As an ingredient, game has been in and out of fashion more times than you can shake a pair of flares at. Once considered a cheap and easily accessible protein, while at others it was the mark of the blue-blooded British aristocracy, recent years have seen game meats come back from relative obscurity to widespread popularity. The strong taste and association with hunting are factors which often put people off cooking with game, especially when so many commercially produced meats (chicken, pork, beef etc.) are more readily available, and altogether more familiar. However, the fact that many chefs and restaurants have championed the use of game meat for many years has led to a growing acceptance, and even excitement, at the possibilities it has to offer.
The food industry has seen a real shift of focus over the past decade on to the provenance of produce, with a greater awareness of health implications and incidents – such as ‘horsegate’ – putting pressure on retailers, producers and manufacturers to be more transparent about what goes into our food and where it comes from. In turn, local butchers, farmers markets and suppliers are having something of a renaissance, as more shoppers shun supermarket shelves in favour of local, organically produced meat. With a greater range on offer than that found in supermarkets, game meats such as venison, pheasant and rabbit have therefore enjoyed a resurgence through these circumstances. There's plenty to recommend it, too – being a naturally lean form of protein makes game a good choice for the health conscious, and the fact that it is not intensively farmed gives it appeal to ethically minded shoppers.
Through this renewed interest in game comes a joyful rediscovery of traditional dishes such as terrines, stews and pies, which have once again become popular choices for both chefs and home cooks alike. Pies have always been one of the most popular ways of cooking with game in Britain due to several factors. The lean nature of most game meat means that it requires long, slow cooking to reach its truly tender potential – perfect for pie making – and the meat’s rich flavour pairs particularly well with intense gravies and golden, buttery pastry. Seasonality also plays an important part in the popularity of game pies – British game season runs mainly through autumn and winter, meaning it is most widely available (and at its best) during these colder months when a hearty pie is the perfect antidote to a chilly evening.
A match made in heaven then? Or more precisely, in Rome. Already pioneers of the pie, early forms of the game pie made with pheasant, pigeon and a variety of other meats were supposedly eaten by the Romans – although, such is the great tragedy of historical pie eating, in most cases the pastry was only used to hold the meats for cooking and discarded when eaten.