We are fond of game whether furred or feathered in our household. We live in an area rich in game and once the season starts Camolin Woods or the hill ridge above our house where I take my daily walk become hard hat areas. Mind you to be really safe from a stray shot I should don a bulletproof vest!
A fair variety of game birds are available from game dealers some common and some rare. Some are truly wild and some bred in captivity to be released into the wild when the season starts so that the local game clubs can practice their sport.
Wild deer are regularly culled. They can be of uncertain age and may need tenderising and slow cooking. Farmed venison is widely available and is pretty well always killed young and will be tender and will taste as good as the feed it was fed.
Being able to judge the age of a game bird is vital as only youngsters roast well; older ones are best braised. Try lifting a bird by the lower beak – it will snap if the bird is young. The breast should be plump and the breast bone soft and flexible.
Shooting seasons are strictly regulated. The season for wild duck runs from September to January. The very rare red grouse is only available in September. The most common game bird is pheasant and the season is November to January and this is the season when the commonest ducks, mallard, teal and wigeon are most plentiful as well as less common birds like red legged partridge, woodcock and snipe. The most commonly available game bird is pheasant. The official season for pigeon is from June to January – although, as they are considered pests, they tend to be taken out whenever they threaten crops!
It was the Normans who first systematically bred pigeons for the table, building, often elaborate, dovecotes to house hundreds of birds. But many of the smaller farmsteads in The Pale had smaller ones to hold a dozen or so birds. Elaborate recipes exist for stews and pies but my own experience, living in north County Dublin next to a keen gunman (of the sporting variety), is that in these rather more affluent times only the breast is sliced off the bird and plucked. Today they are most often used as an ingredient in a good terrine or game pie and it is quite common to see two pigeon breasts packed together for sale in the better game shops.
It is sad that the native red grouse is such a rarity in Ireland today and that it is virtually impossible to get even introduced birds, apart from the occasional brace, in September. These are usually young birds and you will realistically need one per person. Later, towards Christmas, when they mature you will just get away with a bird between two people.
Rabbits have passed into and out of favour since they were introduced by the Normans. Today they are farmed commercially and young, tender rabbit makes a perfect small roast. The rabbit is still a wild animal however and those you might be presented with by sportsmen can be older and tougher. Then it is perfect for the classic Irish treatment—simmered until tender then finished, browned and crisped, in the oven. Rabbit, stewed with cider or ale and bacon combines a number of Irish flavours to give a tasty winter dish.
It should be remembered that bears and lions lived in the prehistoric forests of Britain, though they were probably extinct by the time of the Normans. Of the surviving forest animals William the Conqueror designated red deer, roe deer, the imported fallow deer and wild boar as “beasts of the forest” and reserved their meat for himself. The meat of all four was called venison. Wolves, badgers, foxes, martens, wild cats, otters, hares, rabbits and squirrels were also hunted, but because they were not “beasts of the forest” were not protected. In the unenclosed land outside areas designated as “royal forest”, unless the land had been specifically granted as a “warren” to an individual, anyone could hunt these animals. Interestingly, by our terms, the swan was also designated a bird of the forest and therefore the king’s exclusive venison.
Eating deer meat was not previously as widespread in Ireland as it became during the Norman period. Bone remnants at prehistoric sites show it to be far less significant than the pig, particularly, and other meats and fish. It remained so for all but the “incomers.” Today, farmed “venison” (exclusive insofar as it now means deer meat alone) is beginning to make an impact on the market because it is a lean, and in some minds therefore “healthier,” meat and significantly less expensive than beef or lamb. We eat quite a lot of wild venison at home because we have a sporting friend. It can be uncertain of age and can need tenderising and slow cooking. Fanned venison is always killed young and is always tender. Deer meat is so lean that it must always be “larded” to prevent it drying out during roasting or grilling. It is quite usual to marinate even farmed venison for a day or two.
For recipes, see Best of Irish Meat Recipes by Biddy White Lennon published by O’Brien Press and Irish Cooking published by C E Bonechi, the latter available in English, French and German