Feature: Game plan
In season from: 1 October to 1 February
What customers say: Does it have to be hung for weeks on end?
How you reply: "You can if you want some people like the strong flavour that leaving the birds around for weeks on end produces, but there's no point eating totally rotten meat. If you cook these birds straight away, you'll find that they're delicious."
Cooking suggestion: Take breast meat off the carcase and pan-fry oven roasting always dries out the meat too much, and serve on toast. Use the rest of the carcase to make a soup, perhaps with some cream added.
In season from: April 1 to October 20 (Roe Buck Scotland); April 1 to October 31 (Roe Buck England and Wales); July 1 to October 20 (Red Stag Scotland); August 1 to April 30 (Red Stag England, Wales, Northern Ireland; Sika Stag; Fallow Bucks); 21 October to 15 February (Red Hinds, Scotland; Sika Hinds, Scotland); November 1 to March 31 (Roe Doe England and Wales)
What customers say: Is there any flavour in the meat, with so little fat around?
How you reply: "There's plenty of flavour from the quality of the meat, rich and deep-coloured, benefiting from grass feeding by the animal. It's really healthy, full of protein and energy, so you don't need to serve huge portions."
Cooking suggestion: Marinate in red wine if possible. Then add to a casserole with root vegetables and the marinade liquid, plus a little butter.
In season from: August to February
What customers say: "What can I do about the overly gamey flavour?"
How you reply: "It has a strong flavour and colour, granted, but that's what some people like about it. If it's too much for you can I suggest wild rabbit instead?"
Cooking suggestion: As with rabbit, separate the legs and saddle. Joint each leg three times and cook in a pot with wine, stock, tomato paste, bay leaf and thyme for an hour. This is known as 'jugged hare'.
In season from: 1 October to 1 February
What customers say: "Doesn't the breast always dry out?"
How you reply: "Not if you put it on a high heat and cook quickly. Basting plenty helps too."
Cooking suggestion: Roast whole in the oven on a high temperature for 20 minutes. Season and rub butter all over prior to placing in a tray and cooking. Butter goes really well with partridge and, with this bird, simple is best.
Note: Grey legs have far more flavour than the common red leg.
In season from: All year round
What customers say: "Isn't the meat a bit tough?"
How you reply: "The saddle is really supple, but the legs are best put in a casserole and given a long, slow cook."
Cooking suggestion: Split the legs and saddle. Flour legs and braise in a casserole with shallots, wine, stock, mushrooms and parsley. Pan-fry saddle and add to a green salad with dressing.
In season from: All year round
What customers say: "Aren't these just flying rodents?"
How you reply: "Maybe, but we love the rich flavour you get with a well-cooked pigeon just make sure you don't overcook, so that the bird dries out."
Cooking suggestion: Rub all over with butter and a few herbs, then roast in a high oven for 7-8 minutes. Cut away breast and leg and serve with juices and some cooked blueberries.
In season from: 1 October to 31 January
What customers say: "What do I do about all the annoying little bones in these birds?"
How you reply: "They do tend to have a few, but the meat is delicious and well worth seeking out."
Cooking suggestion: Roast without gutting for 10 minutes, spread innards on toast and serve breast meat on top. Eat with a leafy salad.
In season from: 12 August to 31 January
What customers say: "What does this taste like?"
How you reply: "A kind of woody flavour with a sweet, mushroomy tang."
Cooking suggestion: Place inside a hollowed-out potato with some butter and sage, cover with the flap of potato still attached and cook for 30 minutes
In season from: 12 August to 10 December
What customers say: "Is it really worth spending that much on a small bird?"
How you reply: "Definitely, this is the king of game birds, with truly outstanding flavour and great cooking qualities. We cannot recommend it highly enough. You can stretch it to serve two as a starter and you can make a second meal out of the bones for a soup."
Cooking suggestion: Season and butter, then roast on your highest level for 15 minutes. Leave to rest for five. Serve with mushrooms and fried potato slices, or even polenta.
In season from: 1 September to 31 January (20 February from some coastal areas)
What customers say: "How is this different from normal duck?"
How you reply: "Mallard is the most common variety of duck; you'll have seen it dabbling around in lakes and ponds, with the a dark head and breast plus orange bill of the male."
Cooking suggestion: Roast in a baking try for 30 minutes, make gravy and mix in a few blackberries or elderberries if you can find them.
The coming season
Where once game suppliers would send many of their wild birds and animals overseas, the market has changed dramatically. Demand in the UK has increased to the extent that Owen Hayward, owner of Reading-based Vicars Game, is heading to Ireland this year for his venison and he's not alone.
"There's a glut of deer over there and the recession has hit hard, so gamekeepers are only too glad to sell on to us in the UK," says Hayward. "The meat has become extremely popular because of its low-fat qualities, and this appears to be driving the market, along with a desire for more local produce."
Rabbit and pigeon are likely to run short again in 2010/11, but Highland Game's purchase of Bestwick could lead to a more streamlined supply base for some. Volumes will also be helped by the individual estates processing their own birds: Culden Faw Estate in Henley, as well as Englefield near Newbury are putting thousands of birds through. All they have to do now is release woodcock and teal when people want to eat them as opposed to after Christmas when demand has all but gone.
Do it yourself
If you want to source game direct from the end of a gun, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation has a guide to where and when it all takes place go to http://www.basc.org.uk/en/go-shooting/ and download the pdf.
I've had the shop for seven years and there was a major lack of interest when we arrived. We're in a residential area, on the outskirts of York, so people didn't know how to cook with game or what to do with it. But over the years, things have progressed, we've given out recipes, leaflets and just hand out advice. Every year sales have increased.
I really enjoy game, so I find it easy to preach about it. If anyone shows just a bit of interest, then I'm all over them and it helps that I try to keep prices steady, with less of a margin when the first pheasant and partidges arrive in September, and then more when the prices come down in the middle of the season. If you overprice, that kills interest, and people like to have a fixed amount. By January, I'm slowing down supplies after Christmas there's very little interest, and I've found that selling pre-frozen birds doesn't work game is all about the fresh product. It all seems to have worked; we're at the point were we have major deliveries every week during the season, especially for pheasant, partridge and wild duck.
I love the look of the counter in autumn, with all the birds on show. There's a corner section where all the birds go, 15 to 20 pheasants lined up around the bend, and some are hung in the window. Near Christmas, we have the feathers kept on and the birds attached on hooks behind the counter and we always get a marvellous response. It's another touch of days gone by. The younger generation have never seen a partridge or woodcock, but they ask plenty of questions when they see them hanging there.
I used to think people would be too squeamish and would shy away from actually hanging up a row of birds, but we're a butcher's shop and we do kill animals there's no easy way around it. It might offend a few people, but I'm not Tesco or a supermarket, where meat seems to be born in a little tray that magically appears. And it means that we're advertising our product both on the counter and in a major way via the shop window.
Did you know?
Around 35 million game birds are raised each year (Game Conservancy Trust), with 80% of that estimated to be pheasants (Game Farmers' Association).
Game is any animal that is hunted for food or sport
There is no rearing or release of grouse: the birds are wild and are only found in heather moorland in the UK
In the summer, when the season is over, gamekeepers rear birds and maintain their habitat
Despite all the fuss over the 'Glorious 12th' (12 August), shooting doesn't begin in earnest until 1 November: most birds aren't ready to supply in any great quantity until then
There are two types of shooting: 'rough', which involves game being flushed from hedgerows or woods by dogs as shooters walk; or there's 'driven game shooting', where the shooters stand in one place and wait for the game to be beaten out
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