Chris Warren told us all about his quest to only eat game meat for 12 months. With the season now over, we thought it was time for an update...
Our wild game diet
It has now been a year since my family last bought meat from a supermarket. The only exceptions are sausages and bacon made from free-range pigs and that is purely because life would be diminished without pork products and none of my friends keep pigs.
We have eaten pheasant on 60 occasions, partridge 10 times (with tons in the freezer), pigeon just thrice and venison about 20 times.
We have had fish on 50 occasions plus a little home-produced lamb and the aforesaid porcine derivatives. We have eaten vegetarian meals about 138 times.
I have always been keen on eating game but previously it was always in a haphazard manner – when we had it we ate it. For pheasants and partridge that meant we had plenty from October to January then eked out what was left through spring and into summer, supplemented by ‘ordinary’ meat from supermarkets and butchers. Having made a commitment last March to only eat what we considered ethically produced, that would no longer do.
Fortunately, Hampshire Game is not far away and has a supply of frozen game, so we got through those summer months. Come September, I had a mission: fill that freezer to fulfil our wild game diet.
My first loading day was on the fifth of the month and my first partridges were secured; I didn’t look back. My season is filled with a mixture of photography, loading, beating and shooting, and I took every opportunity to grab any birds on offer. Most shoots are happy to let you have a few, pleased that someone wants any surplus and enjoys eating game.
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Feast or famine
This is not a linear process. Sometimes you have a feast, other times a famine. Often the shot birds are whipped off to the cooler several times in the day, sometimes after every drive. If at the end of the day you are nearby that’s fine but sometimes, especially when loading, I found myself too far away from the store and had to do without.
On other days I lucked out. My best haul was 36 young partridges, many of which are waiting in the freezer. Thirty-six partridges take a surprisingly short time to breast out and by the end you will find you are rather good at it.
Pheasants came on stream in October and eating pheasant or partridge twice a week I found I was able to eat some and freeze the rest, constantly building up reserves for the months ahead.
I’m not a big fan of plucked, roasted game birds. There is too much work involved and it is far too easy to overcook. Overcooked game meat is a travesty – and one reason that game isn’t as coveted as it should be. Partridge I simply breast out, pheasant too, but I also ‘harvest’ the legs. There’s a lot of tasty meat on a pheasant leg and it doesn’t take very long to skin and remove them.
Sometimes I slow-cook whole legs, usually with chopped onion, carrot, celery and tomatoes. In a low oven after three hours the meat falls off the bone, rather like pulled pork. You have to pick out the sharp bits but this makes a superb ragu for pasta. Otherwise I use them in place of chicken.
Eat what you shoot
One thing that has disappointed me this year is noticing how many people involved in shooting profess to have no taste for game. There is a part of me that thinks if you are not prepared to eat what you shoot then perhaps you shouldn’t shoot game at all.
It is the poor old pheasant that gets most of this vilification. Comments such as “I love a bit of partridge but can’t abide pheasant” are common and I can only think they are overcooking it. I don’t see how anyone could argue that chicken, especially the usual six-week-old, water-tumbled stuff from the big suppliers, comes anywhere close to a first-year pheasant.
The problem comes from cooking pheasant in the same way as chicken. Pan-fry a chicken breast and you are looking at 20-25 minutes. Do this to a pheasant breast and you’ll be playing ice hockey with it. Three minutes a side is ample; partridge and pigeon need even less.
What has pleased me is the increased awareness shown by shoots, gamekeepers and game dealers about the importance of getting all shot game into the food chain. Game shooting is only sustainable if this happens and we should be proud of producing such healthy, free-range, tasty food.
Many shoots now serve game for elevenses and some for lunch as well, reinforcing the idea that the Guns are harvesting a food source and showing respect for their quarry. I have been lucky enough this past season to enjoy barbecued duck, partridge terrine and Moroccan-style pheasant.
Shoots are also much more aware that the 21st century Gun may not be happy with a brace in the feather or even oven-readies. Prepared vacuum-packed breasts, marinated or not, are much more acceptable to Guns (and their partners). From shoot to car to home, clean and ready to cook. The partridge and pear sausages I was presented with at Cold Aston were sensational.
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Don’t hang it
I think part of the problem of selling game meat is that the general public eat it so rarely they don’t know what to do with it. Give the average punter an unplucked, undrawn chicken and they wouldn’t have a clue, so why would a pheasant or partridge be any different?
The more it looks like something they would normally buy in a shop, the better. And the mystique of hanging game must put people off. The answer is simple: don’t, or at least not for long. Shot one day and eaten the next is fine and more acceptable to the modern palate.
Game is not all about birds of course. Venison, to my way of thinking, is the perfect meat and is available all year. Deer need culling, they are free range, free of medication and live natural lives. The meat is low in fat and tastes absolutely wonderful. I am mystified why it is not more popular. Apparently some game dealers have been turning it away. Unbelievable. If anything needs proper marketing it is venison.
One highlight for me this year was muntjac fillet given to me by a friend who had hung it for a proper amount of time. It was genuinely probably the finest red meat I have ever eaten.
Another highlight, though I am rather embarrassed to admit it, was on 14 August when we had our first-ever grouse. Shot the day before and brought back by yours truly from Northumbria, they were quite simply divine, wrapped in pancetta and pan-fried.
So season over and we have a full freezer, lots of partridge and pheasant, some venison, a few pigeon and a couple of pieces of home-produced lamb. Enough to last us until September? With more venison and more effort with the pigeons, I think so.
Not only are we happier eating meat that we have taken responsibility for, but it is healthier, too. We are meat-free three times a week and the meat we do eat is very low in fat and cholesterol. Our carbon footprint is lower, too.
I know, I know. Everyone is going on about climate change, carbon footprint, less meat in our diets, ethical eating… It does seem never ending but it does matter.
I may not be around in 50 years’ time but my children will, and their children, too. Does it make any global difference if the Warren family doesn’t buy and eat mass-produced meat? Who knows, it’s impossible to tell. But it might help and we shouldn’t just wait for governments to take action. We all have to step up and I want the game shooting world to show it cares about the environment and is being responsible.
Keeping game in perfect condition Game as a meat is no different from any other product — if you want…
Game cookery recipe: A fantastic game cookery recipe using pheasant and an excuse to raid the freezer!
Wild game diet recipes to try
I use game meat in all the usual ways – pan-fried, casseroles, pies, stir-fries, curries, it works for all. Just remember it is lean meat and will dry out if you are not careful. I have dozens of recipes but here are just two to try.
Gently pan-fry partridge breasts and keep warm, deglaze the pan with a glass of white vermouth, add tarragon, a liberal helping of cream and warm through. Delicious, and all done in 10 minutes.
And what about cutting pheasant into bite-sized pieces, dusting them with seasoned flour, then dipping in egg and finally coating with panko breadcrumbs seasoned with fennel seeds, cumin seeds and a little chilli powder?
A few minutes’ shallow frying will give you a plate full of delicious, crispy goujons.