As I walked to the field to bring in my horses one summer evening, a beautiful, healthy-looking hare leapt out in front of me, sprinting away to a safer spot where it crouched, watching me. I went on my way; the hare went on his. When I told the story to a friend later, he joked that I should have caught it for the pot. ‘Don’t be silly,’ I said. But hare are legal game, so why don’t we see them on menus more often?
Although there are no official figures, it’s estimated that around 50 per cent of British hares shot as game meat are exported to the continent. And of all wild game, between 30 and 50 per cent is exported. So why are we Brits so wary of game when our European neighbours love it so much?
A number of British restaurateurs and butchers have tried their best. In London, the Gladwin brothers run three restaurants (The Shed in Notting Hill, Rabbit in Chelsea and Nutbourne in Battersea) that focus on seasonal, locally sourced ingredients. This means that game is a favourite on the menu; rabbit, pigeon and venison are all regulars. The Jugged Hare gastropub is, as the name suggests, popular with City game-lovers. Outside London, Eat Wild specialises in game products which it sells across the south-west. The Countryside Alliance even has a ‘Game to Eat’ campaign, promoting the delights, health and animal welfare benefits of choosing wild game over other meat options.
Despite these efforts, game still remains an outsider in the British meat industry. Venison sausages aren’t hugely controversial, and rabbit and pheasant do pop up here and there. But it’s strange to think that, as a nation, we’d rather eat a chicken that has spent its life cooped up in a battery farm than a pheasant which flew freely until its final minutes. At the moment, we have the highest population of deer in the UK for more than 1,000 years, thanks to growing numbers of recently introduced breeds such as sika, muntjac and Chinese water deer, the changing environment (with crops now grown year round and plenty of forest cover) and a lack of natural predators. So why are we so squeamish about making the switch from plastic-wrapped supermarket meat?
There are easy ways in — especially if you don’t tell people (or try to forget) what’s being eaten. I remember visiting my Norwegian aunt whose partner is a keen shot and fisherman. The bonus is that her freezer is always chock- a-block with salmon and moose meat – but some more rogue delights make it in there, too. This time we devoured a delicious stew; only after we’d finished did she ask us what we thought we’d been eating. Beef? Venison? Kidney? The answer, it emerged, was beaver — but she’d been too scared to tell us in case we hadn’t liked the idea. (You won’t encounter this problem in the UK as our beaver numbers are so small, but if you do end up stewing one, here’s a handy tip: soak it in milk overnight to stop it tasting quite so gamey).
So next time you’re cooking up a storm, why not give it a try? Wild game generally has a lower fat content than farmed meat, it tastes just as good and it’s likely to have had a far happier life.