For how long should you hang game?
For centuries, the answer would have been to the point of virtual decay. Today’s game chefs view things differently…
For many years, BASC has held an annual sporting auction to raise funds to support its Young Shots Training Days. Among the many and varied sporting opportunities on offer, there has been, for the past 15 years, the chance to bag: “Three days’ guided wildfowling with Sir Johnny Scott on the National Nature Reserve at Lindisfarne for two or three guns, accommodation included.”
Lindisfarne is one of the most beautiful places in Britain and the great tidal dish created by Holy Island’s elongated shape and the curved elbow of the Northumbrian coastline provides a protected habitat for the largest congregation of waders in Europe. The trip, organised by BASC Northern Region and the Newcastle Wildfowler’s Association, is intended to provide the winning bidders with the ultimate wildfowling experience and the opportunity of a crack at the 14,000 or so wigeon that migrate to Lindisfarne during September from the Baltic and around 8,000 Icelandic pinkfooted geese that begin arriving at about the same time on their staging post to East Anglia.
The 2017 trip took place during the last week in October and although the dawn flight was a blank as skein after skein of pinks lifted off their shore roosts with a thrilling clamour only to swing away well out of range, the evening flight produced a bag of 11 wigeon. That night seven of us sat down to dinner in the dogfriendly Lindisfarne Inn: myself; Kenn Ball and Paul Scott of the Newcastle Wildfowler’s Association, who were our wildfowling guides; Colin Teago, the BASC Wildfowling Warden for the National Nature Reserve; and the auction winners, Giles Cadman, Malcolm Newbert and Robert Fathers. All were experienced game shots, loved eating it and Cadman was an enthusiastic game
cook. During the course of the evening, the conversation touched on the length of time any of those present hung game to allow muscles to relax and flavour to develop, with the general consensus of opinion, regardless of species, that no longer than two or three days at about 4°C was necessary. The Countryside Alliance Game to Eat campaign suggests five to seven days, depending on the weather and, of course, personal preference, although the shorter two- to three-day view is supported by Annette Woolcock, the development manager of BASC’S Taste of Game initiative, along with Lee Maycock, the chairman of the Craft Guild of Chefs, and William Aldiss, The Shotgun Chef. Aldiss has his own shoot and restaurant, The Cart Shed, on the family farm near Epping, an outside catering business and can provide shooting lodge cooks trained to handle game properly. All agreed that game hung for only a few days provides an infinity of culinary options, which would not be appropriate to anything hung for longer.
Fifty years ago it would have been unthinkable to eat game other than well hung. Denys Watkins-pritchard, the great naturalist sportsman and author, better known by his pen name BB, recommended four days for duck and 11 for geese, even an old gander – revolutionary thinking compared to most popular opinion at the time, which believed game should be hung for much longer. In the 1968 edition of Florence White’s Good Thing’s in England, for example, she recommends Major Hugh BC Pollard’s The Sportsman’s Cookery Book as the best allround cookery book for game. The Major, a splendid Edwardian character, author, firearms expert and one-time member of MI6, who listed his hobbies in Who’s Who as hunting and shooting, recommended hanging pheasant for three weeks or “until their tail feathers give”, whilst partridge or grouse should be hung as long as possible. Annette Hope, in her Caledonian Feast (1989), mentions a butcher of her acquaintance in the 1960s whose customers judged a grouse ready to eat when maggots could be heard moving inside it. Eating game high had been in fashion for centuries. Colonel Peter Hawker, the father of wildfowling, whose prowess as a shot whilst serving with the 14th Light Dragoons during the Peninsular Wars earned him the soubriquet of ‘Wellington’s Honorary Wildfowling Officer’ by the members of the Duke’s staff, invented a sauce that can only have been intended to disguise the flavour of very high game. This consisted of port, lemon juice, lemon rind, chopped shallots, pounded mace, coarse red pepper, strong vinegar, tarragon, thyme, brandy, grated horseradish and a healthy dollop of mushroom catsup. Hawker’s mushroom catsup, or ketchup, bore no resemblance to anything on sale today and was more a loose paste made from salted mushrooms boiled with mace, pepper and vinegar.
