Seasonality remains the buzzword in the hospitality and catering industry, with customers demanding an evolving menu that reflects the best ingredients available during that time period.
And nothing is more seasonal than game meats. With autumn well unde rway and winter just around the corner, diners recoil from the salads and strawberries, instead ploughing into the rich, hearty and warming broths and roasts that see us through the coldest months.
For most of us, when we think of British-reared meats, our minds turn to beef, pork, lamb and chicken. But there is an ever-increasing call for the other traditional British fare – pheasant, partridge, venison, duck, rabbit, grouse and even boar.
Chefs love using game meat; it is full of flavour and provides a welcome change to the usual cuts that they deal with daily.
The importance placed on provenance, sustainability and health implications of our food has meant that wild British meat has also seen a rise in popularity with diners.
Not only keen to try something new, the lean meats – which are low in cholesterol and high in protein – have become very popular with those looking to stick to a low-fat diet ahead of the inevitable over-indulgence during Christmas.
In recent years, the Countryside Alliance has pushed its Game To Eat campaign, which encourages consumers to try the wild meats if they never have before, and the success has been obvious. And that is in no small part down to the chefs themselves.
By offering customers good game products, it has helped dispel the fears that game meat is tough, strong tasting or unpleasant.
In hotels, game is prominent. In fact in recent times, The Game Bird restaurant has opened at The Stafford hotel in St James’s executive chef James Durrant championing deer and pigeon on the menu.
Renowned Lancashire hotel Northcote held its Glorious Twelfth Celebration Dinner – the term used usually to refer to the 12th of August and the start of the grouse-shooting season – this year with a wine flight matching dishes such as roast local moor grouse with liver parfait crouton, milk loaf and thyme sauce, redcurrant chutney, roasting juices and garden vegetables.
Elsewhere, ETM Group’s The Jugged Hare, which works with The Montcalm at The Brewery London City hotel, continues to promote the native ingredients, with wild rabbit, hare, moorhen and black grouse featuring as specials on its menus.
The team even offer game masterclasses teaching guests how to pluck, truss, butcher and dress different game birds.
From September through to late January meats including grouse, pheasant, venison, hare, woodcock, wild duck and partridge are readily available from specialist suppliers and wholesalers. Visit gametoeat.co.uk to see the seasons that the different meats will be available.
With game regularly finding its way on to the menus of top hotel restaurants, we have chosen a few chefs to tell us exactly what they have on offer.
Richie Hobdell, head chef at The Lampery, Apex City of London Hotel
“Generally, game is popular in most hotels, but I think it depends on the demographic. For example, stronger games like pheasant and wild birds are popular among specialist guests because they enjoy the stronger flavours. On the other hand, game with more subtle flavours, such as venison, are more popular amongst the masses.
“There has been a surge, but I think that’s because people have become more food-curious. People are willing to try different things and become creative with game as well.
“I think customers are enjoying it more these days purely because of the chefs’ creativity. This makes game more approachable to the whole market place rather than just remaining as a specialty offering.”
Is there a particular species that is more popular than the rest?
“For me I would say the most popular game is venison. It’s just one of those meats which people have tasted. Maybe you’ve tried it on somebody else’s plate and have been pleasantly surprised to then order it yourself in another place.
“Also rabbit, it is really delicate. Pigeon is also nice if done well. Duck, too, as it’s available all year – there are a lot of people who don’t associate wild duck as part of the game family. When caught in shooting season, this meat has a much stronger flavour than ducks available all year round.”
Is game seen more as something served at a local country pub?
“I think great hotels and restaurants these days are all offering game. Great restaurants are working with gamekeepers on the country estates, alongside butchers, too, giving you advice when these meats are coming into season.”
Dish: Pheasant tortellini, in game sauce, served with roasted baby root vegetables
Phil Carmichael, head chef at Berners Tavern, London EDITION hotel
“Game meat has always proven to be popular at Berners Tavern. Since the opening, we have had a certain amount of game meat on the menu during the season and find that venison goes down particularly well.”
Where do you get your meat from, local suppliers, or wholesalers?
“Braehead, they specialise in Scottish game,”
So would you ever consider freezing the meat and offering it the rest of the year, or should it remain as an ‘in-season’ offer?
“No, the season starts on 12th of August for grouse, within two weeks pheasant and partridges, followed by deer. To freeze the meat is out of context – game is a time and place specific type of meat. To serve frozen game would be like preparing asparagus at Christmas.”
Do you think people associate game more with country pubs?
“I associate game with very good restaurants and hotels. Rules, the oldest restaurant in London, had game on the menu since time began. Berners Tavern serves game dishes to celebrate not only British produce but also the country’s seasonality and tradition.”
Dish: Roasted loin of venison with red cabbage puree, fondant potato and seasonal greens served with a chocolate red wine sauce
Paul Wenbourne, head at Dryburgh Abbey Hotel, Scotland
“I find game more popular in venues which are more rural and secluded. Guests like the idea of staying in an old hunting lodge and eating game. The same can be said for coastal restaurants – their pull would predominantly be fish. I think it’s important to focus on where you are and to tie the food in with location.”
Why do you think customers are enjoying game meats more these days?
“Food knowledge has grown in the UK over recent years, encouraging people to try different things and pick foods they wouldn’t necessarily cook themselves. In Scotland it’s typical to have game on most menus throughout the year to appease those who look for it.”
Are there any trends in game meat or is there a particular species that is more popular than the rest?
“Guests will mostly pick what they know, so pigeon, partridge and grouse are favourite birds over, say, wigeon, snipe or woodcock.
