’d shot the previous day – in keeping with the field-to-fork philosophy of Vale House kitchen.
Most of us were already familiar with what was involved with plucking and preparing a pheasant and so we just carried on with the task in hand. It did give me a thrill preparing the two birds I’d shot the day before.
That said, Tim had some useful pointers on how to cook the bird according to its age. You can tell the age of a bird by its feet. They’ll be soft if it’s young with clear nails but more scaley as it ages.
In addition the way a bird has been shot is paramount to how it should be cooked. If it’s been damaged with shot then it’s not good for roasting – butcher it and make pheasant fajitas, curry or Kievs. Another good recipe is a potted pate (you will find this one below).
The advice is to stop eating plucked and roasted cock pheasants at the end of November when their muscles toughen up and never roast a hen pheasant after Christmas for the same reason.
In fact, given a brace of pheasants, Tim would always take the hen birds and in his opinion plucking is seldom worthwhile except at the beginning of the season.
My conclusions at the end of the day
Tim showed me how to bring out the best in game cookery, aligning the practical along with the more creative and cutting edge. Forget just roasting game or the eternal casseroles – he’ll up your knowledge so that you’re comfortable making fajitas, pasta, ravioli, potted game … If you’re in a rut, this is how to get out of it.
The skills you will learn on the day include: plucking, skinning, gutting, hanging, boning, butchery, slow cooking, fast cooking and smoking. You can find a recipe for potted pheasant here and rabbit pasta here.
If you’re interested in taking part in the game butchery and cookery course hosted by Tim at Vale House Kitchen then click here to find out more. You can read a review of the learn-to-shoot part of the course here.