Game

Game

By
Adrian Richardson
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740668064
Photographer
Dean Cambray

In ancient times all animals were wild things and we humans only got to eat them by using our wits to hunt them down. In those hungrier days we ate anything we could get our hands on, from badgers to bears and wild boar. But gradually we discovered that some animals were easier to herd together, and we were able to domesticate them to provide a more reliable source of food. These animals – cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry – still make up the bulk of meat that we eat today.

Those ancient instincts run deep, though, and for some of us, the thrill of the chase remains to this day – but now we only hunt animals and birds as a leisure sport, and rarely out of necessity. This is the category that we call ‘game’. The reality though, is that very few of these animals are truly wild. In fact most of them are specifically bred and farmed on a commercial scale. In England and Scotland, for instance, grouse, pheasants, partridges and venison are all carefully managed on estates to provide sport for hunters.

In Australia, some hunting (of rabbits, kangaroo, goats) is done in the name of pest control, often by farmers, but there is also a growing leisure market for the hunting, shooting and fishing set. Most prefer the challenge of large wild game animals, such as Asiatic buffalo, Sambar deer and wild boar, as well as the ‘sport’ of the annual duck hunting season. But when it comes to buying and eating game in Australia, most of it is bred and farmed specifically for the table, and bypasses entirely the hunting part of the process.

Unless you live in the country or have farmer friends, you will find that the range of game available to most of us – and that includes chefs – is fairly limited. The Australian consumer is most likely to encounter deer (venison), rabbit, quail, pigeon (squab) and pheasant, but most of these will have been farmed, with only a very small percentage being truly wild. There is also a small, but growing market for our own native kangaroo, which of all the animals on our table is the only one that will have certainly lived a truly ‘wild’ life.

There are some game specialists who will be able to offer you wild rabbit, hare, venison or quail, as well as a few market stalls, especially in rural areas. If you are lucky enough to try these wild creatures, you’ll find they are quite different from farmed game. Wild game is distinguishable from farmed game in two simple ways: by its flavour and by the leanness of its meat. When it comes to diet, wild game – be it furry or feathered – has a much more varied foraged diet, of wild grasses, berries, grubs and grains, than its farmed cousins. The flavour of the meat reflects this variety and is the reason why wild game has a deep, more intensely ‘gamey’ flavour.

Wild game animals and birds also have a much more free-ranging lifestyle than farmed animals. They cover more terrain – or migrate over long distances – so their harder working flesh is leaner, denser and tougher.

Hanging game

I was first introduced to the idea of hanging wild animals when I worked on a big country estate in Scotland many years ago. The game keeper explained how hanging the locally caught pheasants completely changed their texture and flavour. In the cool, airy cellar he pointed out a series of birds, hanging from the ceiling at various stages of aging. Some were almost turning green before our eyes, and I could hardly believe that people would actually want to eat them. After a few weeks cooking wild pheasants, though, I was converted, and these days I much prefer the more intense flavour of well-hung game, to the blander, less interesting flavour of quickly hung and farmed game.

I’ve talked about the benefits of hanging meat – dry-aging it – before, and there is no doubt that hanging wild game makes a big difference to its eating quality. As is the case with beef, hanging game animals and birds in a cool, well-ventilated place allows the enzymes in the flesh to work their tenderising magic.

Hanging also changes the flavour, developing those distinctive ‘gamey’ characteristics. This effect is especially strong in game birds and some small animals that are hung with their guts (entrails) still inside. The ‘ripe’ flavour begins in the guts, with the onset of decomposition, and then gradually spreads through the rest of the meat. The longer the animal hangs, and the warmer the conditions, the stronger the flavours will be. Some serious game gourmands like their game to be so well-hung that it actually smells and tastes quite rank.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how long to hang each creature – it does depend on the individual species of bird or animal, so I believe it’s best left to those who know what they’re doing.

Furry game

Rabbit

Although they make cute and furry pets, we Australians have mixed emotions when it comes to bunnies. They were introduced to the country in the mid-1800s to provide a quick-and-easy food source, but without natural predators, quickly grew to plague proportions, damaging the environment and competing with Australian livestock for feed. In the 1950s, the rabbit problem was famously decimated by the deliberate introduction of the myxomatosis virus – although they eventually developed immunity and their numbers returned to plague proportions once more.

