There is a palpable sense of excitement about the press releases currently emanating from Britain’s restaurants. It’s almost as though one can hear the chef’s voice clear across the din of the kitchen.
The reason for this, and why eating out across the UK is unparalleled over the next few months, is that the game season is in full swing.
Currently there could be grouse, pheasant, partridge, venison, wild boar, wild duck, teal and hare on any self-respecting chef’s menu. And 2010 is, according to Ben Weatherall of the Blackface Meat Company, a major game supplier based in Dumfries, Scotland, ‘a vintage year’.
Many chefs are having fun simply roasting these birds that, with their low fat content, have a high nutritional value. However, Richard Corrigan at his restaurant in Mayfair has already started to serve a game soup alongside wild boar with damson jelly and a salad of game with a romesco sauce as first courses as well as a venison shepherd’s pie as a main course. The latter involves substituting minced venison shoulder for minced lamb, a dish sure to have delighted Robin Hood.
At Brasserie Joël in the brand new Park Plaza Westminster Hotel, French chef Joël Antunes is serving young pheasant with tapenade and porcini mushrooms while in the Victorian splendour of the Criterion restaurant at Piccadilly Circus, Matthew Foxon is cooking a terrine of foie gras and game, grouse with wild mushrooms and Thetford forest venison with butternut squash.
Chefs enjoy cooking game. The classic recipes, which require the birds to be served on a croute, a thin piece of bread topped with the diced and sautéed bird’s liver and a rich sauce, hark back to a bygone era. And there are always good-quality bones and meat left over for soups, terrines or, the dish that so many French chefs incorporate into their winter menus, une salade de gibier, a warm game salad with croutons, sautéed strips of game and the odd piece of liver or gizzard.
Selling game is also good business. While the cost price of the individual birds, such as grouse, partridge and pheasant, is usually too high for it to be multiplied by three, as most main ingredients are, these dishes always generate a good cash profit. And because they take 2025 minutes to cook, most customers will order a first course while they wait, and most want to maximise their enjoyment by having a good bottle of red wine on the table at the same time. Something from the Rhône, northern Italy or a full-bodied Beaujolais are my favourites.
But the ubiquity of these game dishes on today’s menus heralds much more than the onset of autumn – it’s part of a much larger change in British social habits.
Game used to be for the wealthy, the bounty of their estates or something that was served in gentlemens’ clubs or in one of the grill rooms that used to exist in the top London hotels. Now, happily, these dishes are on scores of restaurant and pub menus and chefs everywhere seem to compete among themselves to be cooking grouse or pheasant as soon as their respective shooting seasons open on 12 August and 1 October respectively.
According to Weatherall, there are two interlinked but unlikely related reasons for this: television and seasonality.
‘Every chef on television is in search of seasonal, regional, traceable products and so they’re naturally drawn at this time of the year to game and venison’, he explained. ‘This process has been going on for several years now but it seems to have reached a peak this year as the weather conditions have led to good bags in the Peak District, the north Pennines and Scotland. Game has moved from the confines of restaurants to the better pubs and slowly but surely it’s going mainstream into the supermarkets and larger pub chains.’
Like a good salesman, Weatherall left the most appetising morsel to the end. The full moon at the end of November guides woodcock from Scandinavia to the British moors and from there into a few of the best kitchens. These are the most expensive and exquisite game birds, served with their heads on since their brains are regarded by many as a particular delicacy.
It was the prospect of combining a modern approach to cooking game with a setting that has not changed since it first opened in 1873 that drew me to The Criterion (pictured). With its panelled and mirrored walls and high ceilings studded with mosaics, The Criterion is undoubtedly one of the most elegant restaurants to look at anywhere in Europe, a combination that must have propelled Georgian entrepeneur Irakli Soporomadze to buy it 18 months ago.
But while the views from the banquettes are impressive and what is on the plate is well-sourced and well-executed, the service was almost as comic as the adaptation of John Buchan’s The 39 Steps at The Criterion Theatre next door. A wine waiter not knowing what was available and then arriving with a bottle but no corkscrew; others serving the food without understanding what was on the plate; and the comment from a waitress to ‘enjoy our dessert’ delivered with such ferocity that it sounded like a command. There were just too many mistakes, I’m afraid, for this to be considered a grouse!