Try wild game for a delicious festive change

Freshly shot partridges and pheasants ready for the game dealer
Freshly shot partridges and pheasants ready for the game dealer
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GOOSE or turkey? Chicken or rib of beef? That’s the question. For most of us it will always come down to a turkey just because it is such a meaty bird and pound for pound offers remarkable value for money. Cook it and it seems to go on forever and then there is the pleasing prospect of a huge pan of soup to see off the carcass.

But there are alternatives to the good old Christmas gobbler. And it’s all around us in the form of wild and delicious game.

Try filling your roasting tin with a dozen fat partridges. Nothing could be easier. Put a knob of seasoned butter in each bird and lie bacon or pork fat over the breast. Cook in a hot oven (220C, 425F or Mark 7) basting frequently with melted butter for about half an hour. Towards the end remove the bacon or fat and allow the birds to brown. You can do the same with half a dozen hen pheasants. Cook plenty of roast potatoes, sprouts and buttery turnip and you’ve got a delicious Christmas lunch.

If that’s not adventurous enough, try Bentley partridges with oysters. Stuff a brace of birds with the oysters (tinned will do) and cover the breasts with bacon tied on well. Cook very slowly in a pint of milk for 90 minutes then make a cream sauce with the liquid. Pour over the cooked partridges and serve with pastry strips.

Next on my list would be wild duck. Mallard, widgeon and teal need only two or three days hanging to make them ready for the pot. Unlike domesticated ducks or geese they have no fat so they should be smeared in softened butter and cooked in a very hot oven (230C/450F) and basted frequently with the hot butter. But the golden rule with duck is not to overcook it, or it will turn very tough. So 20 minutes for the larger mallard will give a fairly rare bird, and half an hour for something less rare. A widgeon or teal requires less time.

If you can get hold of a wild goose from a wildfowler, shot on the foreshore in the early morning or evening or on their feeding grounds, then you have the makings of a very special Christmas or New Year’s lunch. Thousands of greylag and pink-footed geese descend on grass and wheat fields every winter in Northumberland and the Borders and a small number of them are shot for sport.

We see and hear them all the time at The Old Dairy. They fly in every day to the fields around us and we can watch them from the coffee shop. But you won’t find them in butchers or game dealers because they’re not allowed to sell them. The greylag is the bigger bird (around 9lb) while the smaller pink-foot is about 7lb. Unlike ducks, however, they need plenty of hanging – at least three weeks. An old wives’ tale suggests burying them in the garden for a while before plucking but I haven’t tried it!

Stuff the bird with an apple and celery-based stuffing, truss tightly and roast breast down. Rub all over with plenty of butter, turning the bird from time to time as it cooks. It needs a hot oven to start with (230C/450F) for ten minutes and then turn down to about 170C/325F for an hour or so. Keep basting and add some wine or orange juice to the liquid. Once cooked remove the goose and keep it warm and thicken all those lovely juices. But beware: geese are wild birds and rather lean breasted so you might want to cook two.

It’s sometimes interesting to know what famous chefs have for Christmas and I know one who cooks roast grouse for his family in his villa in the south of France. The trouble this year will be getting hold of them. The wet summer wreaked havoc on the young birds. But if you do come across a brace pop some seasoned butter in each bird, lay them on a well buttered, thick slice of bread and cover them in bacon. Roast in a moderately hot oven (190C/375F) for 35-40 minutes and remove the bacon ten minutes before they are done to allow them to brown. Bread sauce is a must along with roast potatoes and sprouts. Merry Christmas.

Keith and Lynne Allan run a concept store and coffee shop at The Old Dairy in Ford. Tel: 01890 820325/01289 302658.