Although recent efforts to control their numbers with the rabbit calcivirus have been more successful, to anyone who lives in rural Australia, the rabbit remains a rampant pest. The main problem with rabbits, of course, is that they breed like, well, rabbits! Each doe can produce a litter of between four and six kittens every month – generating a potential 10-fold increase in population over just six months. All of which seems a very good reason to eat as many of them as we can!

Ironically, it is actually fairly hard to find wild rabbit in most parts of Australia, although theoretically they are available all year round. Wild rabbits have darker, leaner meat than farmed rabbits, and are likely to be tougher. Farmed rabbit operations are strictly controlled (not surprisingly) mainly to supply the restaurant and export industries. They are paler, larger, meatier, and generally more tender than wild rabbits.

How to choose, store and cook rabbit

Good butchers and fresh food markets sell whole rabbits, ready for cooking (skinned, gutted, head removed). They are usually killed young, at around 10–12 weeks and generally weigh between 1 and 1.5 kilograms. You can also ask for older rabbits that have finished their breeding life. These are bigger and meatier and have more fat and flavour than the young rabbits.

You will probably also be able to buy various cuts of rabbit – the hindlegs and forelegs, the saddle and fillets. When choosing rabbit, always choose meat that looks smooth and a bit shiny. The liver and kidneys should be glossy and there should be no odour.

Storing rabbit

Because it is lean, with minimal fat and connective tissues, rabbit is more perishable than other meats; treat it like chicken or veal.

Unwrap and refrigerate all rabbit immediately. Rub it with olive oil or cover in an oil-based marinade to protect it.

Store it in a Tupperware container, or sit it on a rack on a plate and cover it with a tea towel.

Rabbit should be eaten within two to three days.

A whole rabbit can be delicious when wrapped in bacon and roasted with garlic and onions and a splash of wine. But because the legs and saddle cook at very different rates I usually prefer to break them down into joints. Rabbit legs are wonderful for braising, while the tender saddle (which comes from the centre of the back and is made up of the two loins and tiny fillets) are great for quick cooking.

Because rabbit has virtually no body fat, you need to add it. I often marinate rabbit in a generous amount of olive oil before cooking it, or the meat can be wrapped in bacon, prosciutto or caul fat, to provide lubrication as it cooks.

Things that love rabbit

Bacon, brandy, fennel seeds, garlic, juniper berries, lemon, mushrooms, olive oil, olives, onions, pancetta, pepper, prunes, red wine, rosemary, sage, salt, shallots, thyme.

Kangaroo

Kangaroo is the only meat in this book that is actually indigenous to Australia. With today’s growing interest in eating ‘locally’, it seems to make perfect sense that we eat animals that grow on our own doorstep – especially when they breed prolifically, and are considered a pest in many parts of the country. Even Greenpeace has suggested that we should be eating more kangaroo to help reduce our output of greenhouse gases.

And yet the idea of eating our national symbol is something that many people find repellent. Kangaroo culls are always greeted with highly publicised emotional opposition. Yet government-approved management plans are aimed at a balanced approach to sustaining acceptable population levels of kangaroo and of the 48 species in Australia, only four are harvested commercially within strictly controlled quotas.

There seem to be many good reasons for eating kangaroo: it’s widely available, relatively free of diseases, and entirely free of antibiotics or chemicals that are common in meat from other domestic animals. Simply put, it is one of the healthiest red meats there is. It is higher in protein and iron than any other meats and with a fat content of under 2 per cent, meat just doesn’t come any leaner. Kangaroo has also been identified as the highest known source of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), which is linked with boosting immunity and inhibiting certain cancers and diabetes. Funnily enough, even though we ourselves don’t eat all that much of it, Australia now exports kangaroo meat to more than 55 countries around the world, in the European Union, the USA and Asia.

How to choose, store and cook kangaroo

Kangaroo is now fairly widely available in fresh produce markets, butcher’s shops and even in supermarkets.

Kangaroo meat is a deep, rich red colour, with negligible surface fat. It is fairly densely textured and is usually sold trimmed and denuded of sinew. Primary cuts of kangaroo include the striploin (loin), fillet, rump, topside and minced or chopped meat. Kangaroo tails are also available, and apparently make delicious soup, but I have to confess that I usually give them to my dog as a big treat.

