Know Your Cuts

Val Warner on What is Game: Nature & Shooting

Spending most of my early life growing up in the countryside, on a dairy farm in 70’s Dorset and then the Berkshire downs, meant it was not unusual that I would perhaps come to enjoy hunting and fishing. The latter became an all-consuming passion when not at the stove. My father was forever picking rosehips for cough syrup or racing lawyer’s wigs homewards before they turned to ink in his pockets rather than on toast. He animated nature with stories and taught me to fall in love with the outdoors, its creatures, deities, hidden secrets and delicious treats. My mother was an endlessly inventive and clever cook conjuring up continuous wonders whether the fridge was full or apparently empty. And so, with a very young, mad keen interest in food I soon learned to view the outdoors, cultivated or wild, in terms of either edible or inedible. In fact, I’d go as far as to say I continue to view the whole world and even people under this distinction.

While my father, born in 1918, had lost his taste for shooting, I think because of serving in the second war, he nonetheless did not disapprove of me doing it. Giving me his old gun and split cane rods, they did however come with an absolute rule of law, “If you kill it, you eat it!”

That first pigeon tumbling into a hedge, the first poor rockling pulled up from the sea wall and I remember cooking them both. I also remember that sense of finality, those complicated feelings of guilt and grief. Holding that lifeless quarry, living only minutes before, owned a sadness I came to realise actually drove my desire to use it properly, make it delicious, do something good with it!

Game, fish, and foraging have become integral to my own way of cooking, my interpretation on the plate of the landscape around me. A cooking perhaps more akin to the food of years ago and long before we became a supermarket nation.

In short, I’ve learnt to understand a lot of the world by biting it, sometimes unwisely and so here I stand as a 49-year-old who feels that ‘surely it is better to know when you are standing next to a cobnut tree or horseradish than not’? My field guides are as important as my cookbooks, the rod and gun kitchen utensils I simply regard as extensions of the whisk and spoon. To go into nature is to be in my default setting, while to maybe return indoors with an armful of dinner thrills me.

So to game and Swaledale Butchers have encouraged me to have my say. I am happily working alongside them as I believe they have a similar respect for the ingredients they handle. I genuinely believe they are ‘passionate’, a word used too often and not applicable to all who use it.

Why Eat Game Meat?

Game meat is a treat. Pigeon on toast with the very black currants it’s been stealing, a roasted mallard with split peas and bacon for dinner, the comfort of warm rabbit pie or venison tacos with a deep ancho sauce, yes, these are treats to be eaten slowly, not rushed in grazing haste. Wild meats of exquisite and rarified taste.

To change tac now and a little on the complicated subject of joy in hunting.

While some obsessively collect Instagram followers, perhaps sneakers or sports cars even, I believe for this very reason we are all still hunter-gatherers in one way or another. An ancient coding buried deep in our marrow but with the focus perhaps now directed elsewhere. This coding has been integral to our survival for thousands of years and cannot simply be dismissed as a result of vastly increased convenience.

An analogue, visceral and feral soul, such as myself, and I guess this old knowledge just courses closer to the surface of my skin.

When I hunt I would not say those feelings of happy success signify a love of killing. No! They signify an ancient understanding, a joy in that one’s survival has been extended with meat to be shared among the wider family or group. When watching dog and man hunt side by side and their actions become similar, their breathing, their stops, crouches and advances. Ask anyone to sneak up on something and the changes in movement are automatic. Released from this concentrated pursuit and again it’s the release of endorphins post capture that bring this ‘joy’ that is often so hard to explain. ‘Ancient automatic’, that in my case puts food on the table. Special food I know far more about than most of my supermarket choices.

Even if survival has little to do with it these days, (I don’t need to hunt to live) I prefer to have a hand in as much of the meat on my table as is possible. Whether farmer (which I am not) or hunter.

Remember that food has only become ‘easy’ very recently while none of the more remote populations across the globe I’ve ever filmed or spent time with, would ever waste a scrap of what they hunt. Like them I want to understand my landscape live beside this landscape, the habits of animals, the rhythms of nature, know how to prepare and feed myself too.

Should You Hunt Game?

As an omnivore, and eating wild game involves killing and so the arguments are more than complicated, especially today. For me, it is imperative that a life taken is a life respected and so the reason I stopped shooting driven game.

Types of Game You Should Not Hunt

Most crucial in these modern times is to try and understand when not to eat something and this really comes down to awareness and personal choice. For example, while some parts of England still see healthy populations of brown hares in other parts they have all but disappeared. In such a case then it is up to the individual to make a call. I do not shoot them now as I have had some odd experiences and believe they know secrets we’d be better off knowing but shouldn’t be told. I do still eat them occasionally, but only if a plate is set before me or I’m given a hare.

In cases such as the blackcock, a species once found from the south to the north of the country, they have all but vanished and now, I feel, should be protected.

Snipe, woodcock and golden plover I also no longer lift a gun to as while I have loved to eat them cannot ignore that I’ve seen far less of them over recent years. Many of these animal’s natural habitat and numbers have declined and so again while I make my own choices it is for others to do the same, in the hope however that the list of legal game will soon see these birds taken off it. I would add though that because these birds are less fashionable to eat now, and rarely if ever seen even in a butchers, this can only be a good thing.

Of pheasants and partridges and as already stated, I’ve stopped shooting driven game as I believe that to hunt and my quarry should have every possible chance of avoiding me. This seems only fair and why I now only really rough shoot. As long as driven shooting continues one could only expect the birds should be eaten. Outside of the issues partridge and pheasant are delicious and plentiful and I only hope that more people will come to appreciate them. That any game simply be shot and disposed of is immoral and will only besmudge the reputation of such a pursuit (already under close scrutiny) that if tightly controlled, respected and taken seriously could continue to provide fine food.

Wild deer and there are a lot of them. I don’t eat them to help reduce road incidents or because I feel sorry for farmers, I eat them because they are presently plentiful and a good source of healthy meat.

The idea of once wild Britain is a notion long gone. Nature today, it’s protection, release and management seems to be approached like the dials and levels on a large music mixing desk, operated by squabbling producers who don’t really know how to use it and never will. As a result while enjoying game we just need to be aware and make our choices carefully. I eat a lot of game and hope the provenance may lead you to a joyful plate, the most delicious among tastes and a just as joyful understanding of the beautiful places and animals this meat, this treasure comes from.

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