In the first of our 'Why We Shoot' series, the keen Shot and BGA chef ambassador shares his love of game with Martin Puddifer
You only have to listen to Leon Davies talking about game meat to appreciate just how much he loves using it in his recipes. As the BGA’s chef ambassador — and a keen Shot — he is perfectly placed to give readers a professional’s take on game’s place in the national diet and perceptions of it within and outside the shooting community.
Starting in game cookery
Tell us about your background and how you first became interested in cooking — was it an important part of your home life or something you picked up elsewhere?
From an early age I knew that I was going to be a chef. With my Nan being an accomplished two rosette chef in the late 1980s and early 1990s, food was coursing through my veins.
Winding down on her career, she became senior cook at Harper Adams University where I took full advantage of their outdoor pool as a child with my aunties.
I finished school in the early 2000s on the Friday thinking I would continue my part-time job at a local restaurant in Beaconsfield, looking forward to a summer of fun and games with my collective. However, that was short-lived. My father rang me on Friday night explaining that he and my mother had agreed I was to move in with him on the Sunday and I started work as an apprentice chef at the Allied Dunbar training centre in Swindon, not the idea I had in mind for my summer.
The rest is history, that day shaped me into the chef I am now. I learned basic skills at Allied Dunbar and loved every second of it. From there I worked in some of the most iconic country house hotels, from Bindon Country House — owned at the time by Country Food Trust ambassador Lynn Jaffa — to Castle House in Hereford, AA Hotel of the Year 2003-2004; Ballynahinch Castle, in the West Coast Ireland to Cliveden House with André Garrett.
When did game meat first find its way into your recipes?
I realised pretty quickly at Bindon that game meat was going to be a big part of the country house hotel life; right next to shooting country, I saw our menu revolve around game as soon as the season hit. I even cooked for Marco Pierre White after a hard day’s shooting on numerous occasions. I then moved to another high-end country house hotel, but this time with a twist — it was in a city centre. It was here that, under the stewardship of executive chef Stuart Mcleod and head chef Gary Wheeler, I learned to hone my skills. I owe these two chefs a lot.
Game was on the menu in a completely different way, like nothing I have seen, such as a mixed plate — or assiette — of game, rabbit blancmange using wild salmon from the River Wye to mallard, partridge and rabbit, shot locally at some of Hereford’s top estates.
Ballynahinch was every wild game chef’s dream, 700 acres of pure Connemara beauty, 400 acres of some of Ireland’s premier woodcock shooting, as well as the Ballynahinch River stocked full of salmon and trout, all with a backdrop of the Twelve Bens mountain range. It doesn’t get any better than working with outstanding wild produce.
Leon Davies and the BGA
What was it about the core aims and objectives of the BGA that made you first want to work for the organisation
The core aims of the BGA are to promote, assure and develop game meat to put it back on the nation’s plate. The BGA promotes the value of feathered game and does so through its much-needed assurance scheme. Kitchens are being hit year on year with tougher regulations coming from EHO (environmental health officers) so traceability is a key.
What’s the one misconception the general public has about game meat?
The biggest is the “too gamey” flavour and the “it’s so dry, though” comments. Food has come such a long way since then. Chefs have come a long way too; there is a science these days behind food. We understand more about what we are cooking with and there are so many cookery programmes and social media influencers using game in so many different and exciting ways. How can it be too dry or too gamey?
Gone are the days of hanging game to mature with guts in. We have salt chambers, vacuum packing machines, slow cookers, josper grills, open wood-burning stoves and water baths. With so many techniques to cook with now we don’t need to; it would be pointless, it puts people off trying it.
I’ve always been a big fan of fresh grouse, partridge, mallard and fresh pheasant. Each has very different flavours which can be delicate, partridge often mistaken for chicken in the kitchen among young first-year commis chefs.
Does it surprise you when you hear about people in our community who don’t eat what they shoot?
It shocks me, to be honest, that’s all I have to say about it.
We need to support the BGA’s role in promoting, developing and assuring feathered game meat. Let’s see a pheasant sausage roll in Greggs or major retailers; we have the means to really change the industry for the better with everyone on board with the BGA and its aims.
What’s the one ingredient — perhaps a sauce — that is absolutely superb with game meat but no one knows about?
Cajun spice seasoning has been superb throughout lockdown. I’ve been doing what everyone has — lifting my last-season game out of the freezer and firing up the BBQ or fryer, mixing it into mayonnaise, breadcrumbs or straight on the meat for a wicked flavour burst.
Which chefs should shooting people be following if they want to get the most from the game they prepare for the table?
Steven Ellis; Gavin Edney, Mike Robinson’s group head chef at the Woodsman and the Elder; Sally Abe at the Harwood Arms; Gamechanger BBQ; Keith Greig’s Field to Fork Food; Tim Maddams; Rogues London; and finally, of course, me, Leon Davies on Eat Wild. These guys and gals are outrageous with game meat… give them all a follow on social media.