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…

The Field - - Opening Shots - writ­ten BY sir johnny scott

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

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