It all started with a Facebook post. “Tomorrow, I’m interviewing Michel Roux Jr – do any of our readers have any questions for him?”
While one asked where the best place he’s ever eaten in is, John Queen – head gamekeeper at Linhope Estate, in Northumberland, posted: “Does he know that the game industry in the UK is in a critical condition, and does he have any ideas how to reinvent simple game dishes so they would appeal to the masses?”
I pondered this, privately messaged: “Why is the industry in a critical condition?” and a long list from John ensued.
“There are lots of issues that add up to the bigger problem. Briefly, the cost of getting product from estate to processor; from processor to shelf; supermarkets overpricing; public perception that it’s not an everyday option; you can have a huge chicken for a fiver or a little partridge for the same price; shooting is on an all-time high, so the supply is massive compared to demand, therefore game dealers are having to pay massive chiller costs – renting extra units all over – I could go on and on.”
Intrigued? So was I …
‘The Value of Shooting’ report (2014) states that shooting is worth £2 billion a year to the UK economy. It supports the equivalent of 74,000 full-time jobs; two million hectares are actively managed for conservation as a result of shooting and shoot providers spend nearly £250 million a year on conservation.
On the Linhope Estate, in Ingram Valley, Northumberland this is evident. I’m out with John and his team, which consists of gamekeepers, loaders, beaters and picker-uppers (a team with working dogs which is responsible for ensuring every bird is collected and not left in the field).
“We have respect for the birds,” says John. “It would be morally wrong to leave them in the fields. Why do you think we dress the way we do, in our tweeds and a shirt and tie. It’s out of respect for the birds, we present ourselves in the same manor as they present themselves to us.”
About 35 million game birds are
released into the countryside every year to be shot at. While some may find this controversial, John stresses that “50 per cent of that figure wander away and still live a beautiful life in the British countryside”.
He explains: “It’s a game of sporting chance that they give us. Always put back more than what you take, that’s essential. That way your conscious can be clear.”
His whole life is dedicated to good animal husbandry and the care and conservation of the countryside.
“We’ve planted 250,000 trees in the last 10 years to create more of a wild habitat for the benefit of the countryside.
“From the second game birds hatch out of the egg, we’re analysing, thinking about them. The stock lives a good, healthy, beautiful life.”
The real labour of love for John and his team is the grouse moors.
“Red grouse are indigenous to the UK, you’ll not find this beautiful species anywhere else on the planet,” says John. “It’s the last bastion, you cannot rear it.”
What John and his team do is work tirelessly to ensure the grouse are fit.
They burn heather to help regenerate new growth to give more nutritional value to the grouse’s food source.
“The hens need to look after their chicks so we control vermin, we put down medicated grit to help control worms.
“It’s hard work. If we do those three things to the best of our ability then we’re still only 50 per cent there – the rest is mother nature, she could come and take them over night: frost, rain, snow, and that’s the special thing about it.”
It’s the end of the process that John’s also fiercely passionate about: “The birds that are killed belong in the food chain. As country sports enthusiasts, we all have a duty of care to make sure our end product is used and enjoyed – for the justification of our sport.”
On the Linhope Estate, owned by Lord James Percy, work is continuously being carried out to ensure the birds that are killed are put into the food chain.
At national level, about 70 per cent of game is transported to Europe. Most of the stock from the Linhope Estate goes to Holland, but Lord James and John are striving to make game more accessible within UK markets.
The estate recently introduced a processing unit within its game larder, to diversify and help get game onto people’s plates.
“We only aspire to break even,” says Lord James. “We are not here to make a profit from this sport. “We are blessed with a harvest that is as varied as it is bountiful, he adds.
“There’s a romanticism attached to the natural places where grouse live that appeals to the sportsman’s spiritual side: the sweet scent of heather dust, sparkling burns, sweeping hillsides, huges skies and a comforting nostalgia in the knowledge that this has all happened many times before.
“There rests the fear that this unbelievably special part of a wonderful sport, with all its history, all the people, the places, the adventures will not last forever if those against it eventually prevail.
“Shooting is accessible to all walks of life. It’s part of the thread of rural life. We have a responsibility to educate people and show them the ecological contribution grouse moor management has, the jobs it creates, the economy it supports and to make people realise that game meat is the best in the world. It’s low in fat, high in protein and is delicious.”
“Quite simply, there’s more demand for shooting than there is for eating game,” says sporting agent Mark Firth.
Historically, estates would rely on game dealers to grade the meat and then take it to be processed but Mark says that this has to change.
“One of the effects of the current situation is that more shoot organisers are going to start their own cooperatives to process game.
“Demand for game has dropped in the UK, most of it is exported to Europe, but what happens with Brexit? We have to prepare for the future.”
So, why aren’t birds that cost on average 25-50p each (from estate to dealer) in demand?
Chefs say the cost of buying direct from game dealers is “horrendous”.
