The savvy shopper: game

Categories: Expert guidance

Regular columnist Ed Smith on how a thrifty cook can find great value from game

The arrival of autumn means the start of the game season—a happy hunting ground for the savvy shopper. ‘Game’ is technically defined as wild animals that are hunted for food or sport. The genre breaks down into two categories: ‘furred’ and ‘feathered’.

Under the former category lie deer, rabbit, hare and wild boar; the latter pheasant, partridge, wild duck, goose, grouse, snipe, woodcock, teal and ptarmigan. For some who live in the countryside, game is the most bargainous of all the protein types i.e. it’s potentially free. Most of us, though, are not in that position. Which is fine, as the Market’s meat merchants are well stocked throughout the season.

You’ll note that many of Borough’s butchers have cold cabinets brimming with British wild meats from August (when grouse starts) and increasingly so as other seasons open up in September (partridge, hare, duck and goose) and October (pheasant and woodcock).

Painful pun
On the assumption that it’s not simply hanging outside your front door, you might not think game is a particularly shrewd purchase: venison is often one of the dearer meats (if you’ll excuse the painful pun), and four to seven pounds or more for a little game bird might dissuade some.

However, the phrase ‘a little goes a long way’ is never more apt than when describing these meats. Wild creatures are almost universally rich and filling; you don’t need much to be sated and their strong flavours mean they hold their own against other ingredients, so can be bulked if necessary. Think of venison stews packed with root vegetables and alliums, for example.

The thrifty cook can really make a game bird or two stretch pretty far. Even once the meat has been stripped from the bones, we can think about making a flavourful and filling stock with them. Game bird broth with diced carrots, turnips, pearl barley and a few fresh herbs, for example, is an autumnal meal in itself.

Wonton style dumplings
On a similarly resourceful note, at the start of the grouse season this year, I managed to make wonton style dumplings for 80 people from just three birds and a little bacon—we ended up needing only 10g of meat per dumpling to make a very satisfying meal.

You could do something similar, mixing the minced or diced meat and offal from a few birds with pork mince, ricotta and breadcrumbs, and turning them into meatballs or faggots. It’s deceptively humble food.

As I walk round the Market at the start of the new season, I’m excited by the options that are opening up. Pheasant is not yet in play, so perhaps it’s time to focus on partridge. This particular game bird isn’t necessarily a cheap purchase, but I intend to make a single bird go a long way by make some posh but great value pasties, bulked out with celeriac, onions and a little redcurrant jelly.

Good value
Furness Fish’s game counter is the place I head for partridge, but you could make exactly the same style of pasty using pigeons from Wyndham House Poultry, for example (which are often particularly good value).

It’s hard to resist the venison across the way at Shellseekers Fish & Game. That dark red meat seems so luxuriant, but the braising cuts and mince are actually relatively well priced and the offal perhaps even undervalued. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled this autumn for venison liver—when it’s fresh, it’s something to snap up straight away and make a pâté with.

If you bulk (and simultaneously soften the flavour of) the liver with a little minced pork belly, one of the cheapest cuts of this regal animal can be made into a hefty, filling and immensely satisfying terrine. The pâté freezes very well too, so can be saved for another day. Surely the kind of forward planning that satisfies those with a keen sense for budget and season.

Partridge pasties
There are two options with game bird pasties. Either make mini pasty ‘puffs’, which work particularly well and, like the dumplings mentioned in the article, really don’t need much meat. Or stretch the bird over four good lunch-sized pasties.

Remove the breast, legs and offal from a partridge (or other game bird). Salt the legs for 30 minutes then braise in a little water for an hour until the meat can be pushed off the bone. Allow to cool then put all the meat through a mincer, or dice with a sharp knife. Mix this with finely diced onion and raw celeriac and potato cut to about 1cm cubes. Use 2-3 times the quantity of veg to meat.

Add some thyme and a couple of tsp of redcurrant jelly, season and mix well. Roll shop bought puff pastry to 2mm thick and cut circles from it, placing the mix in one half, folding the pastry over and crimping. Rest the pastries in the fridge for at least half an hour, then egg wash and cook for 20-30 minutes until golden.

Venison liver pâté
To make about a kilo of pâté, use 1kg of venison liver and 500g of pork belly. Mince both of those (or buy pork mince and chop the liver by hand) and put in a mixing bowl with a 150g chopped smoked, streaky bacon, a glass of port, a little ground juniper, mace, nutmeg and white pepper, maybe some dried cranberries or prunes if you’re feeling frivolous, and mix well.

Decant this into a one litre oven proof dish or terrine, cover with damp grease proof paper, place in a bain-marie and cook at 160C for 60-75 minutes until the pate moves away from the sides. To ensure it’s sliceable, leave in the fridge overnight with a weight on top. I like this with oatcakes and pickled walnuts.