Catch game birds before they fly

Head chef, Paternoster Chop House

Blame IT on TV schedules stuffed with period dramas like Agatha Christie and Downton Abbey, but every winter, I always end up feeling nostalgic about everything that is quintessentially British. Watching the upper crust engaged in their traditional pastime of shooting game birds reminds me that there’s only a few weeks left of the season in which to enjoy cooking pheasant, woodcock, partridge and wild (mallard) duck, or to sample less common birds like snipe, teal or widgeon.

Perhaps because of the elitist connotations of game shooting, many people shy away from game birds thinking they require very specialised cooking and are difficult to eat – in fact this is not necessarily true. Simply roasting whole at lower temperatures until pink makes a difference because pheasant is prone to drying out. And it’s important to know what to look for when selecting game birds to ensure they have been properly shot, handled and hung to maintain their quality - the meat shouldn’t be bruised or peppered with too much shot.

But if you’ve ever been on a shoot, you’ll know that while game birds might be a challenge to catch, they are incredibly rewarding to eat. Granted, you may only get a few mouthfuls off the smaller water birds like snipe and teal, but they make a great starter served roasted whole on a crouton or accompanied simply by some caramelised pears.

Larger birds such as pheasant or partridge can make an interesting change from chicken or farmed duck and can be used in much the same way. Since they live freely in woodland feasting on seeds, the meat is leaner and more flavoursome but slightly drier and less tender, hence the need for more delicate cooking. Mallard and widgeon are for the more adventurous, packing a real punch of flavour. For me, the traditional way of serving all these birds roasted with bread sauce and game chips is hard to beat but they will also hold their own if you attack them with strong flavours, for instance, in a stew known as a “salmis”, cooked in stock and gutsy burgundy red wine or madeira with juniper berries and chestnut mushrooms, served with some hardy green veg like kale on the side.

To my mind, these cold winter days and nights really lend themselves to the rich heartiness of game birds and the produce of Britain’s great estates offers us great variety and versatility. But hurry: catch them while stocks last – the season’s up on 31 January.