Game on

Game can be tremendously festive, but many of us still fear it all going a bit wrong. Rosie McGlade learns how to take the plunge with Northumberland game expert Emma Whittingham

From the age of five, Emma Whittingham would help her mother prepare the wild fish and birds her father had killed for supper, like someone out of a story book. There were no recipe books in the house; Emma learnt by watching and copying, and before long was a highly proficient cook herself.

They didn’t live in the deep, dark forest; this was Alnwick, and her father was a dentist and her mother the dentist’s nurse. For them, food was a hobby, and their passion for game and wild ingredients has shaped Emma’s life entirely, with a recipe book, Game On, under her belt and now a weekend restaurant specialising in wild foods.

“We were very well fed!” she recalls. “My father would come in with a brace of pheasant or a salmon or something, and I would be standing on a stool watching my mother make game chips.”

To illuminate, game chips are a sort of cross between a chip and a crisp; a fine round slice of potato deep fried until it goes really crispy, but is still soft in the middle. “Gorgeous,” Emma assures us. “They’re a very traditional game accompaniment.”

You almost tire of hearing how restaurants these days like to locally source their ingredients, but in the case of Eat No Evil, Emma’s new evening eatery that sits over the 3 Wise Monkeys pub in Alnwick, as much as possible comes from within a powerful gunshot away. The game is from Northumberland Estates, and the seafood – oysters, smoked prawns and such delights – from the nearby coast.

Game On was inspired by her years spent selling game at Christmas at farmers markets in the region, which also revealed much about people’s natural suspicions of game.

“When I was young, it was the thing to hang your game until it was almost rotten, although our family never went that far. It made the meat incredibly strong, and a lot of people today still associate game with that overpowering flavour. It just doesn’t have to be like that,” Emma explains.

“People also assume it’s going to be expensive, but venison is possibly cheaper than beef,” she adds. “It’s mostly grouse that gives it a bad name. Grouse shooting is so expensive; I saw a brace on sale the other day for £24, which is a hell of a lot.”

Partridge, pheasant, rabbit and so forth, on the other hand, are very affordable. “But there are still people who think it’s cruel to shoot wild game birds, or can’t bear the thought of eating Bambi or a bunny rabbit.”

For Emma, this is nonsense. “Surely it’s far kinder to eat something that’s had a lovely life in the wild.”

Her two sons like nothing better on Christmas Day than to tuck into roast pheasant at dinner time. But isn’t pheasant dry? “Not necessarily, and they have a lot of meat on them. I put them in the oven upside down to begin with, with an orange inside. Leave them till half cooked, then turn them over, and cover in bacon. Other than that the process is much the same as chicken or turkey; you just have to baste them more often.

“Pheasant is probably my favorite meat of all, because you can do so much with it,” she adds. “A roast brace will provide a wonderful meal for four, and what’s left on the leg makes a fabulous risotto the next day, and if you boil the carcasses you get a far superior stock to chicken or anything else I’ve tried. It makes great soup.

“Pheasant also makes a wonderful casserole, and tastes better the next day or even 48 hours later, so it’s perfect to prepare in advance if you have friends coming.”

We’re not sure if duck or geese qualify as game. Perhaps not if they’re farmed, which of course most are that are fattened for Christmas.

“The problem with goose is it’s a bit hit and miss,” Emma says. “They’re not the easiest to cook. Some friends gave me one last year and I’d seen it wandering around and everything, but it was as tough as old boots I’m afraid, and you don’t get an awful lot on them.”

Her other Christmas favourite is a fillet of venison. “We had one two years ago which fed six people and cost £30. I did it with cranberries and it was delicious. You roast it the same as beef; we like it fairly rare so it doesn’t take long.”

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