Magazine article The Spectator

Let It Hang

Magazine article The Spectator

Let It Hang

Article excerpt

The game season is upon us, and game is rather shaming. We have so much of it in Britain but we don't cook it very adventurously. This is particularly true of game birds like partridge, quail and wild duck -- wonderful birds which deserve better than over-roasting and gooey fruit sauces.

Most of the game I buy in London is farmraised and tastes tame. Like salmon, a mallard or partridge needs the great outdoors.

But I suspect most cooks are, like me, bad at Nature, and shrink from the great outdoors. (Nature seems best when observed from a terrace, glass of wine in hand. ) To treat game well requires at least knowing what happened to the birds in the field. If gunshot has badly ripped the bird's flesh or, worse, ruptured its intestines, the creature should be plumed and cleaned immediately; otherwise this bird will prove unfit to eat.

Well-shot birds certainly improve in flavour if they are left to hang; leaving on the feathers and leaving in the guts actually permits a bird to age without becoming poisonous.

But hang for how long?

This great question more deeply divides the British from the Continent than any EU regulation. Brits tend to hang pheasants for three to six days, while the French and Italians start cooking them much sooner, or at the other extreme sometimes leave the birds so long that a yellow-greenish tinge appears on the flesh. We give wild duck less of a chance to ripen -- a day or two -- than our Continental cousins, who are willing to risk double the hang. The difference comes, I think, from Britain's romance with Nature:

we want in cooking to convey a bird's forest-and-field life before felled by the guns, whereas the Continental cook wants to get to work on its hard, fresh flesh, or make something of the soft, green stinking mass -- the attributes of the bird are just ingredients to be transformed by art.

If only British cooks were bolder in setting our virtuous natural selves apart from those oversophisticated Continentals. We are, in the first place, afraid to roast birds rare; an old 18th-century adage celebrated bringing birds merely 'near the hearth'; the diner wanted to taste blood. Now, as then, the juices should be bloody. The best way to roast birds is for a very short time in a very hot oven, for instance a pheasant at 400F for 20 to 25 minutes; quail, that fowl so abused in the oven by London clubland, should be roasted for a maximum of 12 to 14 minutes. …

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