Preparing and cooking game can be tricky, as FIONA BECKETT discovers while learning the tricks of the trade – skinning deer and plucking pheasant. Vegetarians look away now

The time is 10.30am, and it’s a chilly winter’s morning. Outside the kitchens of Hambleton Hall we’re all standing round the carcass of a fallow deer. The moment I’ve been dreading arrives as chef Aaron Patterson steps forward to skin it. Much to my relief the experience isn’t gory at all, more like slipping the skin off an onion.

The celebrated country house hotel’s annual Festival of Game tells you all you want to know about cooking and preparing game. And a fair bit you don’t as well. Like what to do with a woodcock’s innards. (Unusually, you can draw them after you’ve roasted the bird.) Woodcocks excrete on takeoff so they’re perfectly clean, proprietor Tim Hart reassures us. You just have to remove the gall bladder.

‘Many people fry them and serve them on toast but I prefer to incorporate them in the sauce,’ says Patterson, deftly arranging the two halves of a woodcock’s head and beak over the roast bird. Aficionados apparently regard this as the ultimate delicacy, sucking out the brain. 

Enough! This course is designed to encourage people to cook game rather than put them off. Patterson has had 20 years’ experience of the art, having started as a professional chef when he was just 16. He takes us through 10 of the recipes he serves at his Michelin-starred restaurant, five ‘fur’ and five ‘feather’, peppering his commentary with tips. 

One of the most useful lessons is how to make a good game stock. The secret is to include freshly roasted carcasses and not to cook it too fast or too long. ‘It’s like making a pot of tea,’ says Patterson. ‘Leave it too long and it stews. Don’t cook it long enough and you don’t get the flavour. About 40 minutes is right but taste it as it cooks.’ Don’t let it boil or the fats emulsify and make the stock cloudy.’ The resulting, perfectly clear liquid can be used to make a consommé or infused with flavourings such as jasmine tea, cinnamon or star anise for a broth.

Patterson has other ways of forcing flavour into his dishes, many surprisingly practical for the home cook with a few bottles of wine in the kitchen. One is to add pink grapefruit juice (very good with partridge) and Sauternes to the stock, ‘or use Muscat de Frontignan’. Orange juice goes into his all-purpose game sauce – along with three quarters of a bottle of Madeira, sherry vinegar, white wine and veal glace (reduced stock), though you can apparently replace the latter with a good strong jellied chicken stock. If you make a large batch, put any leftover sauce in an ice cube tray and freeze it –so you always have a killer sauce to hand.

Most game, he says, is cooked far too long. A woodcock, for example, should take only four to six minutes to roast. To check it’s done, Patterson inserts a fine skewer into the leg and places it against his lips. ‘It should be warm but not hot. You need to know what’s going on inside the bird. All ovens are different.’

Veg are not neglected. Once again Patterson bombards us with useful tips. Perfect roast potatoes? Cook in boiling water until they’re nearly done, cool them then deep fry them, cool them again, lay uncovered on a cloth in the fridge for 24 hours, then freeze them. Time consuming, admittedly, but it gives a perfect crisp finish. Potato galettes? Only Maris Pipers will do. Fondant root veg? Cook fast with chicken stock until the stock evaporates.

Tim Hart, a keen shot himself, advises on selecting, hanging and drawing game. ‘With birds, the definitive test is being able to find a tiny orifice near its bottom. It’s called the bursa. It only has this gland in the first year of its life. In general, younger birds are more tender, but older birds, especially partridges, can be worth eating. It’s better to buy game with the feathers still on.’ (See plucking tips, right.)

Sourcing is all-important. ‘A good butcher or game dealer will get birds for you and prepare them. We know all the local gamekeepers so customers often come to us to buy game.’ If I were them I’d take Patterson home to cook it too.

top tips to cook game

n Only pheasant needs to be hung for any length of time. Hanging is unnecessary for other birds and disastrous for wild ducks: it makes them taste fishy

n The secret of cooking any game bird is resting it so the heat can penetrate to the centre – anything from 6 to 10 minutes, depending on size. Leave it breast down so the juices run into the meat

n Brown small game birds like partridges in a pan before you put them in the oven. Domestic ovens aren’t hot enough to brown them without overcooking them in the process

n If you’re making a venison – or beef –wellington, wrap the meat in a pancake to stop the pastry going soggy

The next Hambleton Hall Festival of Game takes place 15–16 January 2007.

For details see www.hambletonhall.com or call +44 (0) 1572 756 991

Written by FIONA BECKETT