Sunday, September 13, 2009

Game Birds & Bird Dogs

I appreciate that many people these days have difficulty in accepting the practice of shooting and killing game birds for the table. They cannot understand the need for this.

Well I am not going to argue about this with those people. If they, for whatever reason, genetic, cultural or environmental, have never felt the pull of harvesting wild food then no amount of explaining will help.

Nor am I about to attempt a justification based on the economic considerations of supplementing household larders.

I do not enjoy field shooting because of a love of firearms. I do not enjoy killing feathered game for the target practice. I enjoy even less the long tedious job of plucking and dressing game birds. But the joy of taking the birds to the kitchen, of transforming them into something uniquely flavoursome and satisfying is part of the inexplicable attachment I have to the gathering of all produce.

It is to me the same of course as catching abalone and crayfish, but, less obviously, it is
the same to me as watching my late Mum pulling a plant of new season's potatoes or my picking of asparagus or artichokes or peas or strawberries and raspberries. It is the same to me as watching the tomatoes growing in my garden and picking them when their aroma is intoxicating.

Now Digby Anderson, the former food writer for the Spectator would have said "well a chap likes field shot game and if you invite someone to dinner who doesn't then ask them to leave and never invite them back". I don't think I would ever go that far but equally I doubt that anyone who shares my table would have any real concern. People who appreciate food beyond nourishment accept that food involves the death of that which we eat, plant or animal, and that respect for produce is all that is required in homage.

I have shot and cooked and eaten a great variety of game birds. They include Snipe, Quail, Pheasant, Duck, Guinea Fowl, Partridge, Pheasant, Wild Turkey, Cape Barren Geese, Native Hen and Swan. Some of these species are protected now, and for good reason, but they have not always been.

Some of these birds are very difficult to hunt and I have over the years trained gun dogs to assist in the task. The thrill of watching my L'Epagneul Breton, Katie, (pictured left, blind in retirement), hurtle down island cliffs to recover a fallen quail, or sit at dusk submerged in a water hole, save for her head, to pick up duck, or swim out to sea for a kilometre or more to bring back a pheasant being swept offshore by the tide, is something only a gundog lover and hunter can understand. My dear old Dad used to look on in awe at Katie's retrieving skills.

The ways of cooking game birds are many and varied. I have cooked wild turkeys, Cape Barren geese ( pictured above stuffed with quail) and guinea fowl with great success in a Weber kettle barbecue. In fact a Weber used in accordance with instructions is virtually foolproof. The geese can also be turned into the best rillettes or crumbed as great breast schnitzels dusted first with salt and garlic.

Quail I have rotisseried in the Smeg and served with rosti or baked as pithiviers with buttery pastry. Pheasant make magnificient game pies and soup as well as the traditional barded roast. Snipe and Guinea fowl (pictured below), are best roasted simply, heads on, and served with polenta and washed down with Soave.

The very best of all game birds are however, in my view, Red Leg Partridge and the very best way of cooking partridge is to encase them in a salt hough and bake them. When the dough breaks the browned but perfectly moist partridge are so bursting with flavour and so succulent it is quite possible one has died and gone to heaven. I have never known a dish like it. My brother Tony has cooked hangis with me over the years and he has wrapped Peking ducks in leaves and haunches of kangaroo in bread dough, but not even the superb results given by this slow underground cooking comes close to partridge in overcoats.

As a footnote to this post Mary and I were in Sydney last night and dined late after I had been working. We had a wonderful meal at Bilson's where serendipity saw Red Leg Partridge on the menu. It was roasted leg and breasts separately and served with a PX sauce and smoked cubes of brioche dipped in egg and cooked with a slice of foie gras atop. Washed down with an '05 Bouchard Mersault 1st Cru it was delicious.


  1. "Some of these birds are very difficult to hunt and I have over the years trained gun dogs to assist in the task."

    I bet the quail put up a good fight though.

  2. I think you just proved my point reb!
    I knew there would be one out there.
    And that's why unlike others I don't reserve the right to approve comments posted on this site.

  3. Nice post Stephen. I toatlly agree with the logic of harvesting wild food but so often it's detractors focus on the gun use & its implications.
    I wasnt aware that woodcock or snipe were avilable here, did you shoot these in Europe? I like pheasant myself but will say that guinea fowl & partidge come a close second.
    The latter two, having a much smaller breast to their pheasant cousins do take particular cooking. However in my experience all wild birds benefit from slow & measured cooking, cloaked in a dough or salt or even wet-roasted.
    I cooked some wild ducks at Craigee Knowe for John Austwick a while back & marvelled at their 'liverish' flavour.
    Years ago as a fresh faced cook in London I was dispatched to the larder to grab a brace of butchered guinea fowl. The larder was crammed with trays of all the European game birds that you mentioned, so I just grabbed the nearest ones not knowing the difference between them.
    Did the chef ever give me a bollocking that I never forgot.

  4. Thanks Steve
    No, woodcock are not hunted here but we used to shoot Japanese Snipe on the NW Coast of Tasmania until thy were protected under and agreement with the Japanese Government. All the birds I mentioned I have shot and cooked.


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