We should be going mad for game. The heady, woodland aroma of a good bird roasting encapsulates Autumn. As Fergus Henderson memorably said, “nature should write the menu”. Yet, game has, for a good while, needed a more modern, relevant shot. For too long, it was considered “a toff’s choice”, the sort of retrograde dish served in conservative restaurants and gentlemen’s clubs: roast, quite probably overcooked, and served with game chips and bread sauce.
Now, the game is changing. There’s greater awareness of the ecologically forward advantages of eating wild game and it’s important for sustaining rural communities and aiding countryside biodiversity. Diners are turning to game as a healthier alternative to red meat (lean game meat is high in protein and low in cholesterol) as they adopt flexitarian diets and reduce their meat consumption. There’s a more nuanced understanding of the range of game available throughout September to February season and how the flavour of the different birds reflects their terroir: be it woodland, cornfields or heather moor. Critically chefs are being more creative both in their preparation techniques from André Garrett’s venison tartare served at Northall at The Corinthia Hotel to Nigel Haworth, creator of Obsession gourmet festival and consultant to Northcote Manor’s playful venison eccle cakes at The Game Bird within modern-minded The Stafford hotel in St James’s.
Diners, in turn, are more adventurous and sustainably-minded in how they choose to eat. The Taste of Game and Purdey’s creation of the Eat Game Awards, now in their second year, supported by chefs including Michelin starred Phil Howard of Elystan Street seeks to raise awareness of the gastronomic and sustainable advantages of game further with a public voting scheme for restaurants and chefs serving game besides game retailers. Eat Game’s co-founder Annette Woolcock clarifies: “There is a clear difference between game produced for sport on upland grouse moors and game that is genuinely harvested from the wild, where the impact is a fraction of that of producing meat in a farmed environment”. Besides the more usual grouse and pheasant, chefs are keen to cook with more recondite wild birds including delicate partridge, woodcock, usually eaten whole with guts, snipe and rare ptarmigan and wildfowl including mallard and golden plover during their season. The furred game including venison, muntjac, and hare are available year-round.
Native's wild and foraged proposal
Native, a quirky forward-looking restaurant close to Borough Market that is micro seasonally led with a strong emphasis on sustainable wild and foraged foods and explicit zero-waste policy. Game even features in chef Ivan Tisdall-Davies pre-dinner zero-waste snacks including a sensational deerstalker pie (made with the venison trim not used in other dishes enclosed in melt-in-the-mouth cheese sable pastry. Sussex wood pigeon is a vibrant dish with salt-baked beets, a light, subtly acidic buttermilk sauce, and tart autumnal hedgerow berries: a pleasingly peppy dish. Yorkshire grouse is served unconventionally with sweetcorn (one of the foods the grouse particularly enjoy feeding on) greengages, a well-textured, slightly tart plum and magnificent, intense, crumbly grouse black pudding. It is a vibrant, deeply flavourful dish as appealing to hardcore game enthusiasts as novice game diners who live a modern approach.
Native also draws on street food for game inspiration, hence their ever-popular pigeon kebab, whose recipe is constantly evolving. It is part of the playful, high brow-low brow charm of the restaurant. The kebabs’ original iteration was served rare on an open pitta with beetroot hummus, harissa, and pickled cabbage.
32 Southwark Street, London SE1 1TUWebsite
The Jugged Hare's game afternoon tea
The Jugged Hare, a gastro-pub close to the Barbican in the City of London, decorated uncompromisingly with stuffed game birds, is synonymous with game. It is one of the few restaurants in the capital to regularly serve wild jugged hare: hare marinated in red wine, onion, garlic and lemon for 24 hours and cooked with hare blood according to a recipe adapted and modernised from the Hannah Glasse venerable 18th century classic The Art of Cooking.
The flagship of The Etm restaurant group, The Jugged Hare is renown for offering an exceptionally wide choice of wild birds and feathered game including: woodcock, snipe, ptarmigan besides mallard and golden plover, featuring as specials on its menus when they’re available. During game season, The Jugged Hare inform their regulars daily on social media as to what birds are available and when they’re gone, they’re gone. Explains chef Rafael Liuth: "Sometimes literally one or two birds arrive from a shoot. We can’t predict or assume what will arrive. Customers enjoy the sport of being first to snare the rarer birds."
Taking the challenge of making game a stage further, Brazilian/Italian chef Liuth has created a game afternoon tea. It started off as a response to the quiet afternoon period, but now demand is so high that the game tea feast - spectacularly served on a special tiered stand - is served from 1pm throughout the afternoon, though it needs to be booked in advance. Highlights include savoury eclairs with hare parfait (frugally made using trimmings from the jugged hare) and cumberland sauce. There’s a game pie made with exceptional wet crust pastry, venison Scotch eggs, game charcuterie too, all making use of every part of the game birds. Luxurious, sustainable and extremely delicious.
The Jugged Hare
49 Chiswell Street, London EC1Y 4SAWebsite
Where game turns exotic
Cyrus Todiwala, a chef long dedicated to sustainability and education was ahead of the curve in serving game at his city restaurant Café Spice Namasté from the mid 1990s start. A favourite remains egg and game nargasi kofta made with minced leg and breast of pheasant, partridge, grouse or mallard, mixed with ginger, chilli, coriander, mint and garam masala with a complex aromatic sauce encompassing cinnamon, fennel, coriander and cumin seeds, cashews and almonds, tomato and yoghurt.
Café Spice Namasté
16 Prescot St, Whitechapel, London E1 8AZWebsite
Vivet Singh of the esteemed Cinnamon Club in Westminster has long been a game fan and utilising Indian culinary techniques with British seasonal ingredients. His current dishes include tandoori partridge in a coriander and green chilli spiced marinade that works brilliantly with vibrant coloured, mineral-rich beetroot raita. Pickled walnut and raisins add richness and sweetness. Venison loin in a Rajasthani marinade cooked pink in the tandoor to render it smokey accompanied by a caramelised onion and rock moss (lichen) or black stone flower reduction whose scent brings together the other aromatics including mace, peppercorn, allspice and cinnamon.
The Old Westminster Library, Great Smith St, London SW1P 3BUWebsite
Photo Charlie McKay
Kutir, alluding to a small thatched cottage in the middle of forest countryside and game is the new restaurant of Rohit Ghai within a Chelsea Townhouse. Gahai who’s launch many of London’s top Modern Indian restaurants from Gymkhana to Jamavar too likes to turn expectations upside down especially when it comes to cooking with game. He offers a whole game expedition menu including partridge samosa with cauliflower chutney, grouse with single malt whisky, beetroot and venison slowed cooked with fennel, green peppercorns and yoghurt.
10 Lincoln St, Chelsea, London SW3 2TSWebsite