A bluffer’s guide to game

Published in The Sunday Business Post Magazine on September 23rd, 2012. By Alex Meehan
Venison, pheasant, grouse, snipe: for food lovers, the reappearance of game is one of the highlights of autumn. It’s already popping up on restaurant menus around the country and will become a more frequent menu choice over the next couple of weeks.

You can also find wild and farmed game at an increasing of specialist food shops, including Fallon & Byrne on Wicklow Street in Dublin city centre. According to Tom Meenaghan, executive chef in charge of Fallon & Byrne’s restaurant, game is enjoying a resurgence in popularity, most notably because a growing segment of the market is getting back in touch with the idea of seasonality.

“In general, we can now pretty much get whatever we want to eat, whenever we want it and while the convenience of that is great, it takes some of the fun and anticipation out of our diets,” he says.

“But for a lot of people interested in game, the fact that it’s a seasonal product is part of its appeal. They look forward to the season starting and getting more variety in their diets.”

Fallon & Byrne starts to offer game in September and it remains a feature of their butcher’s counter through to the start of February each year. Their game is sourced from Irish estates including Slane Castle and Dromoland Castle, as well as from suppliers in the UK and France.

“We prefer to offer Irish when we can, but it’s typically harder to source. At the start of the season, you tend to pay a little more for game because it’s still scarce so there’s a premium. As more game comes in, supply catches up with demand and it becomes a little cheaper.”

For people interested in preparing game at home but unsure of where to start, Meenaghan offers the following advice.

“First, find a knowledgeable butcher or supplier. The average butcher’s counter in a supermarket won’t want to know if you ask questions so you need someone who will give advice on how to prepare and cook the various kinds of game they offer.”

“Secondly, don’t be afraid to try something new. A lot of people are used to eating the same kinds of meats all the time – lamb, pork, chicken and beef – and have an idea that game is very strongly flavoured but this isn’t necessarily the case,” he says.

While people may have an idea that game needs to be aged to the point of near rancidity, or until ‘high’ as it’s known, the reality is that game typically isn’t aged anywhere near as long as it used to be.

“Venison for example is now usually sold aged only six to ten days – it doesn’t hang around. Traditionally that would have been anything up to three weeks. Same with pheasant, which was traditionally always served ‘high’ but people don’t want that anymore. Tastes change and people like lighter textures and flavours today,” says Meenaghan

Finding a source for truly wild game is often quite difficult, but aficionados insist that going wild is the best way to enjoy a truly Irish eating experience.

“Conventional non-game meats are all produced in a controlled environment, on a farm where their diet and health is strictly controlled. Wild game is just that, wild. It’s not held in captivity and can roam and fly wherever it wants,” says Michael Healy of Wild Irish Game, a supplier of wild game to the Irish retail and restaurant trade.

“Their diet is whatever they can forage for themselves. Deer in the mountains for example eat a diet which is as close to organic as you can get. Obviously, it’s not certified that way because they can roam onto farm lands and eat crops which aren’t organic, but they’re as close as makes no difference.”

“They eat an extremely natural diet. The same with wild birds — pigeons feed on berries for part of the year then move onto clover and right now they’re feeding mostly off standing crops and grains,” he says.

Healy doesn’t hunt himself, saying he has no interest in shooting animals for sport and that his business is strictly food orientated. He has spent 20 years building up a network of suppliers who meet Irish and European legal and food standards.

“Most of our game comes from Wicklow – almost every game species appears in abundance in Wicklow with the exception of woodcock and snipe which are more widespread on the west coast of Ireland. We buy from commercial producers such as pheasant and wild duck produced on large estates, from individual hunters and from state parks such as from the Wicklow Mountains National Park and from Coillte when it culls to control deer numbers.”

According to Healy, the modern market for game was helped a lot by the boom years of the Celtic tiger, when game was widely served in Irish restaurants. While demand has slowed compared to then, it’s still growing.

“We still see a lot of game sold in restaurants, particularly the better ones, and we’re seeing retail demand driven by retail outlets in Dublin like Donnybrook Fair, Cavistons in Glasthule, Molloys in Donnybrook, Lawlors in Rathmines, Buckley’s in Moore St and so on. Superquinn also stocks our game in the run up to Christmas.”