Max Gott is the owner of Jesmond’s Bistro Forty Six, a restaurant specialising in game and fish. He says: “As soon as the game dealer takes the bird, the price rockets. Yes, of course, game dealers have overheads to pay, but I can buy a bird direct for just 30p – so why would I pay £3 to £4 from a dealer?”
Under the Food Standards Agency laws, estates can supply small quantities of in-fur or in-feather carcasses either direct to the final consumer and/or to local retailers that directly supply the final consumer. This is restricted to the establishment’s own county – or 30 miles beyond it.
Max adds: “I’d pay about £16 a kilo for a loin or haunch of venison from a game dealer to have the meat prepped and cut. I can go direct and pay about £2.50 a kilo.”
Max, however, is skilled in butchery. He believes part of the problem is that “some chefs don’t have the experience or skills to handle a whole animal and buying in smaller cuts from a game dealer means it’s not cost-effective.
“The restaurants will put their own profit margins on the game, so ultimately, you end up with a £20 game dish which the general public aren’t prepared to pay for because they’d rather choose something they’re familiar with. Or, they’re not willing to spend that money on something they have never tried before.”
Max also says there’s an issue with what he calls “the Animals of Farthing Wood Effect”. “People think these wild animals are cute,” says Max, who caused a stir when he posted a picture on social media of three deer hanging in his kitchen and the end product of a venison dish.
“They don’t want to see them with the fur on, just as the final dish.”
Max, whose restaurant has been open two years, says that although he’s struggled at times just having game on his menu, he’s constantly thinking of new ways to get people to try game.
“The venison, mushroom and chips went down a storm. Best seller on the menu. We do pheasant tacos as a starter for £6, we do a wood pigeon breast with pomegranate and smoked belly pork and our Kentucky fried pheasant works on the menu, too.
“People may have a predisposed idea that game is for posh people. It’s not – and it’s extremely tasty, too.”
Eleanor Richmond, chef patron, at The Fox Hole, in Piercebridge, Darlington, says the game dealer mark up is “absolutely horrendous”. “That’s why we buy direct from the estate near us. We never buy from a dealer or butcher,” says Eleanor, whose menu features dishes such as venison haunch steak and game pie.
“Game flies off the menu here. I think that’s because of where we are located – our locals are clued up about it and where it comes from. We have a great local community.
“But I think more people could be educated about it, I don’t think the general public understand field to fork. Game is really lean, it’s high in protein and has little fat – they’re working animals. The flavour is huge, big earthy flavours, a nice contrast to summer. I love game season.”
THE GAME DEALER AND PROCESSOR
Adrian Lyons is managing director at Yorkshire Game, one of the largest companies in the UK processing small game, and supplying it to major UK retail, restaurants, butchers and wholesalers.
“Game is very high in protein and low in fat, but it’s not a demand-driven process,” he claims. “We’re not shouting out about it enough.”
Adrian, who took over the business – which processes one million birds a year – in March, says the cost of production is high. “There are standards we have to adhere to, the Food Standards Agency is on site. Due to shot damage the product has to be worked – that’s one of the biggest costs, the labour.”
Yorkshire Game champions “making game accessible to everyone” and since taking over the business Adrian’s developed the ‘Wild’ brand – to provide consumers with easy-to-prepare and cook products in the kitchen.
Yorkshire Game now has 14 lines of game in 30 Iceland warehouse stores and three lines in 178 Asda stores, including pheasant thigh, pheasant steak and a diced game pack.
“The consumer has two main barriers: ‘Where do we buy it?’ and ‘How do we cook it?’ “That’s what we’re trying to tackle. We also want to reduce the amount of game that is exported and keep it here in the UK.”
How many of you have actually eaten game? Lord James makes a poignant point: if every person in Britain ate one bird a year, it would solve the problem.
WHERE TO BUY GAME?
Yorkshire Game’s Wild range is available in selected Asda, Iceland and Sainsbury’s stores. Or, order on the supermarkets’ websites.
Want to buy direct from estates? Anyone can find their local estate through the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, nationalgamekeepers.org.uk
While some will sell it in the feather or the fur, others now have processing plants to help get the industry moving. You can also buy game from a local butcher (if they don’t sell it they should be able to source it).
MICHEL ROUX JR
He’s the king of cuisine and is Royalty in the culinary world. Here’s Michel Roux Jr’s response to John’s question: “I’m part of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust so I know the issues he’s facing. Venison is much easier to sell whereas pheasant and partridge are much more difficult. I’m planning on writing a book on offal but I might actually write a book on this. I think this might help. I need to speak to my publishers.”
The Eat Game Awards is a new initiative aimed at recognising and helping to develop game as a vibrant and modern addition to the British menu, as well as encouraging the British public to discover and embrace this food source.
The awards will identify and celebrate the innovators in the world of wild game.
Nominations will be open until February 28, 2018. Online voting will open on June 1, until August 30, 2018. All categories are nominated and voted for by the general public, with the exception of Game Hero and Champion of Champions that are decided by the judging panel.
For more information, or to enter, visit eatgameawards.co.uk
All images featured are © Sean Elliott Photography.