Heretical ranter, charismatic television presenter, gifted author, inspirational radio DJ,
talented publisher and lousy shot, William Sitwell expounds the virtues of eating what you kill
It was a gentle walk in the countryside so I didn’t think to take a hunting knife. As I climbed over a fence and strode up the field heading for home a young deer leapt from the hedge some 50 yards away and teared across the field towards the wood. Tearing behind it was Cyrus, my dog. He’s a young fox-red Labrador. The pair sprinted across the field and then as they approached the wood disappeared from view. But a few seconds later I could hear some desperate howling that echoed across Grumblers Holt; the ancient wood.
My first thought was a fear that after the deer had bounded over the barbed wire fence, Cyrus had followed and dashed his stomach as he leapt. But as I drew closer I could see him just sniffing at the ground. In fact he was sniffing at the deer, which had somehow injured itself and was lying on the ground.
Without a knife to put it out of its misery I dragged the beast home, where I got out my knives and axe and butchered it. I kept the back legs for haunches of venison and the fillet, and gave Cyrus the blood, liver and kidney for his tea over the next couple of days.
The following Saturday night I roasted one of the haunches. I smothered the flesh in a soft herb crust: breadcrumbs, parsley, thyme, chives, some grated gruyere and butter and then roasted it as you might lamb, leaving some pinkness. Then I made classic juniper gravy: red wine, some game glace (from the quite epic stock people Essential Cuisine), butter, a little orange zest and juniper berries (you could add some squares of dark chocolate for added rich indulgence). I made dauphinoise potatoes and wilted some greens for colour and crunch.
Friends gathered. The dining room was set, candles lit. Heartily we ate and also drank a mighty French Bordeaux (Calon Segur 2004). As dinner drew to an end, fending off the impending and climactic retreat into the drawing room, I stood up, as if to make a speech, but instead I ripped all of my clothes off, darted from the room and ran outside into the cold night where, facing the moon, I beat my chest and roared.
Ok so I didn’t do that last bit. Actually I didn’t do the cooking bit either; the cuts are still in my freezer. But that is just how I intend to cook the poor deer.
And while I may not reveal my inner caveman, I will feel a little added pride in the dishes served. For cooking game – and that which one has culled oneself – does have virtue added to the plate. And virtue makes things taste better. If you don’t believe me, grow your own asparagus. And if you’ve done it from seed, you will realise that by year three, when your spears may be large enough to cut, when you lightly poach them and dip them in your own-made hollandaise they taste considerably better than shop bought varieties.
There is a still a little tingle gained from eating partridge, shot and plucked by my own fair hands. And when I tire of pheasant I reach for the Calvados pour it over the bird and flambé it and I add some cream to slosh into the juices to make a rich and dreamy sauce.
I don’t fish often, but the freshest and finest was a piece of tuna I ate in a little boat off the coast of Barbados. I was with the chef Mark Hix and as we earlier clambered on board he had handed over a chopping board, a knife and a lemon. The moment the fisherman with us hauled in the first catch, Mark dispatched and gutted it, removed the skin and sliced off little chunks of delicate flesh which, after a squeeze of lemon, we popped into our mouths.
So it’s not quite game, but you get the gist. How much more satisfying are these culinary experiences than cooking meat with no back story just a cellophane wrapper.
Except that of course, most people need to get their meat from the supermarket or the butcher (or if you’re super-sensible from the amazing Farmison.com). They don’t get shooting or stalking invites. The closest most urban dwellers get to wildlife is a dirty rat scuttling long the tracks of the London Underground. And chicken is so much easier to deal with: not bloody, just nice white meat and a tasteless sponge for other non-offensive or scary flavours.
But for those who are a little trepidatious about choosing game I would say this: the welfare standards are almost always better. It’s a real life outside, fresh air, grass, heather, plants and bugs. No cages and no transport to abattoirs. Game is leaner, game is tastier and game is often cheaper. And if you can play a humane part in culling game yourself and can learn a little butchery, from plucking and drawing to cleaning, sawing and boning your wee beast will taste truly wonderful. And the next time I take the dog for a walk, I’ll make sure there’s a good knife in my pocket.
William Sitwell, Harry Owen and Ranald Macdonald have joined forces with James Horne, Chairman of Purdey, to form part of the steering committee at the Eat Game Awards – www.eatgameawards.co.uk – The Eat Game Awards is an exciting initiative aimed at celebrating all that is best about wild British produce by recognising great culinary achievements and contributions to the cooking and eating of game.