Game and eggs – from field to fork
Leon Challis-Davies misses his shot on geese, but his delicious dish successfully introduces someone new to the great taste of wild game
Google describes wildfowling as ‘the hunting of a bird species such as ducks or geese for sport or food’. I describe it as a beautifully unique experience. No day is the same. It is unparalleled. Having worked in London’s Covent Garden market, I am used to early starts, and at 2.30am I was on my way to meet Simon Garnham at Brightlingsea, right next to Fingringhoe Wick. I could not have been more excited. We had been in touch about the quarry in the days leading up to the outing. Geese were on the menu, and Simon had been out most days and reported plenty of sightings. I couldn’t wait to show what a delicious treat goose can be in dishes other than a go-to goose curry.
On the tranquil drive, I contemplated how the day would be. Flighting wildfowl is something everyone should get a chance to do, and I have had little opportunity in the past until now. I arrived to a warm welcome and a cup of coffee, and quickly got into the seasoned 4×4. After a bumpy, rocky dirt track drive down to the River Colne off the Blackwater estuary, we arrived to see the natural beauty of the sun just peeking its head over the horizon.
Simon explained to me the importance of scouting the area before we began. It was dark, with a short walk to our point across marshlands, so safety was key. We set up our hide near the edge of the marsh, camouflaging in with the natural surroundings to avoid detection from the quarry.
Out came the goose and duck calls, and thanks to our meticulous preparation, Simon and I were ready. While I took a minute to settle my nerves, I admired the early morning sky, shot through with red, orange, gold and every hue in between. I was in complete awe, and Simon had to tell me to focus on the task at hand before I missed a shot.
It didn’t take long before the distant quack of ducks came. We identified our quarry — a teal and wigeon, two common species in the area. The shotgun was loaded, the safety was off and we were on.
Birds were coming down. I could hear Simon’s gun next to me going off too, both barrels.
The arrival of geese required a quick change of gun. Simon had brought his 10-bore. I hadn’t shot a 10-bore in years and had forgotten what a kick they deliver. A wedge of geese came into sight and range. The 10-bore barrels went ‘boom’. I was kicked in the arm when I was 10 while milking the herd on a dairy farm. That hurt, but being nearly 40 and handling the kick from the 10-bore was something else. Sadly, I missed the geese.
I was gutted. I really wanted to get our quarry with this beautiful gun. With the 12-bore in hand, we waited for more birds to twist and turn towards us, gliding their way down the river and following the curves of the banks.
I needed a break from the clogging mud, so I got up on the bank. As did, I was just in time to see more teal coming in. I picked them up on the end of my barrel and down they came. Following another 20 minutes of full-on shooting, the volume of quarry coming over began to calm down.
The sun started to break over the bank. Its golden rays warmed the air and shed light on where we had been sitting for the past few hours. I had set up on the bank with a hide in some coarse bush. Once the sun broke, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I had been sitting in sea purslane. Chefs love this beautiful, salty flavour booster. I could see I was confusing Simon, as all I kept saying was, “We are sitting on £20 a kilo.”
I had an idea. As I had missed the geese earlier, I would change the breakfast to my take on steak and eggs — wigeon, teal and eggs. I’d use the purslane, some sea beet and the first of the season’s wild garlic, all foraged from nearby.
Loud quacks were coming in from all angles. Our discussion this morning was this: “The past few days have seen a flighting of left-to-right birds coming off the wick down the tributary and over where I’ve been.” This was not the case — from right to left, they came pouring over my head. They were coming straight at me, in fact, and we couldn’t keep up.
Simon heard geese. He took the 10-bore this time, but they didn’t come close enough. Just then, two beautiful mallard flew over our heads.
I pulled the gun up into my shoulder, took aim and without pulling the trigger down both birds came. Simon had got them, and he had only used one barrel to do so. “One barrel,” we kept saying. He couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. “What a shot. Bravo, sir. I take my hat off to you.”
We were so in shock at how good the shot was that the dog took itself off to retrieve our birds.
With both collected, we knew that had to be the end of our morning. Always leave on a high note.
We decided to head back to Simon’s farm on the edge of the Stour, where he has more wildfowling rights, which was a little more protected from the elements. Out came my trusty gas stove, but there is no recipe for this. As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with eating game before lunchtime, and my take on steak and eggs was perfect for a hungry group.
We managed to pick up Simon’s wonderfully inquisitive family — wife, son and daughter. While the birds were breasted out and legs saved for another day’s confit, I set up some leftover new potatoes and heated my pan with duck fat.
The potatoes were crushed up with thyme and seasoning, fried until golden brown and crispy, then set to the side. Next, I diced our freshly shot wigeon, teal and mallard into equal 3cm chunks and tossed them into a fresh pan with more duck fat. I fried them on medium heat until they were golden, but still pink inside.
Just before they were ready, I added handfuls of fresh sea beet, sea purslane, wild garlic, large-leaf spinach and some fresh chopped grelot onions. The lid went on and the pan was removed from the heat, leaving the residual warmth to wilt the greens down. I wanted to give this dish a kick, so I cracked three eggs into a pan and added a peri-peri spice mix over the eggs.
This left the eggs soft so that when served they oozed over the meat. I laid a base of the duck fat potatoes, then added the wigeon, teal and mallard before I finished it with the eggs.
Just as we were all tucking in, Simon’s daughter’s friend turned up. She had never eaten game before, so I handed out forks and told her to get stuck in. There’s nothing better than eating together, discussing the dish and Simon’s famous double duck shot. I got a thumbs up and a delicious seal of approval from the newbie on the ‘game and eggs’ brunch dish.