From the amount of water currently falling from the sky, the drop in temperature, and the vast profusion of brambles covering every bit of roadside and waste ground, I think it’s fair to say that autumn has arrived. Last night I made a celery gratin, straight out of Marcella Hazan, braising the stalks in chicken stock and bacon, then grilling them under a blanket of parmesan; warm and savoury but stopping short of outright rib-sticking, it was a good way to usher in the most British of seasons – the one where you can really get down to the business of cooking, after all the saladeering and cold-cut-arranging of summer. Nuts, mushrooms, stone and orchard fruits, the first of our local shellfish; so much that is good comes from autumn. It also, of course, marks the start of the game season.
There is a tendency among chefs to lump in all game as equally good (ethically, environmentally speaking) wild meat, free of the endless problems of welfare and sustainability that surround the farming of domestic food animals; certainly, you can see why. A wild bird is shot in its natural landscape, never having seen the inside of a barn of abattoir; what is killed is sold and eaten. The management of grouse moorland, meanwhile, is claimed to be an outright ‘good thing’ for the local wildlife, although it should be said that this claim is largely made by hunters and gamekeepers. Conservationists, pointing to the killing and persecution of legally protected raptors which seems an inevitable consequence of, particularly, driven grouse shooting, tend to differ.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the people making such great strides in terms of ethically produced domestic meat should think so little of wider issues, especially since those issues – of habitat and ecosystem – are familiar from debates on fishing; so it goes. Since the whole thing seems designed, not for any gastronomic benefit, but for the sport of a gilet-clad, blunderbuss-toting aristocracy, of which the meat is almost a by-product, I find the whole thing rather distasteful; perhaps we should leave them their sport, lest they take their guns to the urban poor. Perhaps, though, it should be banned outright, and those who kill protected species fully prosecuted. I don’t know. Best to steer clear of the issue, sticking to the rough shoots, the meat of pests and vermin which can be enjoyed with a fairly clear conscience – that is to say, of rabbits and of pigeons.
I’ve written about rabbit twice before, and it remains one of my favourite meats; pigeon, though generally available pretty cheaply year-round, has a much more gamey character, a rich redness which makes it worth saving for the game season proper. I suppose you could stick one on the barbecue, but for me it isn’t really a summer meat, its affinity with peas notwithstanding. Pigeon does very well, however, with any of the produce of early autumn, with a little mushroom sauce or cobnut salad, or, as here, with blackberries. It is a truism that meat goes well with things that it like to eat; rabbit with carrots and radishes, venison with mountain herbs, pork with pretty much anything – although as pigs apparently dislike plants of the oregano family, I try never to include them in recipes. Presumably grouse live on bread sauce and sherry.
With pigeon, though, there seems a little truth in it, insofar as the aforementioned pea plants they love to rob, and in the fruit of the bramble, which goes as well on a plate with them as in their stomachs – though it should be noted that blackberries, especially when lightly pickled, go pretty well with all game, their inky sharpness cutting through the animal rankness of wild meat. This is an extremely simple recipe, for which I make no apologies – the first meals of any season should always be simple.
PIGEON & BRAMBLES
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again – if you buy blackberries, you’re an idiot. Unless you live in a dystopian city block or a desert, go and find some.
2 whole pigeons or 4 breasts (depends what the butcher has)
2 knobs of butter
2 handfuls of blackberries
200ml white wine vinegar
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
A dash of gin
Salt, pepper, oil
First get your pigeon out of the fridge and out of whatever packaging. Pat it dry and maybe give the skin side a preliminary salting. If the birds are whole, pull out the hearts and set aside for a snack.
Put the blackberries in a bowl – it’s hard to cook with them in your hands. In a small pan, bring the vinegar to the boil with the salt and sugar, making sure they’re dissolved, then add a little gin and pour over the berries. Leave to cool.
If you’re using breasts, cooking them is really simple. Find a pan big enough to hold four breasts without touching, and get it really hot. Add a splash of oil and then the pigeon, skin side first, pressing down a little to prevent curling. Sear for two minutes each side, then remove to a plate to rest.
Whole pigeons are only slightly more involved. Heat the oven high and get an ovenproof frying pan really hot. Oil, then sear the birds on each breast until nicely brown, then sit on their backs, stick a knob of butter inside them, and put in the oven; eight minutes should do it. The butter should have melted. Put on a plate to rest, breast-side down so the juices flow through it.
Done! Carve the meat (breasts horizontally sliced, birds cut through the middle with a cleaver and opened out) and serve with a spoon of pickled blackberries on the side. Perfectly delicious.