I don’t feature meat on this blog often but I do eat it, and I particularly like game. The guy selling game has reappeared on our local market. Game season1 offers the omnivore some interesting alternatives to meat from farmed animals. We’ve had some venison, but I’ve also been making some pies. (If you want to go straight to the recipe, skip down here.)
I’d like to think I have a considered approach to consuming meat. It’s not something I do lightly. I grew up with a conventional British diet, which involved roast meat on Sundays. When I first visited New Zealand, in 1990, I was 19 and didn’t really know any different. But when I ended up living at Newton Livery, a small South Island farm owned by heavy horseman Stephen McGrath, he was vegetarian. So I started eating veggie too.
When I got home I saw a documentary about industrial pig farming, which affirmed my vegetarianism. Intensive industrial animal farming is horrifying. I remained a veggie, then later a pescatarian, for about 20 years, with only a few exceptions. I was from the school of thought that I shouldn’t eat animals if I wasn’t prepared to kill them myself. The second time I lived in New Zealand, in 1995, I had a chance to put this into practice.
I was living at Old Man Mountain and Nadia had three roosters, which were fighting in the hen house. One of them had to go. I killed it, plucked it, gutted it, hung it, cooked it and ate it. Such an act is probably nothing for a countryman, but it was quite bloody for a townie. But a chook is fairly low-level butchering compared to a pig, say. When some hunter friends stopped by, I went with them into the bush, hunting pigs (or boar if you prefer).
We didn’t find any that day, but it got me thinking more about game meat. New Zealand is in a difficult position regarding game such as boar, deer and chamois are all non-native2 and have not natural predators. As such they’re highly problematic for the country’s unique ecology. They trash the bush and compete with native species, so arguably humans have a responsibility to control them. This means hunting, and that is a source of food.
The virtues of hunting
New Zealand’s hunting culture is very different to the largely elitist situation here in the UK, but we do have some comparable problems. Whereas the NZ problems concern native forest, here it’s more about farmland. Before you get to sentimental, bear in mind that Britain is a small island, with about 60 million people crammed on it. It’s a place that’s seen increasing agricultural use over the past approximately 6,500 years and as such our countryside is by and large a place defined by human activity. There’s no true wilderness left in Britain3. Like it or not, our countryside is heavily managed, and, for food production, that means controlling the populations of animals that, for example, eat the seeds of newly sown crops.
We have two native species of deer in Britain, red and roe, and several introduced species (fallow, sika, muntjac), all of which may cause problems as they don’t have any natural predators either – we killed all our bears and wolves off years ago, as part of that process of transforming wilderness into farmland. So we cull deer.
Large numbers of other common species, such as wood pigeons (Columba palumbus) and rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus4), can also be problematic for crops, and are similar hunted or trapped. Some of this meat ends up with the sort of vendors who arrive on my local market at this time of year.
The fact that game animals are mostly wild means that they haven’t been fattened up like domestic animals, meaning the meats are leaner. But where fat is flavour in much cooking, game compensates with its distinctive… gaminess. That said, it’s a very varied area of meat: I can’t imagine my parents were the only ones to trick us as children into eating rabbit saying it was chicken, as it’s similarly white and mild.
So anyway, I was vegetarian or pescatarian, until I fell in love with Fran, a dedicated meat-eater. One weekend morning we were making bacon sarnies – real bacon for her, and fake rashers for me – and the absurdity of the situation hit me. Her meat was from an old hippy couple who had a stall on our local farmers market, my “ethical” option was some crap from a factory made with soy of dubious provenance, most likely an intensive, chemicals-doused farm in China or on former rainforest in Brazil. I started to eat some meat then, then relaxed more on a world trip – I mean, quibbling about the stock of my pho in Vietnam seemed similarly absurd.
Coming home, I started to enjoy exploring game. One recipe I discovered early was for game pies, which combine mixed game meats with pig meats, and are flavoured with herbs and juniper berries. The latter are an classic flavouring for many game dishes.
Who doesn’t love a pie?
I’ve done a lot of vegetarian experiments with pulses and suchlike to try and make a really good pie (a two-crust pie, ie crust all around), a pie that could compete with a classic meat pie. Some were good, but not as good as a pie like this. It’s a very gratifying pie. It’s also a timeless pie; I can imagine something similar being made here for centuries, being stolen off a stall in a market by an urchin in Tudor London or eaten on a tartan rug by a minor Victorian aristocratic on a shooting weekend in the Highlands in Scotland.