Kangaroo meat sold in supermarkets often comes pre-packed and portioned in MAP (Modified Atmosphere Packaging) trays. If unopened, MAP trays will keep for up to four weeks in the coldest part of your refrigerator.

Storing kangaroo

Unless packed in MAP trays, all other kangaroo should be eaten as soon as possible after purchase.

Unwrap and pat it dry all over. Rub it with olive oil or cover in an oil-based marinade to protect it.

Kangaroo has a distinctive rich and slightly gamey flavour. Meat from younger animals, or meat that is consumed within 1–2 weeks of killing will have a much milder flavour than older or aged kangaroo.

The wide range of cuts available lend themselves to a wide range of recipes, but as is always the case, you need to match the cut to the cooking method. Kangaroo needs to be handled and cooked like any other lean, low-fat game meat. The most popular techniques for the prime cuts are frying, grilling, barbecuing or briefly roasting at a high heat. You need to take particular care not to overcook kangaroo – pink is best. The only cuts that should be slow-cooked are the tail or shanks.

As you might expect, native Australian ingredients pair especially well with kangaroo, something indigenous cooks have known for thousands of years.

Things that love kangaroo

Anchovies, beetroot, bush tomatoes, garlic, juniper berries, mustard, native peppercorns, olive oil, onions, paprika, pepper, port, red wine, salt, spinach, sun-dried tomatoes.

Venison and elk

Venison is the culinary name for deer meat, of which elk is a variety. Deer were introduced into Australia and neighbouring New Zealand in the 19th century, but were not farmed seriously until the 1970s. Today New Zealand leads the world in deer farming, and both countries export venison meat around the world.

In fact, venison is one of the most widely consumed of all game meats, and continues to become more and more popular. Its main virtues are that it is an extremely lean and naturally tender red meat – perfect for today’s health-conscious consumers. The only real downside is that it is relatively expensive to farm and process, making it something of a luxury product. Nearly all Australian venison is exported to Europe and South-East Asia, where they particularly value its ‘purifying’ health benefits.

How to choose, store and cook venison

Although there are wild deer populations in parts of Australia, nearly all venison sold is farmed, and comes from the red deer or fallow deer. It can be tricky to find, but most good butchers should be able to source it for you if you give them plenty of notice.

There is not a huge difference between wild venison and the farmed species, as both live relatively free-range lives. Deer are ruminants, and even farmed deer are allowed to graze naturally on pasture and grow at their own rate and in their own time. Farmed venison do lead less active lives than wild deer, which makes them slightly less lean and less intensely flavoured. The trade-off is that their flesh is more tender and they are usually slaughtered at a consistently younger age. Whether wild or farmed, venison needs to be hung to tenderise the meat and to develop the flavour.

Venison is often sold vacuum-packed, which in my view is a bit of a mixed blessing as I’m not a huge fan of the way vacuum-packed meat sits in a bath of its own blood. However, it’s a good way of tenderising freshly slaughtered meat and is common in the venison industry.

Storing venison

Vacuum-packed venison should be left in its wrapping until you are ready to cook it. It will keep for up to two weeks in the coldest part of your refrigerator. When you open the package, you will need to mop up any blood sitting on the surface of the meat. Any odour should disappear after a few minutes.

Because it is lean, with minimal fat and connective tissues, venison is more perishable than other red meats; treat it like chicken or veal.

Unwrap and refrigerate all venison immediately.

Store it in a Tupperware container, or sit it on a rack on a plate and cover it with a tea towel.

Large cuts of venison will keep for up to three days.

Smaller cuts should be used within three days.

Cubed or minced venison should be used within one or two days.

The primary cuts of venison are the haunch (leg) and saddle (which includes the eye-fillet), the breast (or flank) and shoulder

The best cuts for roasting are the haunch and saddle, and on a larger deer the saddle is usually divided into chops and a loin that can be roasted on the bone or boned, stuffed and rolled. The loin is brilliant for roasting whole, or it can be cut into thick steaks for grilling, sautéing or barbecuing.

The breast and shoulder are rather tough cuts and are more suitable for braising. They also make a great filling for a hearty pie, or can be minced to make venison burgers or sausages.

