Talking Game with Aaron Patterson

Vegetarianism is a noble option, but for the majority of us meat remains irresistible. However, we carnivores are increasingly aware of the responsibility that comes with our culinary choice; to make as much effort as we can to ensure that the animals we eat have suffered as little as possible before they arrive on our plate, are healthy, and are as natural as the constraints of husbandry allow. Hence the ever-increasing interest in free range and organic produce.

Hunting for the pot is as old as human history, and there’s a strong argument to be made that it also offers the best option with respect to animal welfare. However well-intentioned and caring the farmer, no range will ever be as free as that on which the deer and the antelope roam. No matter how conscientiously farmers resist chemical temptations in preparing their produce for market, millennia of genetic engineering of domestic animals by selective breeding means that ‘natural’ is hardly an appropriate term to describe the majority of the meat we eat. As to health, in commercial farming there’s a penalty attached to weeding out less-than-prime stock: in the wild, the weak and sickly simply don’t survive.

“There’s a persistent idea that cooking with game is somehow less straightforward

Thus adult game – mammals, birds, fish – is as natural and healthy as it’s possible for meat to be. You can also be fairly certain that it has suffered as little as possible in service  of our appetite, with a free and wild life terminated by an unforeseen and quick death.

Aaron Patterson, head chef at Hambleton Hall since 1992, has long extolled the special virtues of game. He readily agrees with the compassionate argument outlined above, but as a chef is even more enthusiastic about the subjective experience of cooking and eating game, contrasting the
‘flabby, pellet-fed’ texture of farmed animals with the structure of meat from animals honed by the struggle to survive in the wild.

Hambleton Hall stands in an idyllic setting on the shore of Rutland Water, and the vast majority of the game Aaron serves in his Michelin-starred restaurant – the partridge, pheasant, hare, woodcock, and venison – comes from local shoots, with grouse from the North Yorkshire moors. Venison is his particular passion, its special qualities inspiring him to almost evangelical zeal. He uses both Fallow and Muntjac, and although he confesses to never specifying the latter on the menu – not even a Muntjac’s mother could
call it handsome –reserves special praise for its ‘absolutely delicious’ meat, especially the ‘fantastic’ haunches.

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There’s a persistent idea that cooking with game is somehow less straightforward, involving lengthy and arcane processes both before and during cooking. Aaron is keen to dispel this notion, and the three recipes he presents here have been selected deliberately with the home cook in mind. All allow for advance pre-preparation in easy stages, with the only ‘gamey’ requirement being for the pheasant to only hang for a week to ensure the hearts and livers are in prime condition when minced into the farce.

The recipes have also been chosen for plate appeal, to be in Aaron’s words ‘beautiful, refined-looking’ dishes that arouse delightful expectation before a knife is raised in anger. But above all, he is confident – and who are we to doubt so expert a witness? – that each encapsulates to the optimum the special qualities of each main ingredient: the unique, unmistakable, and authentic flavours of our wildest and most natural resource.