The standards of rearing and game preparation need to be beyond reproach. The Game Chef visits a West Country shoot that is doing its part, with delicious results
About two or three years ago, the vast majority of the shooting world realised what a small minority had been saying for rather longer: that the increasing strain showing on the supply and demand of the game meat market needed addressing – swiftly. If not, it was a one-way ticket to government legislation. And had this been handled insensitively, as no doubt reactionary measures may have been – it would have been severely detrimental to our sport.
This in part, led to the establishment of the British Game Alliance (BGA), which amongst other things (such as the promotion of game meat to a wider market) created a self-regulating code of practice for the treatment and handling of both live and dead game, which would also be inspected by the BGA itself.
The idea is to make the game meat as traceable, sustainable and ultimately saleable as that of high- quality farmed meat.
This code is as applicable to the farmer’s shoot providing a 50-bird day, as it is to a multi-estate corporation offering ten times that bag.
Towards the tail end of last season, Adam Holden from Berry Bros. & Rudd and I headed over to one of the most forward-thinking shoots in the country, and they very kindly agreed to let us have a look at what they’re getting so right in terms of the meat production that is a byproduct of the sport that they offer.
One of the more contentious aspects of the shooting industry is the rearing of the game prior to release, often portrayed by antis as a battery farm style operation leading to the use of vast quantities of antibiotics. The shoot we visited, however, has managed to rear all of its own birds with zero antibiotic use, and to do this they say the principles are simple – giving the growing birds what they need in the very best environment possible. They are constantly making improvements, such as reducing stocking densities, selecting the best breeding stock, strict biosecurity, providing the right grit for the birds to naturally forage… the list goes on. But what has been most ground breaking is the development of their own probiotic rearing rations – gut health is not all about expensive yoghurty drinks – and these have been exactly formulated to the young birds’ requirements, providing them with the foundation stone to develop into a strong, healthy bird.
Once the birds are released, this ration continues to ensure the birds are as healthy as possible to resist any natural challenges. Again, they say the principles are simple – good feed, a carefully and considerately managed countryside around them, and providing a varied natural habitat with a wide range of diverse crops in their covers. There is an enormous amount of work in creating this, but it certainly doesn’t stop there.
When it comes to the shoot day itself, a team of skilled pickers up numbering enough to warrant the bag, bring the birds back to be hung – crucially – not crated, on the game cart. This game cart then returns to the chiller between each drive, where the birds are again hung with plenty of space in between, to bring the carcass temperature down to 1–2 degrees as quickly as possible. The birds are then graded and tagged, before being taken to a central chiller from which the game dealer collects twice a week.
The tagging system they employ is a simple one, but it includes everything from the parentage of the bird, to who reared it, what feed it received, routine veterinary visit records, the date, drive and shoot on which it was shot, and which trained staff member graded it in the chiller... simple, as they say!
It is an impressive chick to chiller traceability programme that can rival that of the farmed bird and make game meat more mainstream, as the BGA, amongst others, are pushing to do, and that is exactly what the public will be expecting. It is something of a no-brainer that this kind of good husbandry will make for the tastiest of birds.
With the onset of spring, it is likely that many folk have a few, perhaps several, brace filling up the freezer, and the two dishes here are complete winners, especially if the birds have been frozen. The gentle poaching method in this issue’s recipes ensures a moist and tender meat, while also giving us a most gloriously flavoursome stock that forms the base of both recipes.
PERFECT WINE PAIRINGS
Adam Holden, from Berry Bros. & Rudd, matches the best wines to complement this issue’s recipes
“Learning about the care which goes in to raising the birds for the shoot, and the efforts in the field ensuring the best handling practices, puts me in mind of the meticulous way many of our producers cultivate their vines and treat their grapes. It should come as no surprise that this dedication results in a better finished product, and the birds going into today’s recipes demonstrate this with aplomb.”
Pheasant and Jerusalem Artichoke Risotto
“The risotto, with its rich and earthy Jerusalem artichoke, demands a white with some weight to it. The whites of the Southern Rhône would be a good match, but I’ve selected the 2016 Mullineux, Kloof Street Chenin Blanc from Swartland in South Africa (£14.95/£13.45 with 10% case discount). Mullineux source grapes from carefully selected growers who follow sustainable practices. It’s an important distinction, because organic certification is only a part of the story and it doesn’t work for everyone; they have their own methods, which often go even further but aren’t as restrictive. The Kloof Street Chenin has the weight and depth of the old vines which go into it, lots of ripe apple fruit and complexity of sweet spice. Chenin’s trademark freshness has a welcome cleansing effect against the richness of the risotto.”
Pheasant and Tarragon Cobbler
“The savoury cobbler – a dish which is long overdue a revival – would also work well with a rich white, but I’ve opted for a pair of lighter reds, as its main course proportions turn my attention to darker fruits. Both wines are from organic producers with a strong connection to the land. De Martino is something of a rarity in Chile, being a family-owned winery in an industry which is dominated by goliaths. Their 2017 De Martino, Legado, Pinot Noir (£15.95/£14.35 with 10% case discount) is equally rare; uncommonly elegant and understated for Chilean Pinot. Alongside the wonderfully fresh 2016 Berry Bros. & Rudd Chianti Classico by Badia a Coltibuono (£15.95/£14.35 with case discount) they both provide a delicacy of red fruits and a crisp structure to parry, but not overwhelm, the luxurious sauce coating the delicately gamey pheasant.”
To poach, take two wholes, dressed pheasants, plucked or skinned, stock herbs and various veg. I use: four bay leaves, one sprig of thyme, four cloves, one onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery, and salt. Place the birds in a pan large enough to accommodate them and the veg, and cover with water. Add a pinch of salt and place on a medium heat. Once the water has come to boiling point, turn the heat down and simmer very gently for 20 minutes. Allow the birds to cool in the liquor.
LINKS TO RECIPES
Pheasant and Tarragon Cobbler
Pheasant and Jerusalem Artichoke Risotto