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Village Food & Drink

All in the game

Posted on September 21 2013 at 1:23:34 0 comments

Venison

Mary Green points out some of the wild animals and birds we use as food.

Our lovely summer was followed by a fine warm start to September, good weather for the apple and damson harvest. My trees were literally bowed down to the ground, but are gradually going up again as I eat my way through them!

It has been a good grain harvest for the first time in a few years too. This year, most grain was spring-sown after the disastrous winter prevented autumn/winter sowing. I wonder if it will encourage farmers to return to this practice, common in my youth.

Much wildlife benefits if stubble is left in the fields over winter. However, lack of young corn growing over winter drives the deer down to our gardens to feed!

You should be able to continue to gather good wild fruit before the birds have them all, and it’s not only late blackberries and elderberries, but sloes, crab apples, hawthorn berries and rosehips that can be cooked or made into jam.

The hazelnuts may have disappeared to squirrels by now, but sweet chestnuts are looking good this year. It’s the time for edible fungi as well, though whether they are plentiful depends on some good rain between now and when you read this.

I have written many times about foraging wild plants, and how in past centuries people’s diets were made varied and healthy by their knowledge of edible wild plants. This month I will look at wild birds and animals used as food.

All sorts of wild birds and animals helped people eat in the past. They were hunted out of necessity or for sport, or both. Later they were specially bred for “game” shooting.

Edible species included not only pheasant, pigeon, partridge, grouse, rabbit and deer – still well-known – but also moorhens, mallards, squirrels and even hedgehogs.

However, catching and eating birds and animals is called poaching rather than foraging, so is not advisable!

But if you know someone who shoots legitimately, they can often get you wild game. For meat-eaters, this is the healthiest meat. It is lean, low-fat, tasty, additive-free and lacking the drawbacks of red meat.

I bought a brace (pair) of pheasants for £3.50, which served seven portions, so it is one of the cheapest meats around.

Rabbit is similarly cheap, delicious and healthy – the wild kind, not the fatter, blander farmed ones. Living a life in the wild means more muscle is formed and less fat. This makes the meat slightly tougher, but much tastier.

Autumn is the time for this meat to be taken, as having and rearing young is important for the birds and animals in spring and summer. There are different schools of thought about the benefit to other wildlife of rearing game.

On one hand, where pheasants and partridge are reared, seed-rich plants are grown which can also be eaten by other birds. Woodland and open ground which might have been neglected are well managed so they will support game, and then support other animals and plants. You can see this locally in Shortwood.

Having to keep the stocks up also encourages responsible killing of the animals and birds, so the young are always left to be reared for future years. And the culling of deer and other larger game means that we don’t get out of balance and become over-run by these animals, as they have no natural predators any more.

Gamekeepers, like farmers, know animals and birds well, and traditionally treat them with respect. Many people who don’t like the idea of farmed meat agree with eating wild game because it helps to maintain a healthy and sustainable balance in the countryside.

Farmers and many gardeners want the rabbit population controlled: we have mixed feelings about these animals, which cause a lot of damage, but are also the little furry creatures beloved of children. 

On the other hand, there is an unfortunate loss of some of our protected predatory birds – buzzards and hawks – illegally shot by gamekeepers and farmers in the belief they might take eggs and young game birds.

It is also thought that pheasants are responsible for the loss of some of our native reptiles – lizards and snakes. Pheasants are not native but they have been with us since Roman times and are well established in the countryside – beautiful but not entirely beneficial.

Over the years there has also been a huge impact on parts of the country where “grouse moors” were established as a playground for the rich to have their shooting parties. Vast tracts of Scottish mountains and Northern English moorland were deforested and cleared for open moorland.

This followed on from the mass clearances of earlier centuries for sheep-grazing. In both cases small farmers were dispossessed and many emigrated. Royalty and the aristocracy used these moors without much thought for the environment.

In the 1930s there were “mass trespasses” in the Peak District, many of the participants coming from the mill towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, demanding access to the open countryside, then closed to everyone but the privileged few.

This led to organisations like the Ramblers Association, and to the creation of National Parks and other areas with rights of access. Only a few years ago this was extended into “right to roam” in many of these places. This coincided with a decline in the popularity of hunting as a sport, so that the Royal Family, for example, now play down their links to it.

The “empty” land thus created, much of it in National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, is often now thought of as particularly beautiful and peaceful. It is often mistakenly thought of as “unspoiled” and “natural”. But it’s as human-made as any other landscape.

It is also ecologically poor and lacking in biodiversity, though it may host some of our rarer wildlife. Where planting has taken place, it is usually of non-native coniferous woodland, also lacking in biodiversity and native wildlife.

