Game and The Gamekeeper, Old Buckenham.

If you're put off by the idea of eating game, think again. Jo Malone looks at how traditional fare such as rabbit, pigeon and goose is making a comeback on our plates.

Game for something different


If you’re put off by the idea of eating game, think again. Jo Malone looks at how traditional fare such as rabbit, pigeon and goose is making a comeback on our plates.


A light pigeon risotto, rich game pie with a crunchy shortcrust pastry, pan fried noisette of venison, a well-basted, slow-roasted hen pheasant, a juicy venison stew, potatoes roasted in goose fat.

It’s mouth-watering just thinking about what’s on offer in the autumn, the season when chefs and food lovers get really rather excited. By now we’re bored of salads and leaves from the kitchen garden are starting to look rather tough anyway. We’re definitely tired of battling with barbecues and are happy to put those away for another season.

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Yes, we’re looking forward to properly baked potatoes, brightly coloured squashes, spicy pumpkin soup, crispy cabbages, sweet parsnips and the first sprouts. It’s game season too, chefs remind us, already dreaming of different and exciting ways to serve the meaty fruits of the autumn, and our butchers are just as enthusiastic.

It’s hard to find a butcher as committed to seasonal meats as much as James Rutland, of Rutland Butchers in Melton Constable, who is extremely happy to guide anyone nervous about cooking game through the various options.“Game is just so special. It used to be very popular and now it is definitely making a resurgence as people are prepared to experiment and try different things. “Norfolk is brilliant for game. We have a wonderful coastline and a lot of good shoots, so game is plentiful.Chefs get really excited about this season because they can be so creative with game,” he says.

The game season starts with grouse in August but, it being a moorland bird, there aren’t any we’re aware of in Norfolk. We really start with partridges, mallard, teal and wild geese, available from September 1.“Wild goose and duck is really popular here, the marshes are the perfect habitat,” James says.“It is an interesting meat because it is a natural food. They have foraged for their food, for berries and maize and corn and grass and this varied diet, and the fact they have worked for their food, gives the meat the richness and its own unique texture,” he explains.Game season continues with pheasants opening on October 1, and the season for most categories, including woodcock, runs until the end of January.

Venison is also game, and it’s at its best from October to March, says James. Stags can be killed almost all year round, but in the spring mating season the meat tastes musky and hinds are looking after the family from March to October, so won’t be butchered.“Have venison now until March, it’s perfect,” says James, adding that it’s a meat high in iron and low in cholesterol too. Deer types do taste different, with the sika a tender, subtle flavour compared to the red deer, and the roe deer someway in between.

Pigeon, rabbit and hare are loosely classed as game too because they are wild and, while available year round, they are lovely in the autumn.“They have had a good summer eating the best grass and corn, a summer of easy living and they are tasting their best,” says James.He accepts that many people are reluctant to try game because they believe it will be too strong tasting. But the days of hanging game until the meat almost disintegrated are over and, unless customers specify otherwise, butchers hang it for a very short time.“Hanging does improve the flavour and tenderness of all game, it breaks down the connective fibres, but you don’t hang for too long or it becomes really rich and overpowering,” he says. “You want the flavour just right.”As for cooking game, good butchers have plenty of ideas!

The subtle flavours of pigeon and partridge are great for pan-frying or risotto, and a roast pheasant (baste well) or pheasant casserole is delicious. Ideally look for a hen pheasant, which has a layer of fat, meaning the meat is juicier than cock pheasant.

James says people who enjoy free-range, organic chickens will appreciate the tastiness – and lower price – of partridge and pheasant in particular, while he sees goose as a special treat.“They are so beautiful, the flavour is fantastic and you will never get better potatoes than roasting in goose fat,” he adds.

There’s just as much passion for game at The Gamekeeper, in Old Buckenham, where head chef Matt Derges enjoys devising an interesting menu including various game dishes in season.“I like the flavour, it is so different from all other meat,” says Matt. “They are finding their own food and running from predators, so it is leaner. If chickens were roaming about the forest they would taste more like game.”

He has rabbit and pigeon dishes on the menu year-round. Used in pasta dishes or salads, they are a good introduction to different meats, he says, and many people who enjoy beef are happy to try venison too.“The hanging is the key. There is an art to it, you can get your meat tasting how you want it,” says Matt. “It is wild meat, the taste is so good.”Having started his career at the Last Wine Bar, in Norwich, and then worked in various kitchens around the world including the renowned Dabbling Duck in Great Massingham, Matt is relishing the challenge of the family business at The Gamekeeper.

The 33-year-old, who became a dad this year to baby Daisy with partner Lisa Taylor, keeps a mixture of familiar sounding but exciting food on The Gamekeeper’s menu, so while there may be steak, sea bass, potted Cromer crab and salmon, they’ll come with something lightly adventurous such as fennel remoulade, wild mushroom and smoked paprika cream sauce, parmesan creamed cabbage or truffle mayonnaise. The game dishes depend on what’s available, so look out for treats such as roast duck with pork belly, venison burger with Binham Blue cheese, partridge with black pudding, pheasant breast in red wine sauce or pigeon, pancetta and rocket salad.“It’s just getting people to try game, then most do discover that they do like it,” adds Matt. So go on, embrace the season and have a go at game.


Rutland Butchers, Briston Road, Melton Constable. Telephone 01263 860562 or see The Gamekeeper, The Green, Old Buckenham, Attleborough. Telephone 01953 860397 or see