Hunting for the stew pot
Our European cousins have created national dishes from the simple principle of cooking what they hunt and grow. Try them at the next shoot lunch
European hunters favourite dishes, served up by Emily Arbuthnott
Iam not going to lie. The temptation to invent British fake stews has never been greater than it has been during these past few weeks. The more I spoke to, sorry, listened to, our continental cousins passionately relaying the histories of their national hunting dishes, conveying recipes with such pride, the more I related to Gore Vidal: “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies.” This culminated with a German friend of a friend, Leopold, laughingly saying, “But stews are not British, are they? It’s Irish stew, isn’t it?”
“Oh no,” I replied. “We have beef stew.” I know, I know, rubbish response, I let the side down.
Bigos, for example, is not just a hunter’s stew – it is the national dish of Poland. My friend Marta, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and various other sources ascertain that bigos originated in Polish manor houses. The leftover meat from great celebrations was mixed with sauerkraut and taken by the hunters in a sealed pan, where it was reheated over a fire for breakfast. As I have discovered, most hunting stews have more origin stories than a Marvel Comic character. Other variants for bigos include it being brought to Poland by the Lithuanian Duke Wladyslaw II Jagiello, a future Polish king, who served it to his hunting guests. Another interpretation is that hunters created it on the hunt. All stories could be true, of course. As Polish food blogger Ren Behan observes, “there are probably as many individual recipes for bigos as there are cooks in Poland”. The one consistency with all versions of bigos is that the longer it is cooked and reheated the better it tastes. The same can be said for cottage pie, of course, but a foillidded Le Creuset dish doesn’t seem to evoke the same romantic imagery. Nor would it be so easy to reheat on a Dutch oven.
I spoke to a (contemporary) Roman about cacciatora, even the word – which translates as “hunter” – sounds bold and heroic when compared with something like, say, stew. He claimed that it originated from somewhere in central Italy during the Renaissance, when an unsuccessful hunter, determined not to come home to his family empty handed, spied an escaped rabbit and killed it before foraging for wild herbs to go with it. A Tuscan count, however, was quick to assure me that the cacciatora
actually originated with “aristocratic hunters who on their return journey would source wild mushrooms and fragrant herbs, which they would give to the servants to cook with their quarry”. Regardless of social standing, it is remarkable that the hunters are able to wait languidly for their bag to be cooked and converted into such a delicious feast.
Slow-cooking is taken to another level in Sweden, where close to 300,000 people out of a population of 10 million go hunting each year. Alongside making meatballs, roasting elk and poaching partridges with foraged chanterelle mushrooms, the Swedes have an ingenious way of cooking large pieces of meat. Tjälknöl of reindeer involves putting the frozen meat into an oven set at 75°C and cooking for about an hour per 100g. Once cooked, it is covered in a marinade consisting of lingonberries or juniper berries with water, salt, sugar, bay leaves and pepper boiled up together. This is then encased and left in a plastic bag for four to five hours before being patted dry and served sliced as thinly as possible. Lingonberry jam is a popular pairing with game, as is syltade kantareller (pickled chanterelle mushrooms) and syltade svart trumpetsvamp med balsamicviager och chili (pickled black trumpet mushrooms with balsamic vinegar and chilli.)
The Belgian pheasant casserole, Brabançonne, is such a part of the national identity that it was named after the National Anthem. A Bayerische Jägermeister informed me that a Bavarian Hunter’s Stew is so patriotic it can only be called as such if German Spätburgunder (pinot noir) is used.
boar and beer
When I was chatting to my French friend, Félicité, about chasseur recipes she remarked: “I also have a recipe for boar stewed for seven hours in beer but I don’t like doing it this way because you don’t recognise the meat you are eating anymore.” I decided against eulogising about my ale and beef stew. The story of Jacques Chirac reportedly joking to Putin and Schröder that the UK “after Finland, is the country with the worst food” sprang to my consciousness.