The biggest challenge when cooking venison is to keep it moist. It is naturally very lean, so you need to be careful it doesn’t dry out and become tough. Marinating before cooking in lots of olive oil helps, and large roasting cuts can be kept moist by draping them with bacon, pancetta or pork back fat, or wrapping it in caul fat.

Things that love venison

Allspice berries, anchovies, bacon, bay leaves, beetroot, chestnuts, garlic, juniper berries, lentils, mustard, olive oil, onions, pancetta, paprika, pepper, port, red wine, redcurrant jelly, rosemary, salt, sour cherries, thyme.

Feathered game

Quail

These plump little game birds are surprisingly meaty, and are perfect for handheld eating. They are very popular here in Australia, whether spiced and deep-fried the Chinese way, grilled Mediterranean-style with herbs and garlic, or stuff ed and roasted whole.

Quail are funny little ground-dwelling birds, and different species can be found in Europe, Asia, North America and Africa. In the wild, quail are pretty easy to catch, as they prefer running to flying. Nevertheless, most commercially available quail in Australia is farmed on specialist poultry operations.

Although they do have a slight gamey taste, farmed quail are more delicately flavoured than wild quail, and are altogether meatier and more tender.

How to choose, store and cook quail

Quail are fairly widely available all year round, both fresh and frozen. Some upmarket supermarkets will stock them, but otherwise you will probably have to go to a specialist poultry seller or butcher.

Quail are usually sold on trays of 4–6 birds, depending on how big they are. Jumbo quail seem to be increasingly popular, and these weigh 200g or more, compared with 160–200g for medium-sized quail. Quail are sometimes sold spatchcocked, ready for barbecuing, which is to say they are split down the backbone and opened out flat. It’s also a good method to employ with pigeon and poussin (baby chicken). Once spatchcocked, you can marinate the bird in olive oil and your favourite herbs.

For a fancy presentation, the flattened birds can be speared onto skewers, which help keep them flat on the grill.

I would allow one whole quail per person as a starter, and two each for a main course.

Storing quail

Unwrap and refrigerate quail immediately. Rub with olive oil or an oil-based marinade to protect it.

Store them in a Tupperware container, or sit them on a rack on a plate and cover it with a tea towel.

Quail should be eaten within two to three days.

Frozen quail should be thawed overnight in the refrigerator. Once thawed, rinse them and pat thoroughly dry.

Quail are very versatile birds, and can be roasted, grilled, barbecued, fried or braised. The main thing to remember is that it is a sin to overcook quail – to be really good and juicy the breast meat should be pale pink in the centre, and some even like it positively red. Whole quail will take around 8–10 minutes to cook in a 180–200ºC oven. When flattened out they will cook on a hot griddle or barbecue in as little as three to four minutes. However you cook them, make sure you leave them to rest before eating.

Things that love quail

Bacon, chilli, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, honey, lemon, olive oil, pepper, pomegranate molasses, quince paste, raisins, red currant jelly, salt, star anise, thyme, vinegar.

Pigeon

The first thing to understand is that I’m not talking about those annoying noisy birds that leave their droppings all over public buildings and our cars! The pigeons that I love to eat are wood pigeons, and they are especially popular in Europe. Here in Australia they are virtually impossible to find, but we do have a fairly lively squab pigeon industry.

So what’s the difference? Well wood pigeons are wild birds. They cover vast distances in the air hunting for food, which means that their meat is rather stringy and tough, even if dense and very tasty. Squab pigeon are farmed pigeons that are killed as fledglings, before they have even left the nest, so they are much more tender. The meat from squab pigeon is much less dark and gamey than wild pigeon, but it is still quite delicious.

How to choose, store and cook pigeon

Squab pigeon are not widely available – in fact you will probably have to go to a specialist poultry seller, or ask your own butcher to order them in for you. They are something of a luxury item in Australia, and you may find they cost as much – if not more – than a much larger chicken. On the upside, their meat is rich and meaty, and a little goes a long way, especially if you are happy to suck away at all the little bones, to extract every last little bit of tasty flesh.

Squab are usually sold as whole birds, ready plucked and drawn (gutted). Occasionally they come with their head and sometimes even their claws still attached, and you will need to trim them off. When buying squab, check to see that the skin is not torn or blemished. The meat should be darkish pink under a layer of creamy skin.

