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.
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.
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
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.