John Wilson, who as Christopher North was a principal contributor to Blackwood’s magazine from 1820 to 1835, recommended a game sauce made with port wine, salt, castor sugar, lemon juice, mushroom catsup,
coarse cayenne pepper – the quantity to be doubled if the game was particularly high – and a generous helping of Harvey’s Sauce. Harvey’s Sauce, which became a household name, was originally the invention of the mother of Captain Charles Combers and was known simply in the family as Rotten Fish Sauce, made from fermented anchovies, vinegar, garlic, Indian soy sauce, cayenne pepper, mushroom ketchup, with an added dash of cochineal to colour it red and make it look less unattractive. Combers was a Meltonian, known for his breathtaking performance across country as the ‘Flying Cucumber’, in the days when Hugo Meynell was Master of the Quorn (17531800). Combers, who never travelled without a bottle of his mother’s sauce, was in the habit of stopping for the night on his way to Leicestershire at the George Inn at Bedfont, run by a man called Peter Harvey, who had previously been chef to the Duke of Bolton. Harvey was so impressed by Combers’ sauce that he acquired the recipe, refined it, made it commercially and went on to make a fortune from it.
Obviously, there were endless occasions when game sent by cart, carrier and even rail, once the railway system pushed through to Inverness in 185O, would be humming by the time it reached its destination and the happy recipients would take the view that game was meant to be eaten high. And yet there were and always had been plenty of opportunities to eat game fresh – birds shot or trapped in the coverts of big estates, long before the days of driven shooting. Duck decoys were common on inland waterways, to say nothing of the waterfowl shot by the market gunners to supply local coastal towns. Hawker alone, once he was invalided out of the Army after the Battle of Talavera in 1809, spent virtually every waking moment in the pursuit of edible bird life, all of which could have been eaten fresh or, at least, not in a state of near decomposition. Even allowing for the jaded palates of the Georgians and their heavy consumption of sweet, fortified wines – port, madeira, malmsey, marsala, or malaga; the dark sweet sherry, Jerez Dulce; and the cherry liqueur maraschino (the Prince Regent once sent a naval vessel from Malta to Zadar on the Dalmation coast to collect 100 cases) – there seems little reason to eat all game high, drenched in tongue-shrivelling sauces.
Nor did the Victorians and Edwardians change their attitude to hanging game and eating it high, the main culinary difference was in replacing the strong, spicy, pepper sauces of the previous generation with fruit. Oranges, plums, prunes, raisins, apples, redcurrant jelly, cherries, quinces, bananas – even in the 1920s, Boodles was still serving grouse and partridge stuffed with mashed bananas – and in Scotland, juniper berries. A popular sauce for game north of the Border was made with shallots, garlic, sugar, thyme, claret and crushed juniper berries, simmered in game stock, whilst the berries were often used as stuffing and in game pies. Cumberland sauce, both hot and cold, actually an adaption of a recipe of Hannah Glasse’s dating back to 1747, was popular and made with port, the juice and zests of a lemon and an orange, dry mustard, redcurrant jelly and red pepper, to which Auguste Escoffier, the great French chef, added ginger. One of the best and simplest was invented by Charles Elmé Francatelli, the first celebrity chef, who worked at various times for Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales at Marlborough House, Crockfords and the Reform Club. His sauce was made from two tablespoons of port added to half a pound of redcurrant jelly, a bruised stick of cinnamon and the thinly paired rind of a lemon.
It will have been common knowledge from the dawn of time that the muscles of an animal stressed at the point of slaughter,
Game was eaten high, drenched in tongue-shrivelling sauces
particularly a bird driven to rapid flight, will be tense and therefore require a period of hanging to allow the meat to relax, tenderise and for flavour to develop. However, it does seem extraordinary that it has taken so long for people to realise that game need not be eaten ripe and that there appear to be no records of anyone bucking the trend. Victorian game larders were specifically designed to be cool, dry places and once the Game Laws were relaxed in 1832 and game shooting rapidly increased with the developments of the breech loader and establishment of sporting estates, game became much more available. At one time, beams of game hung in Leadenhall Market and outside every provincial butcher’s shop during the season, and one would have thought, surely, an invalid or someone requiring a less rich diet would have discovered that game did not need to be eaten in a state of virtual decay. Nevertheless, the belief persisted century after century that the longer game was hung, the more tender the meat became and the flavour improved. As we say in the Borders, it was a classic case of “it’s aye been”, which no one, until recently, thought to change.
We have modern chefs and people such as Peter Barham, the author of The Science of Cooking, to improve our knowledge, and thank heavens for them. Plucking game a few days old is immeasurably easier and a great deal more pleasant than anything that has been hung for longer and I remember the joy of shooting my first cock pheasant, almost as vividly as being given it to pluck three weeks later when it stank to high heaven and the skin tore with virtually every feather. Gutting it, when the job was finally finished, is something I prefer to forget.
The Countryside Alliance’s Game to Eat campaign recommends hanging birds for five to seven days
Clockwise from above: birds should be hung in a dry room at about 4°C; the game larder at Dunham Massey, Cheshire; plucking game that’s just a few days old is much easier; still life by Jan Weenix