The pastry alone is very satisfying. It’s hot water pastry, a hot water crust. You make it my melting fat in water, bringing it to the boil then adding it to flour and forming a dough. After it’s cooled, and the fats have firmed up a bit again, it’s easy to handle and perfect for moulding freeform pies. Don’t be intimidated!
Makes 4 medium-sized pies
250g mixture of game, ie venison, rabbit, pheasant, wood pigeon. Many game merchants will sell a ready-made game pie mix.
60g unsmoked streaky bacon, chopped
200g sausage meat
1 egg (about 55g beaten egg)
Small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
Small bunch of sage, finely chopped
Grated zest of half a lemon or orange
5 juniper berries, finely ground (more if you really like juniper)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, lots of black pepper
Hot water crust pastry:
250g plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
50g unsalted butter
Plus extra beaten egg for glazing
1. First make the pastry. Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl.
2. Crack the egg into the flour, beat it briefly and cover with flour.
3. Put the butter, lard and water in a pan and heat. Once the butter and lard have melted, increase the heat and bring to the boil.
4. Pour the boiling water and fat around the edge of the bowl and quickly to combine. Knead the dough lightly until smooth, then wrap in cling film. Allow to cool, then rest in the fridge. You want the fats to start to set again, to firm up the pastry to make it more manageable, so at least 30 minutes.
5. Meanwhile, prepare the filling. Trim the game, then cut into cubes about 1cm-ish. Mix with the chopped bacon, sausage meat, beaten egg, herbs, zest and ground juniper berries, and season with salt and plenty of black pepper.
6. Divide the meat into 4 portions, each weighing around 140g, and roll into balls.
7. Take the pastry out of the fridge. It should weigh about 500g. Cut off about a quarter, wrap it up again and return to the fridge. This is for the pie lids.
8. Prepare some baking sheets, lined with baking parchment or silicone sheets.
9. Roll the bigger piece of pastry out on a floured surface to around 3mm thick. Cut out 4 circles, 14cm in diameter, using a saucer as a template.
10. Place the circles on the baking sheet, then put a ball of stuffing in the middle of each.
11. Roll the reserved pastry to the same thickness as before and cut out 4 lids, 7cm in diameter.
12. Place a lid on the top of the stuffing.
13. Wet the edge of the base, then stretch up the pastry to meet the lid. Pinch the edges together, with the lid edge on the inside.
14. Repeat with the others and then chill for around 30 minutes, until the pastry feels firm.
15. Preheat the oven to 190C.
16. Make a steam hole in the centre of each pie with a skewer then bake them for 15 minutes.
17. Remove the pies from the oven and reduce the temperature to 170C.
18. Brush the pies with beaten egg then return to the oven. Bake for a further 20-30 minutes until cooked through and nicely browned.
1. There is no one “game season” in the UK. It varies between the different countries in the Union, the various species and even sex within a species. There’s also distinctions between species that are wild and those that are bred on estates by gamekeepers (notably fowl like pheasants, Phasianus colchicus, another non-native species, originally from Asia). Broadly, however, we see more game meat available in the winter, although rabbits can be hunted all year (see note 4, below). Deer species can, broadly, be hunted late summer to spring – but only the males. The season for females is shorter. There’s more information here.
2. There are no indigenous land-based mammals in New Zealand. The only native mammals are bats and marine animals (dolphins, whales, seals and sea lions). More information here.
3. Wilderness is defined as land that’s “wild and uncultivated” and “uninhabited or inhabited only by wild animals.” Even Britain’s wildest places, such as Dartmoor, are shaped by human activity, such as woodland clearance, burning and game-keeping.
4. This is something that’s long been debated. For years it was believe that the European rabbit was introduced to Britain by the Normans, after the conquest of 1066AD, but archaeological evidence indicates they were in fact first brought over as a food source by the Romans, who invaded in 43AD. The Normans may have brought over more, after the Roman rabbit population had dwindled. The narrative isn’t entirely certain. What we do know is that “Britain’s estimated 40 million rabbits cost the economy more than £260 million a year including damage to crops, businesses and infrastructure.” (Full story here.)