“In a country pub the expectation would be for a warming stew etc. In a restaurant the expectation would be something with more finesse and a better pairing of garnish to really enable the ingredients to speak volumes of where they are from. Produce should always convey the ethos of the restaurant.”
Starter : Roasted woodpigeon, pickled mooli, cucumber jelly, hazelnut dressing and baby garden watercress Main: Pan-fried loin of sika venison with butternut croquette, roast salsify, sprout leaves and port jus
John Burton-Race, executive head chef at The Grosvenor Hotel, Devon
“There has always been a consistent customer base wanting game meats, but the benefit and enjoyment of eating game have definitely increased over the past few years.
“It’s about two things. The price – meats like pigeon and partridge are inexpensive, but also game has very little fat so will always be a healthy option for a main dish.”
Are there any trends in game meat OR is there a particular species that is more popular than the rest?
“Yes, pheasant, which starts early in September, is always popular, and venison, which has become an all-year-round option for most diners.”
It is sometimes seen as perhaps a dish offered at the local country pub, so why is it good for hotels to offer these types of dishes?
“I wouldn’t say that’s true. Some of the finest restaurants in Europe offer things like woodcock, snipe and grouse. There are several very high-end dishes that use game.
Would you ever consider freezing the meat and offering it the rest of the year, or should it remain as an ‘in-season’ offer?
“I would never freeze meat.”
Dish: Roasted grouse in red wine with hot game chips, salsify, Brussels sprouts and cranberries
Mike O’Donnell, head chef at Ilsington Country House Hotel and Spa, Dartmoor
“I have always worked in hotels and always used a lot of game in my menus, but the more variety any establishment can offer can only be good for the chefs and the people enjoying the food.
“I think country pubs would be more associated with casseroles and pies containing game, as opposed to a hotel or restaurant which may cook a whole pheasant or, perhaps, a rabbit dish containing more complex cooking methods.”
Have diners’ opinions on game meats changed in recent years?
“I think people’s perception of game being really strong-flavoured and tough, coupled with poor execution by chefs in years gone by, had a contributing factor. The ability of chefs and rise in popularity of cooking programmes over the last 10 or 15 years have all helped improve this perception.
“Diners will tend to go for a dish they don’t often cook at home and if they are at a reputable restaurant, they know it will be cooked properly.
“Interestingly, we are finding game starters increasing in popularity. The reason for this, is that if they are trying something new, they will often experiment with a starter and then choose a safe option for a main course – just in case they don’t like it.”
Would you ever consider freezing the meat and using it out of season?
“I don’t understand why anyone would wait to freeze and use out of season when with every new season comes a whole new set of ingredients to use whilst they are at their best and freshest.”
Dish: Venison saddle with game faggot, fondant potato, parsnip puree, crispy kale and sloe gin gastrique
Brandon Shepherd, head chef at Rothay Manor Hotel, Lake District
“As game is very seasonal, when we feature it on our menu it is definitely a popular item. I think there has always been a consistent customer base among the older generation, but I think that customer base is growing as our tastes as a nation change.
Why do you think customers are enjoying game meats more these days?
“We are more aware today of the seasonality and locality of produce, via the press and media, and see the benefits of ‘keeping it local’. Why have a product that comes from the other side of the world when we have such great produce on our doorstep?
“We get our game meat from local suppliers here in Ambleside and the Lake District. Then we know that it is as fresh as it can be.”
Are there any trends or is there a particular species that is more popular than the rest?
“Grouse and partridge both seem to be popular birds – I think people find them quite accessible. I love how game can be refined, and a real showcase dish. It’s not only about the ‘game pie’! It will take
some great flavours, and styles of cooking, and is a real pleasure to cook with.”
Dish: Grouse with blackberries with grouse liver mousse, blackberry jus, baby turnips and walnuts
Tim Stamp, Restaurant Bar 1650, Ye Olde Bell Hotel, Nottinghamshire
“There has been an increase in popularity. I think diners are becoming more savvy about food and ingredients and therefore it has changed their expectations. They are now willing to try more varied dishes and flavours.
“Some 15 to 20 years ago, menus could be quite limited and you found that many dishes were the same wherever you went. But people are now more adventurous and have broader minds in terms of cuisine. There is much more variety available, so this has led to people being more inquisitive and wanting to try a different variety of flavours and textures.”
Where do you get your meat from – local suppliers or wholesalers?
“I have started working with Sykes House Farm, which is located about 30 miles away in West Yorkshire.”
Are there any trends or Is there a particular species that is more popular than the rest?
“Venison has become a lot more mainstream and is found all year round on many menus. I think it is a taste and texture that diners are familiar with. I suppose the closest meat would be beef.
“Due to its popularity, more and more venison farms have opened. It means that there is a real focus on rearing and
producing great-quality meat. Because of this, it has now lost its seasonality and you can get good-quality venison all year round.”
Why is it important for hotels to offer these types of dishes?
“It’s what you can do with the produce now – it’s about style and preparation. We have access to fantastic equipment and have a really good brigade that means we can use the meat in a variety of ways and really push the boundaries in terms of what we create.
“A lot of the time people used to have game in a pub it would be in the form of a pie. Now for example we have a venison carpaccio on the menu.”
Should game always remain as an ‘in-season’ offer?
“As mentioned with venison, I think more mainstream farming has meant that good-quality meat is now available all year.
“I think it’s interesting that duck used to be considered as game, but now, due to farming, it’s available all year round.”
What is your favourite game-based dish you love to cook?
“My favourite game is duck, but many people don’t see that as game any more. The fat content gives it a depth of flavour, it has a great texture and it is a meat with moisture. I think it is a great introduction to game as it’s not an overpowering flavour.”