Recently there is beginning to be a turn of the tide in our attitude to these areas. A few centuries ago, when they were a mixture of forest and small crofted farms, they were healthy environmentally and people lived sustainably from them. They were also often worked on a small scale for various minerals and fuels.

Now some people think these empty moorlands should go back to being a much more diverse and productive environment. Some of the conifers are being replaced by native trees, and there is much discussion about the best way to use the land.

So, game is a mixed blessing. It is part of the way we have affected the countryside over the years, and how it affects us. To eat it, the best way is probably slow-cooking, as it may not be very tender.

You can of course take some of the tender cuts, like breast of pigeon or duck, or joints of young rabbit, and quick-fry those, and then simmer the rest for soup.

I would cook whole rabbits and pheasants slowly in the oven with cider and juniper berries, or maybe apples and other fruits like blackberries or damsons.

Venison (pictured above) is better with a dark beer or red wine, and again goes very well with juniper berries or other dark fruit. All game also goes very well with mushrooms, preferably wild kinds, probably because they are ready together. Nuts go well with them too.

I grew up eating rabbit and pigeon, and find it really odd that they are now seen as rather exotic gourmet food!

Juniper is an interesting plant. It is one of our few native evergreens, and grows mostly on heath and moorland in the north. The berries are the flavouring for gin, of course. I don’t know whether the use with game originated because it grows near the main game-shooting areas.

However, it is suffering badly from a disease and being decimated in many places. There is even talk of a shortage of berries for gin, a traditional English drink also much made in Holland (and necessary at this time of year for sloe gin!)

Our farmed birds are important too. There has been a big revival in chicken-keeping (my neighbours included!) and many people have “rescued” battery hens. There is nothing like a truly fresh egg, especially if the hen has been fed on a varied diet.

Traditionally, poultry were fed on greens as well as grain, and many plant names bear testimony to this. Fat hen, chickweed, goose grass and others are all edible for humans as well as fowl.

Eggs are an excellent food for us, providing quick fresh meals to replace “ready meals”. At any time of year you can sauté fresh seasonal vegetables, add beaten eggs, top with cheese and grill for a kind of frittata or tortilla. It’s strange there is no English name for this basic omelette. We do have bacon and eggs, though!

Chicken meat has gone during my lifetime from being a relatively expensive treat to a cheap-and-(sometimes)-cheerful food. I remember when we were young and chicken was for celebrations; we used to compliment a good rabbit by saying it was “just like chicken”. Now I’d like to find a chicken that tastes like rabbit!

There is a huge difference between real free range chicken and the rest. Even mass-reared free range are lacking in flavour compared with chickens that have genuinely been allowed to forage and put on lean muscle.

Supermarket birds are also killed younger – get a real old fashioned capon that has been round the block, and you’ll know the difference! The same is true of other poultry like geese and ducks.

Wild duck needs slow cooking and is dark, lean and gamey. Farm ducks are often fatty, but can be fast-cooked and the fat drained off. A full grown goose is huge and fatty, and doesn’t have an enormous amount of meat, but what is there is truly celebratory.

Turkeys have become synonymous with large amounts of rather bland breast meat, but you can buy older breeds that are smaller and truly delicious.

An unusual way of enhancing the flavour of poultry, borrowed from South American cooking, is to put chocolate in the cooking liquid to make a rich dark gravy. I use pure unsweetened cocoa but you can use any really dark chocolate if you like the slight sweetness.

Try it – it sounds odd but is delicious. It also works well with dark meets like venison and beef, and will certainly make you never use gravy browning again!

So I hope we are having a good autumn when you read this, and that you have been out foraging for berries, nuts and fungi (with care). If you are a meat-eater, give some game a try as well!

This poem was written on request by someone who missed us at the Picnic in the Park when we were writing poems for people. He stopped me on the canal and asked me for a poem about the pike that lurks in the canal near the dead-arm. Another thing that used to provide food!

Pike

How do you write a poem about a pike?
Ted Hughes has said it all, the fearsome fish
Inhabiting the dark depths of the soul.
But why do we so demonise it? Lazy habits
Make us accept the stereotypes of evil.
She is beautiful, striped like grass in sunlight
And sleek as an athlete, streamlined, fast.
Yes, she kills and eats, but so do foxes
Which we love for their furry little faces
And so do herons and kingfishers, the
Birds so solitary and beautiful we call them
“The heron”, “the kingfisher”, and stand and
Watch them fly, wishing we were so free.
She swims quiet and alone, so we suspect her
Not a team player, we say, and Isaak Walton
Called her “melancholy” because of this.
The deeps to her are not spiritual darkness
But a familiar world under the lily pads
Where she silently, pointedly, goes about her business
Not needing the shoal, not wanting our approval.
Evil is human-made. We learn from pike
That darkness is not the devil, that instincts
Make life and loveliness and eternity, not sin.


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