It’s only recently that I’ve been aware of game. Not in a completely blinkered way where I was totally blind to its existence but in a more immediate fashion. I’ve always known that pheasants and rabbits and venison were available but rarely did they feature on the menu at home and even when they did, they invariably came pre-packaged in neat little portions, in no discernable pattern at various points in the year.
And whenever we ate it, I enjoyed it. Venison steaks are an absolute joy, especially when served achingly rare with a sweet sauce. Game casserole was also a favourite although it never made it onto the table more than two or three times a year.
It was only when I started writing about food and in turn reading more about the joys of cooking, seasonality and provenance that I became more aware of the importance and pleasure inherent in game.
Seasonality, an aspect of cooking that is of paramount importance to me, is perhaps most prominent with game. Fruit and vegetables exist at the fickle whim of the weather – too much rain, too little sun or a late frost can push back or bring forward the first potatoes of the year or halt the rise of the young and tender asparagus stems. We know broadly when spring lamb is going to be ready or the time of year when trout is at its best. But there are no absolutes.
The appearance of game, on the other hand, is so firmly set in the calendar that you could set an atomic clock to it. It is not just certain months or weeks when you can expect to see the first few partridges or pheasants – you can be sure of the exact day, days that are set in stone in The Calendar and are as important to some as Royal Ascot, The Henley Regattta or The Wimbledon Final.
‘The Season’ kicks off on August 12th, the Glorious Twelfth as it is known, which marks the first day you are able to shoot grouse. Duck, goose and partridge follow on September 1st and pheasants are fair game a month later.
By the end of February many of these are once again off the menu until the months roll around and the whole thing starts again.
For an enthusiastic cook, this is indeed a glorious time of year. Game is everything food should be – slow bred, wild, able to wander around the countryside and free from any insidious hormones and growth promoters. It is a world away from the intensively farmed, pre-packaged meats that have come to dominate the supermarket shelves and now form most people’s idea of what meat is.
With game, even if you buy it ‘oven-ready’ there is a connection to the land and an awareness that what you are about to consume was, until recently, running or flying round rural Britain. There is a purity to it and an almost unfathomable desire to treat it with respect.
This desire is only accentuated when you get hold of something only recently dispatched – head, feathers and guts in tact. This is hands-on food that offers an experience that every meat eater should consider trying if only to appreciate the moral implications of consuming the flesh of another animal.
I’m not going to pretend I am an expert at this. The only time I have been shooting was with an air rifle whilst in the Cub Scouts and then the target was round, paper and lifeless rather than bird-shaped, fleshy and living. Nor am I going to moralise on the rights and wrongs of being a carnivore. My personal belief is that eating meat does come with a necessary need to think about animal welfare and the connection between a burger and a cow or a pork chop and a pig but that is for another day.
What I would suggest is trying to get hold of a complete bird, just once, to experience what it is like to turn something that looks like it was once alive into something resembling a meal. Because it is a great experience that only gets easier with time and practice.
The first time I did the necessary prep work on a pheasant was a few months back (you can read about it here) and, I am happy to admit, it was not an easy process. Like Lady Macbeth frantically and desperately washing her hands, I tried for two days to remove the smell from my fingers although I am sure that it was almost certainly psychological. The mental images, too, are still strong and I approached the whole process with a degree of some fear and trepidation.
But nevertheless I was ball-bouncingly excited when I heard that a colleague of my girlfriend’s was going shooting last weekend because I knew what the result would be.
Sure enough, on Monday evening she arrived home with a heavy bag containing two freshly despatched pheasants: one young hen and one hefty cock whose large spurs and considerable size suggested he was something of a battle weary veteran.
They hung in the garage for two days before I decided to settle down and ‘do the deed’. Fortified with nothing more than strong coffee (last time required wine, much wine) I settled down and started plucking, a process that is almost therapeutic and quickly transforms a recognisable bird into something that resembles meat.
Once naked and the head has been removed, the gutting is a grim inevitability but, honestly, after the first time it presents little problem and within moments I had two birds ready to be washed and butchered as well as a plate of giblets, perfect for making a rich stock along with the bones.
The whole process from start to finish took close to an hour, not bad considering that I managed to prevaricate for almost two the first time I was presented with a complete pheasant. At the end of it I had four sizeable breast portions and a large handful of meat, ideal for creating a rich winter pie to eat in front of a crackling fire with a large glass of something red and warming. Game on indeed.