Freemasons at Wiswell celebrate British game meat

First of the Seasons Grouse
Roasted with Lavender and Honey, Fennel and Peach, Yakitori Livers on T

First of the Seasons Grouse Roasted with Lavender and Honey, Fennel and Peach, Yakitori Livers on Toast - Credit: Archant

Game season is in full swing. For Steven Smith and his team at the Freemasons at Wiswell, there is no better time to celebrate good food. Emma Mayoh reports

Adding the samphire to the dish

Adding the samphire to the dish - Credit: Archant

‘What people don’t realise is that British game is absolutely renowned all over the world by chefs,’ said Steven Smith, chef-patron at the highly decorated Freemasons at Wiswell. ‘It’s something that for us as a nation is very accessible. There is lots of it and it is very healthy. People do take it onboard a lot more but it’s also seen as a luxury. That needs to change.’

Game season is something Steven is passionate about. The 32-year-old, originally from Blackburn, has spent the past two years learning how to shoot, being taught by friends, as well as learning more about the bounty of produce this time of year can provide. Each year since the Freemasons opened in 2009, he has marked the season through the dishes he serves to diners in the pub as well as hosting a special Game Week.

This year will be no different. From November 24th to 29th there will be several special events and showcase evenings where top guest chefs come along and take over his kitchen to produce one-off menus. The food comes from some of Lancashire’s top suppliers including games birds from Wellocks in Nelson and wild salmon from Wellgate Fisheries in Clitheroe. It is one of the highlights of the year for him.

‘I think as a nation, game is something that should be celebrated’ he said. ‘This type of food sits perfectly on the Freemasons table and it’s something I love to do.

‘The week has come out of respect for the product and the people who know how to cook it. If you’ve been out on a shoot you have an appreciation for the product and that is what I have done and encourage my chefs to do too. Our head chef, Hywel Griffiths, has an amazing appreciation for game. We have been out shooting together and I think going through that process really makes a difference.

‘It’s something people don’t tend to cook at home either so I think it’s a fantastic idea for people to come and enjoy some with us.’

Game is wild, natural and free range with a distinctive flavour. And being low in cholesterol and high in protein it also scores as one of the healthiest meats. While it is popular Steven, who runs the pub with his partner Aga, is hoping that by putting game in the spotlight it will encourage more people to try it at home.

‘You have got to enjoy cooking it,’ he said. ‘My favourite is hare, it really is superb. Game does have its fans and at this time of year you’ll find 90 per cent of the gentlemen in here are in tweed jackets, perhaps just having come from a shoot.

‘But the big challenge is to get as many people as possible to eat it and make it more mainstream, as much as lamb and beef. Part of the issue is game seems to have a bit of a reputation. Partridge and hare are thought of as dry meats. But it’s not if it’s treated correctly.

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‘Game birds are much smaller and they have a lot more exercise so, therefore, far less meat on them. They have to be cooked a lot lighter. I think it’s about changing people’s perceptions. People also assume it’s really expensive but it doesn’t have to be.’

Game season is just one of the things Steven is dedicated to at Freemasons. Like other successful chefs, he could have headed to London to work in one of the city’s top establishments.

He’d held posts in many successful restaurants and hotels including Gilpin Lodge in the Lake District and at Cassis at Stanley House. But rather than head south, he remained true to his roots. Determined to put his home county on the map for top quality food, he opened his own business in the picture postcard village of Wiswell. He was also keen to open a pub that turned out incredible food but retained a welcoming and community atmosphere.

He said: ‘I really feel that we are an unpretentious pub and I want it to stay that way. I love the fact that people can just come in here for a drink. It also allows us to create a real idea of theatre because we don’t do average pub food.

‘We love to give that real wow factor when the food is presented to our diners. People don’t expect dishes like that to come out of the kitchen in a pub.

‘I’m so pleased to have set up here in Wiswell. I wanted my own place so I could do things exactly how I wanted. I wanted to make my own decisions and make sure I do things right.

‘This place is a reflection of me so when people come here I want them to like it.

‘People travel for miles to come and see us and that is an incredible compliment. I’m very proud of what we do.’

Taking the top spot

The Freemasons at Wiswell has continued to live up to its impressive reputation, being crowned number one in the Waitrose Good Food Guide’s Top 50 Pubs for the second year in a row. It was also 42nd in the Guide’s Top 50 Restaurants and is the first and only pub in Great Britain awarded a coveted 7/10 in the history of the Good Food Guide.

It is the latest in a long line of accolades achieved by patron Steven and his team, including being named Best Tourism Pub in this year’s Visit England awards, as well as three rosettes in The AA Awards and top 50 in The Budweiser Budwar Gastropub Awards to name but a few.

Steven said: ‘Words can’t explain how honoured we are to be voted the best pub for the second year in a row. We’re a small pub in the Ribble Valley that just wants to offer its customers a gastronomic experience second to none - we believe that this achievement proves that we do this, and are continuing to do so.

‘Our ambition is to be the best, and to stay the best, and so far, that’s what we’re doing.’

On your plate

Game is wild, natural and free-range. Your butcher should be able to tell you the provenance so don’t be afraid to ask which estate it has come from. It could be local to your area.

Game applies to wild animals and birds that are hunted and eaten but also includes those once caught in the wild but now raised domestically. This includes deer, rabbit and quails.

Wild game tends to be more flavoursome than farmed meat, and may be a little tougher, depending on the age of the animal. To counteract the toughness, it’s ‘hung’ after shooting to help tenderise the meat and encourage flavours to develop. The longer meat is hung, the more pronounced the flavour will become.

These days game is generally hung for less time to give a more delicate flavour. It is also incredibly versatile and makes a tasty change from other meats. Venison is a great substitute in most recipes for beef. Pheasant is also a great alternative to chicken in most dishes, as is rabbit.

Game is easy to cook in different ways. With a variety of cuts comes a variety of recipes. Visit for more ideas.

Game is good for you. Venison is high in protein, low in saturated fatty acids and contains higher levels of iron than any other red meat. Pheasant and partridge contains a high level, protein, vitamin B(6) and selenium, which helps to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals.