Essentially, game meat means wild meat, although with the farming of such animals the lines have become a little blurred. Traditionally, these are the animals that we would have hunted rather than bred as livestock. A huge part of the British culinary tradition, intrinsically linked with our social history, game has been on our tables whether bagged from the day’s sport and handed over to cook Downton style or a means of survival from rural poverty and starvation.
Here in the UK, the animals that we consider game will be utterly different from those on the other side of the world. Whilst we consider deer, rabbit, and any number of wildfowl fit for the pot, it is what we know as exotic meats that others eat as game; ostrich, wildebeest, crocodile and even kangaroo. Odd, but true.
Game is a largely a seasonal affair although some types are available year round. Associated with autumn and winter, and all of the comfort that comes with, a dish of game is hearty cold weather fare, full of robust earthy flavours.
To a certain extent, all of our game is farmed. The animals, and the industry, are highly regulated as part of countryside management. Very few of the birds or beasts we hunt for food are wild in the sense of being anyone’s game, and the land upon which they roam is likely to be owned by someone. Animal populations are kept in check, and the hunting of game is part of this system. That said, actual farming of game animals also exists, some of it intensive, so always be aware of the provenance of your meat; whichever category you believe it may fall.
Of the furred variety, our game meat is venison and rabbit. Of the feathered variety we have a huge range; from tiny quail, through wild duck and pheasant, up to the larger guinea fowl. Some of this meat is ideal for roasting or high hot cooking whilst the other is only suitable for long slow cooking. Largely dependent upon age, which any good game dealer will be able to tell you, a young bird or rabbit will roast or pan fry well, whilst the older ones are best suited to the pot. Many game dealers keep a stock of frozen meat all year round and this is likely suited to a long slow braise.
The low fat nature of most game meat means that it can dry out easily during cooking so additional fat such as bacon or sausage are welcome introductions to the process, as are marinades or slow moist cooking methods. Flavour wise, meat often prefers the company of the flora on which it was raised so wild mushrooms, herbs, and windfall fruits will go well.
Other than rabbit, most game is hung. The process of hanging meat helps with the texture of the meat by allowing enzymatic reactions to break down the flesh; something that also changes the flavour. Whilst there are the odd few that prefer well-hung game, redolent with the ‘high’ taste that puts many off game for life, most game is hung only until the finest balance between flavour and texture occurs. All game should have a slightly gamey flavour, a sense of otherness, a taste of richness, that is difficult to describe. But it should rarely taste offensive, even to the most sensitive of palates.
Which brings me to venison; a meat that has been gaining popularity in recent years. Keep an eye on its provenance though as supermarket venison is not only farmed but is also flown in from New Zealand. Most farmed deer are red deer, a large animal that can be strong and musky with a sometimes bitter aspect to the flesh. The smaller roe deer produces tender delicate meat that is far less pronounced yet also undeniably venison; it is well worth seeking out. Seasons for male and female deer are different, and the male deer will have a far muskier flavour than their female counterparts. This is in fact true of all animals, but not many of us have palates that are fine-tuned enough to tell the difference.
Most venison that you buy will have been culled young so the cooking differences lie in the cut rather than the age; just like beef or most other domestic livestock. Again, like beef, it is the steaks and the saddle to hind quarter joints that are suitable for fast, hot cooking. Venison steaks come as haunch or fillet; both which can rival a good beef sirloin. Roasting joints are saddle and haunch; these follow the same cooking instructions as roasting beef, yet take note that the lack of fat means that it goes cold far more quickly. The other cuts are broken down into stewing meat and mince. There is nothing that you would do with beef that you cannot do with venison. Take care though as it is not always the case that venison needs robust flavours. If you douse roe deer venison in strong red wine and aromatics, it will get lost in the pot. As with all cooking, that main ingredient needs to shine through.
As a final note, venison is perhaps the one meat that was just made for eating raw. Tartare and carpaccio style dishes come into their own when made with venison; see my starter for venison carpaccio with juniper and horseradish for a Nordic twist on a festive starter. You should also never consider cooking venison to the point of well done; rare to medium is quite far enough.
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