This is the time of year when we find out if we’re still game

Sandy Neil pheasants
Sandy Neil pheasants
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Pheasant & Partridge

The age-old rule for cooking partridge, pheasant and grouse is ‘young ’uns for roastin’, and oldies for the pot’ – but as Cumbrian game hunter WMW Fowler observed in his book Countryman’s Cooking, “it’s pot-luck whether your pheasant is young or old.” You can spot an old partridge, he says, when it’s plucked and oven-ready, by a hard, slightly protuberant breastbone.

When roasting, bard the pheasant or partridge with streaky bacon to keep their lean, dry meat moist, and then remove the crispy rashers for the last 10 minutes in the oven to let the skin brown. Meg Dods’ roasting times in her Cook and Housewife’s Manual are as follows: “A partridge will take from 20 to 25 minutes; a pheasant from 30 to 45. We do not recommend the ornament of the pheasant’s best tail-feather stuck in its tail; but such things are still heard of.”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall reveals his secret to succulent meat is to rest the bird afterwards, breast downwards, for 10 minutes.

The traditional trimmings to roast pheasant – bread sauce, fried breadcrumbs, bacon rolls and game chips – are hard to beat, Fowler advises, while “cold roast grouse or partridge, with hot fried bacon and fried bread, makes an exceedingly good breakfast.”

If you’ve got your hands on an old boiler, see this month’s recipe for partridges in cream – a casserole served to the royal household at Balmoral.

Wood Pigeon

“The battle between seed-sower and seed-eater is resolved when the feathered thieves are stewed with the gardener’s vegetables,” writes Elisabeth Luard in European Peasant Cookery. The sworn enemy of arable farmers, woodpigeons, fly dozens of miles a day on a constant search for food. The exercise gives them firm, close-textured breast muscles.

“There is no better bird that you can use in a casserole,” Fowler trumpets, “woodpigeon, casseroled in beer, makes a dish fit for a king.” For game that’s delicious, cheap and available all year round, woodpigeon is surprisingly neglected. “When an item is plentiful and cheap,” he writes, “people will despise it, and buy something twice as expensive and half as good. Pigeon is a delicacy, not vermin.”

Meg Dods agrees: “Pigeons pot very well, and are, though common, excellent as pie, either hot or cold.”

It’s also forgotten how easy pigeons are to prepare and cook. A pliable breastbone and rosy skin disclose a young pigeon perfect to roast, plump at the end of its first summer.

When roasting, pigeon is liable to be rather dry, so it’s a good idea to put more fat bacon than usual on top, and then roast it in a covered tin – slowly. Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall advises 15-20 minutes at 180C for a just-pink bird. Woodpigeon also makes excellent game stock, with an uncanny affinity with parsnips in a creamy soup.

Rabbits

Rabbits are the most populous edible mammal in Britain. The land hops with them. Introduced as a food source by the Normans, rabbits spread north to become popular in the Scottish lowlands, with a rabbit warren and its warrener attached to every burgh in the 13th century.

Rabbit, whether whole, jointed or diced, was also the staple dish in Britain before World War II, remembers WMW Fowler: “Almost as versatile as the pig, rabbit could be turned into pies, stews, fricassees, curries … The Depression was by no means over, and people were only too pleased to buy good meat at a reasonable price.”

Rabbits are best eaten from August to February when they’re not breeding or feeding their young.

A young rabbit can be delicious roasted or sautéed – as can an old one when stewed or fricasseed.

Meg Dods notes that “rabbits make an excellent pie, a good soup, and may be potted or jugged.” The meat tends to dryness, so Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall minces rabbit meat to 20 per cent pork belly, and pats them into ‘bunny burgers’ for the griddle.

Avoid insipid farmed rabbit, he warns, betrayed by a flabby grey-white flesh, and instead plump for wild rabbit, distinguished by pale pinky-brown meat.

Venison

The name ‘venison’ comes from the Latin verb, venare: to hunt. Red deer, the subject of Landseer’s painting The Monarch of The Glen, can be wild or farmed (for which there is no closed season in Britain). Roe deer are always wild, and produce the most reliable, fine-grained meat.

Sir Walter Scott, however, disagreed: “The learned in cookery… hold the roe venison dry and indifferent food, unless when dressed in soup and Scotch collops.”

Venison has far greater variability than other red meats, due to the deer’s wide variety of sources, sizes, ages, and killing methods, writes Nichola Fletcher in Ultimate Venison Cookery. “Any deer under three years old should be tender,” she says, “but after that age the sinews start to thicken up, and shrink with fierce cooking, causing a steak or joint to curl and twist.” Older animals, and those stressed by the hunt (a stressed deer produces adrenalin, toughening the meat) can be tenderised by long, slow cooking.

Unlike beef, venison isn’t marbled, and since ruminants tend to pass on the flavour of their food into the fat and not the muscle tissue, we arrive at the conclusion that a deer’s diet makes virtually no difference to the taste of the meat.

Certain ingredients do complement venison’s flavour very nicely: the aniseed tastes of fennel, celeriac and celery, the sweetness of carrots, and the astringency of rowan berry jelly. Nearly all berries (except strawberries which are too bland) are good in venison sauces, like raspberry, redcurrants, blackcurrants and brambles – and it’s especially true for juniper berries (and, by extension, gin as well).

Spices like freshly-ground nutmeg and ginger are also excellent for venison sauces, but perhaps the greatest revelation is cocoa powder – the unsweetened, pure, ground cocoa beans, not drinking chocolate. As with many gamey dishes, the sweet-sourness of oranges make a good marinade ingredient, while in Germany pears are venison’s classic accompaniment, either cored or halved, and then baked or poached. Stone fruits, such as grilled fresh plums, are delicious too. For winter stews, try a herb combo of thyme and rosemary, or for stir-fries, burgers, sausages and terrines mix with the venison ginger and garlic.

Wild duck: Mallard,

Widgeon & Teal

Mallard is the largest of Britian’s wild ducks, and teal the smallest. Mallard is an opportunistic omnivore, so depending on what it’s been eating, there is an element of pot-luck in avoiding a ‘dodgy duck’. Teal, which chuckle conversationally in winter flocks around fresh water, tends to feed on seeds and small invertebrates, and its gamier meat is invariably delicious. Widgeon, a salt-water duck, feeds on zostera, a sea grass growing in profusion on tidal flats. Being semi-aquatic and at home in cold waters, ducks contain bacteria which thrive at low temperatures, so hanging times are relatively short: wild duck is best eaten fresh, not hung for more than three days.

Again, younger, plumper birds are best for roasting; Mr Fearnley-Whittingstall gives roasting times for (just pink) mallard at 35-45 minutes, and teal and widgeon at 20-25 minutes, with initial sizzles at 220C followed by a penetrating lower temperature of 180C. Wildfowl, as a rule, do not have much fat on them, so cover the ducks with fat bacon before roasting. Baste them regularly too.

WMW Fowler suggests “stuffing the duck tight with sliced oranges, as you would a goose with sage and onion, and if you feel lavish, pour a glass of Grand Marnier over the bird and light it just as you bring it into the dining room.” “Green peas,” recommends Meg Dods, “are indissolubly allied to ducks.” Give your favourite guest the little ear-shaped pieces out of the oyster-bones in the middle of the back – these were the only part of a duck Roman Emperors condescended to eat.