How to cook game properly

Phil Vickery offers top tips for upping your game when it comes to preparing hare, pheasant, venison and more

‘Have you ever eaten Jugged Hare? It’s disgusting!’ says Phil Vickery, part-time pig farmer, and TV chef off This Morning. With the Glorious Twelfth now ticked off our calendars, game season is underway – and Vickery has some thoughts on serving up the spoils. He says, ‘When I started cooking professionally in 1979, the way they roasted game birds – they were tough, dry and horrible. Everyone conjured up old wives’ tales going, “This is game cookery!” No it’s not, it’s awful! No wonder everyone’s got a problem with a game – the cooking methods were an abomination.’

So, if you haven’t fancied game before, or you’ve tried it and imagined you’d eaten your Retriever’s chewy toy by mistake, Vickery hopes to tempt you with some tender stir-fried duck or sautéed pheasant breast. His new book Game includes some rather lovely recipes and you don’t even need an Aga.

‘If you’ve got 15 grand to burn then buy one – otherwise a conventional oven’s fine,’ he declares before also assuring me I needn’t trek across a hundred Scottish acres to shoot it up myself. So where do I get it, and what do I do with it – and where would be jolly nice to eat it, if I want to know how it’s actually meant to taste? Vickery is happy to explain it all (and provide a recipe from his book)…

Why should we eat more game?
There’s a stigma about eating Bambi, but the same could apply to Babe with eating pork! I think game will become mainstream because it’s cheap, it’s pretty much organic, and it’s good for you – most game is only around 4% fat. And there’s an abundant supply of it. Somebody told me there are a billion pigeons in the UK. You’re never going to shoot them out, and they’re good for you – so why aren’t we eating them?

What gateway game would you tempt me with, if I’m set on eating steak?
If you’ve never eaten game, don’t get anything strong. Steer clear of grouse, which is a very strong, acquired taste, and also avoid hare, some venison cuts, especially if it’s in a deep stew, and wild geese, which they braise in red wine. Stick to the leaner, more conventional game birds like wild duck or pigeon, and the whiter meats such as partridge. In the book, we have sautéed partridge with Bramley apples, cider and tarragon (see below). It takes about six to eight minutes to cook – it’s delicious.

Is game easy to find in the shops?
I live in suburbia and they sell game in my local Co-op – they do a game pack of venison and partridge. My butcher sells rabbit – you can get pigeon there too. You can go online and get pigeon frozen in packs, all breasted, and ready to go. Tesco does game, and of course, you can get everything in Waitrose.

Let’s say I’m cooking pheasant… must I personally pluck the feathers?
If you buy a bird in the feather, you know how old it is. This year’s bird will be tender, whereas a two or three year old will be tough as old boots. But if you buy it dressed, they cut the legs off, so you don’t know! I buy mine in the feather and dress it myself. Pheasants are trickier to pluck than partridge, you’ve just got to take your time. If you want to buy it dressed, watch out for the size – older birds will be bigger. But they still taste great if you sauté the breasts in butter, instead of roasting it.

What’s a good game dish for the summer?
When people think about game they think of heavy venison stews, and roasted grouse stuffed with stuffing and bacon and bread sauce, which is winter food. But game doesn’t have to be heavy. Rabbit and pigeon are lighter meats, and we steam rabbit sometimes. You can do a pigeon salad – sautéed nice and pink – with fresh blackcurrants, or a roast loin rabbit salad with mange tout, salad leaves, and hazelnuts. It’s simple and light.

Phil Vickery with his haul (Photo: Peter Cassidy)

What’s the most important thing to remember when cooking game?
Don’t over cook it – that’s the golden rule. Everyone over cooks game – no wonder it’s dry. Leave it slightly under-cooked, and it’ll be absolutely fine – unless you’re making a stew, obviously! Some people cook it to hell and back – there’s no need. If I was to get you a French partridge breast now, I’d put it in butter and I’d give it two to three minutes each side, take it off, cover it with a bit of foil, and leave it to let the residual heat warm it through.

What should I drink with my game?
For whiter meats like pheasants or partridge, I’ll have Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc, something quite crisp and light. For the heavier grouse, or wild duck, I’d say a lighter red. You’ll sometimes you get away with a Pinot Noir for things like venison, but they’re big flavours. Hare will take a big red wine. I don’t drink a lot of red, so I’m happy to drink whites with a lot of game. It’s frowned upon, but that’s personal choice.

Where can I eat game when I’m out?
Rules – it’s the oldest restaurant in London, and they do fantastic game. If you want the proper game experience, it is the place to go to. It’s very traditional – they’ve got their own shooting grounds. I had a fantastic Umble Pie there – it’s basically innards of venison with candied fruits, in a pastry pie with a rich gravy. It’s delicious. If you want proper game, go to Rules!

Sautéed Partridge with Cider, Tarragon & Bramley Apple

(Photo: Peter Cassidy)

Cider works well with light game meat such as partridge, rabbit or pheasant. The only thickening needed here is a little butter, and provided the liquid has reduced far enough, the butter will emulsify nicely. In che y terms, this process is known as ‘monte au beurre’. The secret, as ever, is not to overcook the partridge.

Serves: Two
Preparation:
20 mins
Cooking:
25 mins

50g unsalted butter, plus another 25g, ice-cold and diced
1 Bramley apple, peeled, cored and cut into 5mm pieces
Meat from 2 partridges, including legs and skin, chopped into 2cm pieces
175ml dry cider
¼ x 10g good-quality chicken stock cube, crumbled
2 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh tarragon
A pinch of sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives

1. Heat the 50g butter in a non-stick frying pan until slightly golden and bubbling.
2. Add the apple and gently sauté for 2–3 minutes until slightly coloured.
3. Add the partridge and again cook for about 2–3 minutes until just slightly coloured, but do not overcook – the meat should be rose pink when cut open.
4. Remove the apple and partridge from the pan and keep warm.
5. Add the cider and stock cube to the pan and bring to the boil, them simmer until reduced to about half the original volume.
6. Add the tarragon, sugar and salt and pepper to taste.
7. Finally, add the 25g cold butter and swirl through.
8. To serve, place the partridge and apple in deep bowls, pour over the cider mix and sprinkle over the chives.

Game by Phil Vickery and Simon Boddy is published by Kyle Books, £22. Photography by Peter Cassidy

Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here


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