British Food Fortnight begins today, celebrating the excellent and highly diverse range of foods produced in this country (for details see www.britishfoodfortnight.co.uk ) – and there's nothing more British than the long-awaited game season, which is finally here. British country pursuits are a great tradition, but unfortunately I rarely get time even to fish these days, let alone shoot.
Recently, though, I was lucky enough to be invited to Ben Weatherall's estate in Dumfriesshire, and I managed to catch a salmon on the River Nith which Ben's wife, Silvy, cooked to perfection that same evening. We attended a lunch as part of the Edinburgh Slow Food Festival, which Ben organised on his grouse moor of Overfingland, and although we didn't get to shoot any of the birds, we made up for it by having a delicious grouse supper that evening at Ben's home.
Eating game is a rewarding experience. Each bird has its own special flavour and I like the fact that you just have to get stuck in and get your hands dirty. Lovers of game like to compare each establishment's way of serving a grouse. Some like to have their game hung for a long time, but my feeling is that overhanging can spoil the delicate flavour.
One thing I do have a strong opinion on is those rashers of bacon that some game dealers and butchers automatically put on to the breasts of game birds. Why on earth would you would want to flavour something as delicate as say a grouse or partridge with bacon? You may get told that it keeps the bird moist during cooking. Well, that's a load of codswallop; a small game bird is only going to be in the oven for about 15 minutes anyway, so there's no chance of it drying out.
Partridge with crab apple sauce and elderberry sauce
In and around my area of London, there is a surprisingly large number of old fruit trees lining the streets, and at this time of year there are always crab apples on the ground. I came across a couple of trees that bore much larger oval fruits and I think they were Toringo crab apple trees. No one seemed to know locally, but they tasted a bit sweeter than normal crab apples and would be perfect for mini toffee apples, which I'm going to make soon. I just grabbed enough to make a purée for this, but I'll be back scrumping on the streets again soon.
Game and fruit are perfect partners, and in addition to crab apples it seemed a shame not to use a few elderberries, which fruited really early this year due to our extreme weather.
If you have crab apples nearby then it's a good idea to make some jelly or sauce to last you through the game season or to serve with roast pork. Likewise with the elderberries; remove them from their stems and pop them in the freezer to throw into sauces or a salad.
Rather like a spatchcocked chicken, this is a nice alternative way of serving partridge.
For the crab apple sauce
A good knob of butter
250g crab apples
2tbsp granulated sugar
For the elderberry sauce
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
A good knob of butter
50ml red wine
200ml chicken stock, or half a good quality cube dissolved in that amount of boiling water
100-150g elderberries, removed from their stalks
To make the crab apple sauce, melt the butter in a thick bottomed pan, add the crab apples and cook on a low heat in a covered pan for 3-4 minutes.
Add a tablespoon of the sugar and continue cooking for 8-10 minutes, stirring every so often until the crab apples break down.
To make the elderberry sauce, gently cook the shallots in the butter for a couple of minutes until soft, then add the wine and port and simmer until it has almost completely reduced. Then add the chicken stock and simmer until it has reduced to a few tablespoons and thickened. Remove from the heat, add the elderberries and keep warm.
Insert the point of a heavy chopping knife into the cavity of each partridge and cut through the backbone, then flatten the bird with the palm of your hand. Repeat with the other birds.
Preheat a ribbed griddle plate or heavy-bottomed frying pan. Season and lightly oil the birds and cook skin side down first, for about 4-5 minutes on each side. Serve with the sauces on the plate or separately.
Once you've finished gnawing through your game carcasses there is still plenty of flavour left in the bones for a good soup.
Vegetable oil for frying
150-200g game meat and/or a couple of game carcasses from a roast
1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small leek, well rinsed, trimmed and roughly chopped
Good knob of butter
1tsp tomato purée
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
Few sprigs of thyme
1 small bay leaf
3 litres beef stock (a good cube will do)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2tbsp sherry, port or Madeira
For the garnish
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into rough 1/3cm squares
1 small leek, cut into rough 1/3cm squares and washed
A good knob of butter
30-40g pearl barley, soaked for an hour in warm water
40-50g chanterelles or wild mushrooms, cleaned (optional)
Heat the oil in a large, heavy-based saucepan and fry the meat and vegetables over a high heat until nicely browned, stirring occasionally.
