Fair game: a brief history of Scotland's small game industry, and how it operates now
Small game – wild pheasant, duck, pigeon, partridge and rabbit – was once a staple food in Scottish working-class households. Gordon Davidson hunts around to see where it has all gone.
Cheap, plentiful and nutritious, no self-respecting butcher’s shopfront was without its garland of wild birds, freshly shot and bound into braces, then hung on purpose-built chrome rails in the windows above the red meat.
Rabbits, meanwhile, were traditionally strung around butchers’ doors, and were so popular – and plentiful – that there was an export market, with great wicker hampers full of fresh Scots bunny slung onto the London train each evening, to be sold the next day at Smithfield meat market.
Game-eating was, quite simply, a centuries-old Scottish habit and its presence on the family dinner table was as common and unremarkable as that of chicken today.
It was, of course, chicken that displaced game, in the years after the Second World War, when battery farming, created to supply the hungry nation with plentiful eggs, began churning out its side-product of young hens, burnt out as egg-layers but fat on intensive feeding and minimal exercise.
An avalanche of white meat tumbled out of these new factory farms, plucked and oven-ready, perfectly placed to ride the post-war consumer trends of convenience and modernity, and Scottish shoppers were soon no more inclined to buy a bird with its feathers and head still attached than they were to bake their own bread. In time, we simply forgot how tasty wild meat was.
However, our 50-year flirtation with factory-farmed chicken, though not entirely over, is certainly looking pretty jaded these days and a fresh public appetite for meats outwith the abilities of the factory farmers has been seized on by a new generation of firms dedicated to reconnecting Scots with their game heritage.
‘In the last five years, the small game industry has really leapt forward – I think it is looking absolutely fantastic,’ enthuses Craig Stevenson, managing director of Braehead Foods, the Kilmarnock company currently supplying ready-to-cook small game meat to a stellar list of top Scots restaurants.
When Stevenson, a veteran of both the bakery and beef sectors, took over Braehead’s speciality foods business in 1999, he found that demand for Scottish small game was all from overseas, in continental markets that had never lost the taste for it, while the home market was sadly indifferent.
‘So we started encouraging Scottish chefs to put game on their menus – even if it meant giving it to them for free,’ he says. He confesses to randomly adding pheasant breasts to orders for other goods, then when chefs phoned up to query the delivery, he’d tell them they were a free sample, why not cook them up for your staff?
‘I just had to get chefs to try gamebirds and start thinking of them as food again – and once they’d had a taste of it, pheasant and partridge and pigeon soon started appearing on their menus.’
Television’s celebrity chefs have since embraced game as an opportunity to widen their repertoire – and fill airtime – and in so doing have persuaded a new generation of home cooks to experiment with the meat.
Newcomers to cooking gamebirds should be aware that they can most definitely not be treated as a substitute for domesticated chicken. With their natural diet and lots of exercise, wild birds and rabbits are not inclined to be fatty, and that must be taken into account during preparation.
Chef Jacqueline O’Donnell, of Glasgow’s The Sisters restaurants, runs regular cookery demos, and finds that the look of a feathered or skinned pheasant often creates a stir of fear in her audiences, but that is easy to get over with just a little practice at the ‘fiddly bits’.
‘I sometimes cook breasts on the crown as that can help prevent them becoming dry, and it’s essential to always use the bones to make a stock – too many discard the bit with all the taste,’ says O’Donnell. ‘Instead of trimming all the tiny bits from the carcass, we braise everything then the excess meat falls off, which gives you much more for your money and all the longer cooking times make a tastier piece of meat, although mostly people use loin or breast for quickness.
‘I personally love complementing all the different types of game with other Scotch things which are also in season. Often Mother Nature just guides us to put them together and suprisingly it works! In the correct season we have such an abundance of these products – we should have them appearing on menus up and down the country to showcase the excellence of the Scottish produce.’
But shoppers looking to buy the raw product won’t have much luck in the major supermarkets, which are geared up to sell centrally distributed and homogenous product, not wild animals.
Though there are moves afoot to get more oven-ready small game into the major retailers, the best bet at the moment is to seek out vacuum-packed portions available through delicatessens, farmers’ markets and, increasingly, internet mail order.
It is small beer compared with the volume of chicken sold every day, but as Ross Montague of the Scottish Countryside Alliance notes, small is beautiful: ‘The fact that game is not an ideal supermarket product shouldn’t be a worry. The essence of game is as a local, low-food-miles product.’
Speaking for Borders game suppliers Burnside Farm Foods, Johnny Rutherford agrees that, aside from the superior taste of game meat, shoppers are getting a better environmental deal. All the game that goes through Burnside’s plant is sourced within a 30-mile radius. ‘We pick up gamebirds at local estates, process them right here, then put them back out to local hotels and the farmers’ markets at Kelso and Hawick. That’s the kind of food miles we had a century ago – as a product, small game is about as green as it gets.’
It is legal to shoot a variety of birds, wildfowl and mammals in Scotland, but for many of these species, there is also a closed season during which time they must be left undisturbed to breed and disperse. As such, small game is generally unavailable during the spring and summer months.
Pheasant: 1 October to 1 February
Partridge: 1 September to 1 February
Grouse: 12 August to 10 December
Duck and goose: 1 September to 31 January
Woodcock: 1 September to 31 January
Pigeon and rabbit are seen as pests, so can be shot all year, but it is better to wait until autumn to take advantage of a well-fed crop of birds and bunnies. As retired Stirlingshire gamekeeper Alastair Davidson puts it: ‘The best way to think of small game is that it’s wild fruit, like brambles or mushrooms – a seasonal treat to be sorely missed when you can’t get it, then savoured with relish when it returns.’