Hughie Arbuthnott describes chickpea based puchero, a speciality slow-simmered stew from the Andalucía region of Spain, with great passion. He is so evocative it is as though you are there with him, bowl in hand, ensconced in the hunting tavern that is nestled in the cork forest he frequents. Hughie, who runs Arbuthnott Holidays and hosts hunting parties, expounds a typical hunting menu: “Breakfast is black coffee, zurrapa – toast with pigs’ dripping – and sol y sombra (brandy). Elevenses is half
a salami and half a bottle of wine. Then, for lunch, my wife, Clare, cooks puchero with homemade stock, chorizo, black pudding and hunks of pork belly as the base, to which jablí [wild boar] or venado [venison] is added.” He adds, “Puchero originates from the Spanish Civil War, where the resulting starvation meant that countryside folk made the most of what was available using leftover bits of fatty meat.” Another Spanish shot tells me, “Spanish hunting stews reflect the stamina of Spain’s soul in the face of hardship and heartbreak. When we make any form of stew here, every bit of the animal we can eat goes in.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that in the UK oxtail, rabbit, beef dripping and liver have all been listed as “endangered foods”, according to a Yougov Omnibus survey on which traditional British foods are at greatest risk.
Just as the Spanish Civil War forced people to rediscover living off the land, the Habsburg ruling of Hungary is what many believe led to the revival of goulash. By the end of the 19th century, Hungarians had established the growing and processing of chillies – introduced from the Americas – and created the spice paprika. The middle classes, irritated by the official German language and customs that had been imposed upon them by the Habsburgs, began emphasising their Magyar (Hungarian) traditions, from folklore to dance, literature and food. By 1830, the triumphant, red and very much Hungarian goulash began appearing in restaurants and cookbooks. This spicy soup stew hybrid made of sweating peppers and onions in pork lard, braising beef with paprika and slow-cooking it in beef broth, is the epitome of a national dish.
To be fair, the basis of the British stew hasn’t really changed since we were last
conquered. By the Normans. Nearly a thousand years ago. After the Battle of Hastings, however, rather than protesting against our conquerors by returning to our Anglo-saxon roots of meat boiled in a cauldron of water, we adapted the Norman methods of cooking, such as searing meat, adding spices and slowly simmering it all in wine. The recipe for Bruet of Sarcynesse (or Saracen Stew) in The Forme of Cury, a 1200 cookbook, is a fine example. In many ways, Britain has been adapting and pilfering versions of stew ever since: chicken chausseur, beef stroganoff, pheasant fricassee, lamb tagine, chicken tikka masala…
Gastro-nationalism has nothing to do with modern-day European hunting or shooting lunches, despite the historical connections. Stews vary as widely from region to region as they do from country to country, depending on what herbs grow and what meat is available. And, yes, while everyone I spoke to was keen to discuss the nostalgic prominence of their country’s hunting stew, they rarely cited it as their favourite or most memorable meal on a shoot or a hunt.
My Swedish friend Ingela’s approach to hunting lunches is “Ta vad man har” – use
what you have got. German Dirk Bussmann, though kindly recommending the recipe book Die Besten Wild-rezepte, actually offered similar sentiments as Ingela: “I cook frei nach Schnauze, without recipes.”
Isabella Rozendaal, a Dutch artist responsible for the fascinating blog isabellahunts. com, has hunted throughout Europe. Whilst she holds her native dishes of pea soup for elevenses and stamppot and meatballs for lunch in high regard, her favourite shoot meal was “schnitzel in a German hunter’s cafe after a hefty 13k hike tracking a boar that got away”. Rozendaal believes, “there is a direct correlation between the distance you have walked and the wind you have faced to how delicious the meal is at the end of the shoot”.
I agree, as it seems did everyone else I spoke to. A great Dane, who has similarly hunted throughout Europe, told me, “My best shooting meal was crayfish on the terrace in August moonlight after wild-boar shooting.”
As Leopold said at the end of our conversation, “To be honest, the most memorable meal I have had hunting was during a magnificent, and arduous, walked-up grouse shoot in Scotland where I ate a packet of crisps and drank a can of Mcewan’s Export on the hill.”
Above: off to hunt rabbit in the Bialowieza Forest, Poland; the hunter’s stew, bigos, is a national dish
Reindeer stew, served with lingonberry and pickles – a traditional food of Sweden, Norway and Finland
Hungarian goulash, a spicy soup stew made using beef broth, is the epitome of a national dish