Add the butter and flour, stir well and cook for another couple of minutes. Add the tomato purée, garlic, thyme and bay leaf, and gradually add the beef stock, stirring well to avoid lumps. Bring to the boil, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper, and simmer for about 11/2 hours, or until the meat is tender.
Save enough of the meat to use as a garnish and strain the soup through a sieve (not fine meshed) or colander. The soup should be rich in flavour and a nice brown colour. In a clean pan, gently cook the onion, carrot and leek in the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft, add the strained stock and pearl barley and simmer gently for about 30 minutes or until the pearl barley is tender. Add the reserved pieces of meat and mushrooms if using, check the seasoning, and pour in the sherry just before serving. Finish with finely chopped parsley.
Roast grouse with bread sauce, bacon salad and game chips
The difference with this recipe is that I have set the bread sauce in the fridge, and then floured and pan-fried it rather like you would do with polenta. I've tossed home-made game chips into the salad here, but you could easily use a packet of good quality vegetable crisps, which would add colour to the dish.
1tbsp vegetable oil
A couple of good knobs of butter
60-70g unsliced smoked streaky bacon, cut into 1/2cm cubes (you can buy these ready cut)
A handful of small salad leaves
Flour for dusting
1/2tbsp good quality red wine vinegar
2tbsp walnut oil
For the bread sauce
1 small onion, peeled and halved
1 bay leaf
Pinch of ground nutmeg
120g fresh white breadcrumbs
Salt and pepper
First make the bread sauce: finely chop half the onion and cook it gently in half the butter until soft. Stud the other half with the cloves, pushing them through the bay leaf to anchor it. Put the milk, nutmeg and studded onion in the saucepan with the cooked onion and bring to the boil. Season and simmer for 10–15 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and leave the sauce to infuse for 30 minutes or so. Take out and discard the studded onion. Add the breadcrumbs and return one-third of the bread sauce from the pan into a blender and process, then return to the pan and add the remaining 25g butter. Stir until the sauce has amalgamated, check and correct the seasoning and transfer to a shallow container so the sauce is about 1cm thick, leave to cool and place in the fridge for a few hours until set.
Preheat the oven to 220/gas mark 7. Season the grouse, rub with the softened butter then place in a tray and roast for 15 minutes, keeping the grouse pink. Turn the set bread sauce out on to a board and cut into four pieces. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and cook the bacon for 3-4 minutes until crisp. Remove with a slotted spoon, then coat the set bread sauce in flour. Add the rest of the butter to the pan and fry the slices of bread sauce on a medium heat for 2-3 minutes on each side until golden. Remove the breasts and legs from the grouse and shred up any bits of meat that are left on the bone and toss through the salad with the bacon and lightly dress and season. Slice the breast and arrange on the bread sauce then arrange on plates with the salad with a few crisps in among the salad leaves.
Venison liver with chanterelles
I was given a muntjac liver a few weeks ago by Darren Brown at Shellseakers as he regularly shoots game when he's not on the sea bed diving for scallops. Game liver is unfortunately not eaten often in the UK but if the opportunity ever arises, I would highly recommend it. Calves' liver is one thing, but the liver from a young deer is even more luxurious and should be cooked with simple loving care. I've served it here with champ and chanterelles, but you could use any seasonal mushrooms. This prize piece of offal is not the kind of thing you can always get from your high street butcher, so unless you know a game keeper or someone who shoots, you might have to substitute calves' liver after all.
4 slices of venison liver weighing about 100-120g each and cut to about 3/4cm thick
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
I suggest you use two pans at once here, because the liver and chanterelles are going to take a few minutes to cook and you don't want to overcook either. Heat two large frying pans; put one-third of the butter in one and the rest in the other. Season the liver and cook for about a minute and a half on each side on a high heat in the pan with less butter. Add the garlic to the other pan and stir for a few seconds then add the mushrooms, season, add the parsley and cook for a minute or so. Spoon the mushrooms over the liver to serve.
Mark Hix is opening the 2007 Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival at 10am on Saturday 29 September ( www.aldeburghfoodanddrink.co.uk )