With Bob Luck’s Kentish cider no longer available, Jonathan Ray finds some new bottles to suit those seasonal childhood favourites
WHEN asked the other day what she would like for her birthday feast, my sainted mother – who still, at 90, cooks a mean threecourse lunch – answered simply “Game”. She has always loved game and the fact that she was born on 1 October must surely have something to do with it. Certainly, the majestic pheasant remains her favourite bird and nobody has ever cooked it with chestnuts the way she used to.
I remember, however, that when I was growing up and we lived near Hawkhurst, Kent, the game dish she cooked most often was a wonderfully rustic creation she called Kentish Pigeons.
We always had a surfeit of said bird, largely because the local rat and mole catcher had a crush on Jennifer, our housekeeper, and would bring several brace of pigeon each week as love tokens. Salmi of pigeon accounted for some of this weekly haul but since my mother used only the breast for this stew she would mince the rest of the bird to make a fabulously rich and dark pigeon pâté, sealed with butter.
However, since my father forbad us to have a freezer in the house (or any tinned or packet food, for that matter, apart from sardines, which he imported himself direct from Portugal, and Smash instant mashed potato, for which he had a perverse fondness), we couldn’t keep such dishes for long and so they became a chore both for my mother to cook and for us to eat.
I never tired, though, of Kentish Pigeons, maybe because my ma came up with the recipe during the early death throes of Mr Rat-mole’s courtship of Jennifer and the supply of free pigeon dried up soon afterwards.
It’s a simple recipe but oh so tasty and having been reminded about it the other day and not having had it in yonks, I gave it a go at the weekend. So, as per my mother’s instructions, I bunged four oven-ready pigeon into a casserole with one large, sliced onion, three sticks of celery, a pound of peeled, cored and sliced apples (when I was young it was always windfall apples, which it was my duty to gather), a pint of medium cider (in those far-off days my mother would only use the notoriously potent Bob Luck’s Kentish cider) and also salt, pepper, bay leaf, grated nutmeg and cayenne pepper.
I covered and cooked the casserole at 150°C for two hours and then puréed the onion, celery and apple with a blender, adding a splash or so of Worcestershire sauce to make a deliciously sweet/tart sauce, garnished the dish with flat-leaf parsley and served.
I blush to tell you that it went down an absolute storm. The young washed it down with Wobblegate Cox & Bramley Apple Juice, the adolescents with Wobblegate Brighton Rocks Traditional Sussex Cider and the grown-ups a bottle or so of deliciously rich and toasty 2014 Morgenhof Estate Chenin Blanc from Stellenbosch, South Africa (£12; Waitrose).
I would normally have a red with pigeon but I feared the sweetness of the apple would bugger it about and the Chenin was creamy and textured enough to cope, added to which there was a delicately honeyed hint of sweetness to it before the long, dry finish that matched the apple perfectly. All in all it was a pretty damn fine combo.
I would also usually serve a white wine with rabbit. A smooth, supple, lightly scented, slightly oily Pinot Blanc from Alsace always goes well with roast, stuffed, saddle of rabbit and prunes, for example, while a well-aged white Burgundy – not too fancy, something from Macon, say – usually fits the bill with rabbit in a creamy sauce.
Pheasant, grouse, partridge and venison, though, need a red. Pinot Noir is the classic partner for the aforementioned gamefowl and works well with venison, too. These days I favour Pinot from Oregon, New Zealand (Marlborough, Martinborough or Central Otago) or California. The 2013 Marimar Estate “Mas Cavalls” Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast that my host served with venison stew the other day was stunning: rich, earthy, concentrated and so, so smooth.
And if not a Pinot, then Rioja, either a fully mature Gran Reserva if funds allow – soft, smooth, mellow with plenty of vanilla and ripe red fruit and little in the way of tannins – or something like the deliciously light and vibrantly fruity 2010 Berry Bros & Rudd Rioja (£12).
And talking of Berry Bros, my old chum Tom Cave, who runs their customers’ reserves, swears by smearing the sediment left after decanting vintage port on the toast – or trivet – under his roast grouse, or splashing on a dessertspoon of vintage character or reserve port. It adds a delicious touch of nutty, damson-like richness to the dish and leads one very nicely onto having a large glass of it later.