Squab are generally sold in two sizes: medium (300 g) and large (400–450 g). I would allow one small pigeon per person as a starter, and one large one for a main course.

Storing pigeon

Unwrap and refrigerate pigeon immediately.

Store them in a Tupperware container, or sit them on a rack on a plate and cover with a tea towel.

Pigeon should be eaten within two to three days.

Frozen pigeon should be thawed overnight in the refrigerator. Once thawed, rinse them and pat thoroughly dry.

Some fancy restaurants offer elaborate salads scattered with plump little seared pigeon breasts, but I think it is much more sensible to cook and eat the whole bird. They are perfect for filling with a hearty stuffing and roasting to a dark burnished bronze, or they can be spatchcocked like quail and grilled or barbecued. The Chinese are especially good at cooking pigeon: the birds are first poached in a master stock before being deep-fried to crisp perfection and served with spicy salt and a dipping sauce. As with other game, never cook these tender game birds beyond medium–rare.

Things that love pigeon

Bacon, chilli, coriander, cumin, garlic, ginger, honey, pepper, raisins, redcurrantjelly,rosemary, salt,Sichuanpepper,soy sauce, star anise, thyme, vinegar.

Pheasant

Anyone who has been to England or Scotland in the late autumn will know the thrill of seeing one of these gorgeous birds emerging from the misty undergrowth, and then taking off in a whirring flurry of feathers. When I was working on a large Scottish estate I became used to the regular crack of the rifles – a signal to expect delivery of a brace or two of birds.

Things are not nearly as romantic here in Australia. In fact, there is only one wild pheasant hunt (on King Island) in the country, and only farmed birds are commercially available. The drivers of the pheasant industry in Australia are undoubtedly Maggie and Colin Beer, who were pioneer farmers of the birds on their Barossa Valley property in the early 1970s. As a result, many of us are familiar with these tasty birds – if only through the famous and delicious Pheasant Farm Pâté.

Pheasants are believed to have originated in Asia, and were brought to Europe by Jason (of the Argonauts) while he was out searching for the Golden Fleece. From Greece they were then spread to Italy, from where the Romans spread them to all corners of their empire. Although there are nearly 50 species of pheasant around the world today, the most wildly consumed is the Chinese ring-necked bird.

How to choose, store and cook pheasant

Nowadays there are a number of top-notch pheasant farms in Australia – some even boast of being truly free-range – and pheasant and pheasant products are increasingly available.

Unless you purchase directly from the farmer, you will almost certainly have to order pheasant from a game specialist. They are available fresh between March and August, but you can find frozen pheasant all year around. As is the case with squab pigeon, pheasants are expensive, so you do need to think of them as a bit of a special occasion dish. However, you know you’re going to get a quality bird. Dismiss any memory you may have of biting down on a piece of ‘shot’ in an English pheasant!

All pheasants are hung for a period of time before sale to tenderise the flesh. They are always sold plucked and drawn (gutted), often with the head and claws still attached. Always check to see that the skin is not torn or blemished. The meat is surprisingly pale and should have a thin creamy cover of fat.

Most farmed pheasant are processed between 16 and 20 weeks of age and weigh between 800g–1 kg. One pheasant makes a good meal for two people.

Things that love pheasant

Bacon, butter, cabbage, fried breadcrumbs, garlic, ginger, grapes, honey, Madeira, orange, pears, pepper, port, raisins, red wine, salt, thyme, verjuice.

Storing pheasant

Unwrap and refrigerate pheasant immediately.

Store them in a Tupperware container, or sit them on a rack on a plate and cover with a tea towel.

Pheasant should be eaten within two to three days.

Frozen pheasants should be thawed overnight in the refrigerator. Once thawed, rinse them and pat thoroughly dry.

There are many people who think you can’t go past the traditional English roast pheasant with all the trimmings (fried breadcrumbs or a fried crouton, bacon, and creamy bread sauce). But pheasant can also be pot-roasted or braised. The leg meat is brilliant when turned into a pie or even sausages. As with all game birds, pheasant is very lean, so you do need to be careful not to let the flesh dry out. Rub them with olive oil or marinate them before cooking, and drape the delicate breast meat with bacon, pancetta or pork back fat.

How do you know when it’s cooked

Different game animals require cooking to varying degrees of doneness. Please refer to recipes for specific cooking times for each cut.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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