Mankind has hunted since the dawn of time; we are after all omnivores, we have evolved to eat meat, fruit, seeds and vegetables. Initially our ancestors herded large, wild animals over cliffs; we know the Celts hunted deer and wild boar with hounds and, until the invention of the gun, we used trained falcons and nets to catch wild birds.
By the mediaeval period of kings and castles, the well-off kept ducks and ate swan and peacock at banquets. King Henry VIII was so keen on hunting that he established the Royal Parks in London to fence in the deer. St James's Park dates from 1536. Green Park is recorded a couple of decades later as meadowland used for hunting and the occasional duel. For centuries game has been on people's menu; Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks and especially Romans all recognised the benefits of eating venison, indeed the word venison derives from the Latin verb venor meaning to hunt.
Healthy natural product
Game meat remains part of the standard repertoire of gastronomy and with ethical eating at the forefront of more minds, there is an uptick in people cooking, shooting and eating more game. Wild game is delicious, healthy and sustainable but still plays second fiddle to readily available farmed livestock such as beef, lamb, pork and chicken. Venison, along with fish, is one of the healthiest meats. It is particularly rich in protein and nutrients, but above all low in fat and cholesterol. Game meat contains plenty of phosphorus, potassium and magnesium as well as iron, zinc and selenium. It is also rich in vitamins B1 and B2 and omega-3 fatty acids.
As far as cooking is concerned the fundamental question is whether to grill, braise or roast. Generally, this depends on the cut. For example, venison, wild boar and hare backs can be roasted or grilled either whole or cut like steaks. Legs, on the other hand, are best braised, but can also be roasted whole. Shoulder cuts should be cooked over a low heat for a long time and prepared as game stew, ragout, goulash or pies.
Which cuts are best?
Saddle (loin) of venison is the noblest part of a deer. The meat is dense yet tender and full of flavour, especially in younger animals. Saddle can be roasted whole, if on the bone, or reverse seared if off the bone or, if cut into noisettes, panfried - but the key is to cook it at a high temperature. Cooked to perfection (medium rare) this cut can be every bit as juicy and even more tasty than a good steak. The haunch (leg) is usually roasted or braised whole, start with a high oven temperature (220°C/430°F) for 20 minutes, then slow cook at 150°C/60°F for 10 minutes per 500g until medium to well done. If you want it cooked right through - stop! Go and buy diced shoulder which you can cook slowly for hours resulting in soft, rich, tender meat. If you're unsure if you like venison, try casseroling 50% braising steak with 50% diced shoulder of venison with Port and pickled walnuts.
Wild boar meat is dark red, aromatic and juicy. It has a higher fat content than other game species, so makes excellent sausages, but compared to domestic pigs it is still lean. Wild boar neck and shoulder are well suited to braising and make fabulous ragù, delicious served over pasta. Boned steaks can be grilled and roasted briefly. The most tender meat comes from younger animals.
The meat of wild rabbit is a little darker than chicken and is firmer in texture, like all meats it is high in protein but rabbit is particularly lean. Perhaps the most fun and easy way to cook rabbit is on the barbecue with some simple herbs, lemon and loads of sea salt. Ask your butcher to skin and joint the rabbit and then place the joints on the hot griddle, timings as follows; kidneys and liver 4 minutes, saddle and ribs 15 to 20 minutes, belly 25 to 30 minutes, legs and shoulder 35 to 40 minutes.
Pheasant has always been prized in game cuisine, it has a distinctive flavour and dense, fibrous meat, the art is to keep the meat tender and moist. As with all wildfowl, the legs and breasts are considered the best cuts. Beware, the meat of older birds can be quite tough. Pheasants shot early in the season can be hung for a couple of days, older birds shot in the winter can be hung in a cool place for up to a week.
Young partridges are a real delicacy. They are usually prepared whole, either roasted or braised. If jointed, the legs and breast can be roasted, braised or grilled. As with all the smaller game birds, partridge is easy to cook spatchcocked.
Fresh grouse will have a mildly gamey flavour. If hung for a couple of days then the gamey flavours will be accentuated. Grouse is best roasted whole and served rare, it will take just 15 minutes to cook. You can tell when it's done as the breasts should be springy when pressed with your finger.
Quails are possibly better known for their eggs than their meat as they are a small game bird. Most quail is farmed these days, the meat is aromatic and tender. Stuffed or unstuffed, quail can be roasted whole or grilled on a spit. Cover the breast with slices of bacon so that they do not dry out during cooking and count on two birds per person.
FIND OUT MORE
Venison Satay Skewers with Peanut SauceWe elevate venison with a refined marinade and serve it with a delicious peanut dip.
Haunch of Venison with Pumpkin Dumplings and PearsThis is how autumn tastes: The wild roast is rolled, with a bread dumpling variant and a fruity twist
Meat Sauce for Pasta: Ragu di CarneThe classic meat sauce for Piedmontese Tajarín made from a mixture of minced veal (beef) and pork. Equally good with rabbit, lamb or Italian sausage.
Monkfish Stuffed with Olives and PinenutsThe firm, boneless meat of the monkfish has an exquisite flavour, highlighted by olives and pine nuts.
Pork Fillet with Feta-Hazelnut Crust and Bulgur WheatConstantin Fischer serves the tender meat with Swiss chard and bulgur
Thai Pork: Pad GapraoJulian Kutos introduces Pad Gaprao: crispy seared minced meat with oyster sauce and Thai basil, simply delicious.
Classic Beef GoulashThe secret to a perfect goulash is simplicity - slow-cooked onions, meat and paprika create a perfect hearty dish.
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