When it comes to cooking, Fallon & Byrne’s Tom Meenaghan suggests that venison is the easiest game meat for the complete beginner.

“The thing to remember with venison, and with most game in fact, is that it’s very low in fat. That makes it super healthy but it has a drawback for the chef – you can’t overcook it or it will dry right out. It has to be served medium rare, or cooked in a liquid to keep it moist.”

“Loin of venison is easy to cook but it can be very expensive – comparable to fillet of beef. Instead, start with a slow cooked haunch of venison or a venison stew. Make a stew in the same way you might make a beef stew – with onions, carrots, red wine and mushrooms but use venison instead of beef and perhaps add in some juniper berries, which go particularly well with venison. You could even marinate the venison in red wine for a couple of days first to make it really tender,” he says.

When it comes to game birds, a key technique to remember is that layering strips of bacon on top of the birds can provide some extra fat to keep the breasts moist. Like all poultry, it’s usually better to detach the legs and cook them separately as they tend to require a little more time.

“Game birds tend to have very thin skins and not much fat content, so it can be hard to get the breast meat just right.”

The two classic ways or preparing game birds includes confiting them and roasting them. Because of the low fat content, slow cooking pheasant in goose fat produces a meltingly tender texture to the flesh. This can then be crisped up before serving in a pan for a really tasty dish.

“You can also roast game birds very successful. We do it in the restaurant by popping the whole birds into a pan breast-side down with a bit of oil and a knob of butter and searing them off for a few minutes on each breast. This takes four or five minutes, then you turn them right-side up again and put the pan into the oven.”

“After 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the size of the birds you take them out, detach the legs and put them back in while the meat rests. Small pigeons take only five or maybe eight minutes from start to finish with this method, because you can serve them rare. Pheasant needs to be cooked a bit more but needs to be moist. “

The classic accompaniments for game include all the things associated with the autumn and winter larder – root vegetables roasted or mashed, potatoes and celeriac and fruit based sauces such as plum or cranberry all work very well.

PANEL: What’s in season?

From August to early February – snipe
From early September to early February – venison
From early September to early February – partridge
From September to late January – wild duck
From September to late February – wild hare
From early September to late January – grouse

From late September to early February – woodcock
From early October to early February – pheasant

PANEL: Matching game to wine
By David Gallagher, Fallon & Byrne sommelier

Grouse or woodcock have a very strong, gamey-flavour that can cope with a full-flavoured red wine. Just avoid big tannic wines. A Northern Rhône wine such as Yves Cuilleron’s St Joseph (€32.95) would be a great match.

Wild Mallard duck has far more flavour than your average duck and so it needs a more flavoursome wine to match. An Australian Shiraz such as the delicious Turkey Flat Shiraz, Grenache, Mouvedre from the Barossa Valley (€29.95) should fit the bill.

Roast pheasant works very well with light, fruity varieties like pinot noir, especially those from North America or New Zealand. A delicious match would be the juicy Firesteed Pinot Noir from Oregon, USA (€20.95).

Venison is rich with a gamey flavour but is very lean. If you are roasting it try a red Burgundy such as the Givry Champ Nalot (€22.95) or if you are using it in a casserole, a beefier wine such as French Malbec like Cedre Heritage (€13.95) would work a treat. If you want to spoil yourself try the Chateau Du Cedre (€21.95).

Rabbit is normally paired with a lighter red such as a Côtes du Rhône, Chinon or Beaujolais, but something liked jugged rabbit can take a stronger flavour well. Try Alpha Zeta “A” Amarone (€31.95).

Guinea fowl is dark and more flavoursome than chicken, with a slight gamey taste. A rich, creamy white burgundy such as Olivier Leflaive’s St Romain (€28.95) is probably the best match.

Quail is a delicate bird with a fuller flavour that your average chicken, again this would be best with a full bodied white, this time why not try a good basic Bourgogne Blanc from Vincent Girardin (€18.95).

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