Autumn Game

As the year turns colder, nature compensates by giving up all her best gifts: apples, quinces and walnuts in the orchard, hedgerows heavy with elderberries and sloes, and wonderfully earthy mushrooms in the woods and fields. The breeding season for wild animals has passed, and hunting is permitted once more.

I love to cook with game, and autumn is my favourite time of year for entertaining. The slightly ferric tang of game meat works well with earthy root vegetables, ripe fruit and musky wild mushrooms. Fatty goose and duck can be off-set with apples, damsons or a splash of sloe gin. Use those apples, too, with pheasant, but give it a splash of cream to smooth out its leanness. Fine-tasting, small birds like grouse, partridge and woodcock are best cooked quickly and simply, counting one bird per person. Before you roast, slip a quarter of fresh quince inside the cavity, for a touch of its honey-and-saffron fragrance in the meat. Venison meat is similar in texture to lean beef, but with a deeper, richer flavour. Depending on the cut, it can be casseroled, roasted or flash-fried and is the perfect introduction for diners who are new to game meat. I have recently had venison presented as a tartare, and it was truly delicious. All the usual garnishes of gherkin, shallot and egg yolk were there, as well as the spicy punch of Worcester Sauce, but they were supplemented by pickled blackberries, elderberries and cobnuts, for an even more autumnal feel. I had a fine dry Madeira with it, but it would be equally blessed with Beaujolais, a dry chenin blanc or a rich pinot gris from Alsace.

My son-in-law shoots and will sometimes leave a bag of miscellaneous birds on the handle of our back door – a snipe, a teal or two, maybe a pheasant. It’s nothing I can turn into a full dinner, but they can be chopped up and mixed with minced pork, garlic and herbs to make a game terrine: the perfect starter for a winter dinner, served with crunchy cornichons and a glass of white Burgundy. If you know someone who shoots, make friends with them: your autumn and winter table will never be short of variety. Admittedly, you’re going to have to become familiar with the interior anatomy of several animals, but it’s a small price to pay for such deliciousness. If you find yourself too squeamish to do your own plucking and gutting, most good, independent butchers have game licences, and they sell their game ready to cook. I have found two excellent online suppliers who can supply all sorts of in-season game and are well worth patronising. One is Alternative Meats, based in Shropshire. They have a good selection of game birds and venison, as well as extensive ranges of more conventional meats and offal. The Wild Meat Company in Suffolk specialises in wild game and free-range meat and poultry. They sell everything from free-range goat to wild boar, grey squirrel and woodcock.

Hare is more difficult to come by and is the strongest-flavoured game animal. Its dark flesh rewards slow cooking. Stick to traditional flavours and cooking methods for best results. Fry up a little bacon with chopped onions, celery and carrots to soften them. Brown the portions of hare and add them to the pot with the fried veg. Cover with game, chicken or vegetable stock and throw in sprigs of bay, thyme and rosemary. If you have them, three or four juniper berries would be a good addition, too. Cook at 180C (fan)/gas 6 for 30 minutes, then turn down the oven to 140/gas 3 for a couple of hours, or slow-cook it all afternoon on a very low setting. I can’t give a precise time, as it will depend on the age and size of your particular animal. The meat should be tender, almost falling from the bones. Serve with a slice of fried bread, which you have rubbed with a garlic clove, and roasted root veg.

Of course, game cookery doesn’t have to be steeped in English tradition. Pheasant makes a fabulous curry. Korma gives it the same creamy texture you’d find in faisan à la normande, while its sweet flavour is a lovely compliment to tomato-based balti or a luxurious biryani. Maltese cuisine is famed for its rabbit dishes. Jerk or Cajun-spiced rabbit is amazing, too. With its soft texture and mild flavour there’s nothing to stop you replacing chicken with rabbit in any of your favourite dishes, and it's entirely traditional in paella. Wild ducks like mallard and teal are much leaner than domesticated birds. Their stronger flavour works well with Mexican mole sauces. The only limit is your own ingenuity!


A note about wine

My love of game dishes is matched by my love of good, red Burgundy, and I am fortunate that these two things go so well together. Game birds and rabbit need softer, lighter reds, and there are few combinations as heavenly as roast woodcock and aged Nuits-St-Georges. The problem with Burgundy, though, is its price. A good bottle with a bit of age on it could easily set you back £65 and more. Still, as an autumn treat with someone you love, you might decide that’s worth it. If you’d rather something less extravagant, a less prestigious Burgundy, a pinot noir from New Zealand or one from South Africa would be excellent matches. Look out, too, for the excellent pinot noirs that have been Germany's best-kept secret until recently. Darker meats like hare and venison can cope with more tannin, so you might enjoy a Chianti or a northern Rhône wine, or even a robust Barolo or Madiran with the slow-cooked dishes.

Spicier dishes benefit from slightly sweeter drinks. German and Alsace wines often work well with curries and chillied dishes, and malty beers can be a revelation with food. Try a traditional amber ale with the jerk rabbit, a Rooster’s Yankie with pheasant biryani or a double-IPA with mallard in spicy chocolate mole.

This post is adapted from an article previously published in Handpicked Harrogate magazine.


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