Inglorious Bustards

There is no wilderness in Britain. The landscape which today forms the battleground between conservationist and farmer, developer and gentry, is only the latest expression of the work of millennia, to shape and subjugate wildness into something more amenable to humanity. The land is manmade. Once a vast forest covered the country, almost to the peaks of the uplands; the Broads and the Fens were water; the Suffolk coast was heath and bosky wood. The nature which inhabits these industrial landscapes is that which, broadly, we allow to exist – everything dangerous is long-gone, and everything not useful has retreated significantly, adapted itself around human settlement. Hares, snails, pigeons, rabbits, deer, introduced by waves of invaders and migrants as sources of food or entertainment, have all become part of the British ecosystem. Nothing is natural, nothing is wild; a muntjac eats the brambles in my back garden. The pig farms of Blythburgh have as much right to the land as Folkestone Warren.

Any radical conservation (if you’ll excuse the phrase), that is to say, any attempt to rebirth a truly wild British landscape, would require, ironically, a huge intervention, in the form of a vast holocaust. A near-total annihilation of the human population, not to mention of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, pigs, alpacas, horses, goats, elephants, wallabies, rheas, hares and so on, a final eradication of the mark of so-called civilisation from the map, would be followed by the reintroduction of wolves and of bears; the regular cull that our semi-wild deer population receives would be carried out more naturally. There are those who advocate for this, if not in such extreme terms – it is the logical conclusion of a certain strand of conservationism, but most people tread a more compromised path.

To return to total wildness, let’s say, is impossible or undesirable or both – what then? If you agree that we have some responsibility towards the rest of nature, to try and ensure we do as little harm as we can – well, it seems arbitrary to choose now or rather a rose-tinted recent past as the moment to conserve, but what else to do? Muddle along, I suppose. Even if we had the inclination to resurrect ecosystems past, we don’t have the ability or the knowledge. The culture in a pot of naturally fermented kimchi has still not been successfully modelled – imagine the complexity of the wild wood! So we tend to our garden, we manage and conserve, we farm the things we think are farmed, we hunt and forage the wild ones – and this, really, is the problem. Most of them are not wild.

The humane farming of animals for meat has taken huge strides in recent years. A loose coalition of chefs, farmers and consumers has made a huge positive change to animal welfare and to its importance in public discourse; everyone knows to at least pay lip service to happy hens, blissful cows, quietly ecstatic pigs. If there is still some distance to go, there is at least a general recognition that, quite apart from ethical issues, meat tastes better when it has spent its life outside, eaten a varied diet, had a gentle death. The quality of good meat in Britain now is really quite astonishing, and cooks both professional and amateur are right to insist on the good stuff; it is more expensive, but so it should be; it takes space and time to farm well, and these things cost money.

On the other hand, we have game. I have written a few times before about rabbit, and nothing’s changed since then; it is still, alongside pigeon, plentiful and generally healthy in its large feral populations, shot at by farmers as pest control. It is, I think, right to eat it for as long as these conditions attain. Although farmed in some places, the various types of deer which roam Britain are in a broadly similar situation – in the absence of their apex predators, they are regularly culled. I don’t especially like venison and, still treated as a meat of kings, it is pretty expensive, but I don’t have a problem with it; eat away!

Game birds (pigeon excepted) on the other hand, are very different. Most, like the rabbit, were introduced to be kept as a semi-wild food source, though lacking the rabbit’s capacity to breed, adaptability to various environments, and resilience to even horrific biological warfare, they need keeping, breeding and rearing as chicks, their environment heavily managed to the detriment of other species – all so they can be shot at. Are they wild or farmed? The huge pens called ‘grouse moors’ are kept solely for the benefit of these creatures. Foxes and stoats, which prey on them, are trapped and killed, as are hares, which can carry parasites harmful to grouse; the surface of the moor is burnt away. All of this, I think, is legal, but there are also many recorded instances of birds of prey trapped or poisoned, which is not. Higher ground is drained, to the detriment of lowland towns.

This is farming, free-range farming on a wastefully gigantic scale – but without the payoff. Where cows are herded into abattoirs one-by-one, unaware of the imminent blow of the bolt-gun, calmly led to euthanasia, semi-tame grouse and partridge and pheasants are released, hounded and flung into the air to be shot at, winged, dispatched, shoved into ‘the bag’. No wild meat should require such intervention; no farmed animal deserves such a death. Driven grouse shooting gives us the very worst of each world. The reason it is allowed to continue, of course, is that it is a hobby of the very rich, for whom nature is not red in tooth and claw but just another playground under their petulant command. It creates jobs, they cry, it is economically necessary – stop buying grouse, that cruelly half-farmed highland chicken, and it won’t be. Remember that when you cook with grouse, when you eat it, you are cooking not wild untrammelled nature but the discarded carrion of an aristocrat’s game.


Pickled Fruitfulness

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.
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.

Serves 2
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.