I looked up at the sunny London sky, searching for gray tendrils of smoke in the air that could lead me to juicy, pink deer tenderloin. Bobbing past bankers in tailored suits and hipsters in skinny jeans, I checked the map I’d printed out for my destination, marked by a black buck’s head.
Then my nose picked up a meaty scent, just before I rounded the corner of Whitecross Street market, near the business district, and delighted at the sight of venison-imbued smoke billowing from the wooden awning of the Wild Game Co. stall.
I joined the line of giddy game lovers salivating over venison burgers and pieces of steak sizzling to award-winning perfection on the grill. I ordered the steak sandwich: strips of fresh tenderloin, cooked medium rare, piled with grilled onions and topped with Gouda, nestled between two freshly baked brioche buns. Seconds later, my American mouth enjoyed the taste of the Scottish Highlands at a lunch market in London.
From that first bite, it was game on for me.
On Aug. 12, known as the Glorious Twelfth, the British wild game season opens. Throughout the fall and winter, it’s fair play to hunt multiple birds and beasts, starting with grouse and continuing with snipe, plover, partridge, duck, goose, woodcock, pheasant and a variety of deer, to name a few. To take advantage of the fresh meat, some of London’s best chefs “nature-ize” their menus according to which animals are available, offering adventurous eaters a field-to-fork experience ranging from traditional roasted grouse with greens to venison burgers with game chips and funky grouse-nest pizza with pumpkin chutney.
And so, over the next four days, I embarked on a gastro-safari across the city, nearly sprouting fur and feathers from all the wild animals I ate.
Menus don’t come much funkier than those of Michelin-starred St. John restaurant in Smithfield. But the eye-popping selections have more to do with chef Fergus Henderson’s revolutionary philosophy of nose-to-tail cooking, involving offal and pig’s cheeks, than with his simply executed recipes.
Sitting solo at a tiny wooden table in St. John’s spartan dining room waiting for my braised rabbit, I saw a sign that read, “Please turn off your portable phone whilst in the dining room.”
Without electronics to pluck me from solitude, the famed chef forced me to savor, contemplate and connect with tender rabbit legs, tiny cushions of smoky bacon fat and sweet green peas bursting with rabbit-infused juices.
Later that afternoon, I joined Henderson and co-founder Trevor Gulliver at a small table in the restaurant dining room, with its bare white walls and industrial black pendant lamps, for a deep dive into game cooking. For two hours, they bantered about everything from the importance of sourcing birds from Yorkshire moors to how woodcocks — because they defecate before flight — can be roasted with the guts in, which heightens flavor.
“When game’s afoot, eat it every day,” said Henderson, wearing his signature round spectacles and sipping from a glass of Burgundy. “And when it’s out of season, don’t eat it. Look forward to when it comes back.”
When I asked Henderson to describe the taste of grouse, the season’s premier bird, his face lit up.
“The flavor profile is a thing of joy,” he said. “The undercarriage informs the meat around it.” He explained that the undercarriage and armpit of the grouse is where the gamy musk, which is what drives people crazy, develops.
Not all chefs are equally adept at dealing with that undercarriage effect. In fact, the best and worst meals I had were roasted grouse.
Corrigan’s Mayfair, a luxurious contemporary space adorned with plumed lampshades, served an exquisite grouse. My lunch date and I raised a glass of Mourvèdre to the chef’s perfectly prepared fowl, which came already quartered rather than as a whole bird and was served with liver on toast and summer vegetables. The mild flavors in the tender, cherry-colored meat hinted at the animal’s country life without overpowering my senses.
While Corrigan’s delivered the essence of the fields with reserved elegance, Wiltons, a notable old-school establishment, catered to a more pungent palate. For those who prefer a stronger-tasting grouse, Wiltons served a full-bodied dish that had my taste buds demanding a deep cleanse after only half my meal.
This signature boldness, which many unsatisfied diners refer to as gamy, works both for and against the cuisine. But whether a game dish delights or disgusts depends largely on how it’s cooked. While one chef’s version of a seasonal bird might deliver a sucker punch, another’s can induce a state of food euphoria.
Andy Waugh, founder of the Wild Game Co., obsesses over getting the taste, texture and temperature of his gourmet sandwiches right so that he might open more mouths to game. He also understands that serving one bad burger at his stall could turn a person off to venison forever.
“People tell me, ‘Oh, I don’t like venison. I tried it once,’ ” he said in an interview at his London home.
The Wild Game Co., which won the 2012 Young British Foodies street food award, has converted skeptics into game lovers for more than three years with perfectly cooked burgers made with deer sourced from Waugh’s family game-dealing business in Scotland.
“This [deer] was literally hunted,” said Nick Brown, a shaggy-haired cook running the grill at the Wild Game Co. stall. “It’s about as ethical and sustainable as it gets.”
Wild game represents the ultimate in free-range and organic food. Game dealers harvest animals from forests and fields rather than raising them on industrial farms. In the case of venison, hunting helps control the overpopulation of an animal whose large numbers pose a hazard to drivers on highways and bring harm to agriculture and other wildlife. There’s no reason to get doe-eyed about eating deer. Culling the population and using its meat for food prevents disease and famine among the species, according to British conservationists.
Eating wild game weighs less not only on the social conscience but also on the bathroom scale. Protein-packed game has fewer calories and less cholesterol than its commercially cultivated cousins, according to nutrition experts. Wild birds and beasts live a more active life, grazing on what nature intended, than farm-raised chickens, pigs and cows, which are more sedentary and can be exposed to growth hormones and forced to eat animal byproducts.
“Most of the game I’ve come across is low in saturated fats and high in good fats,” said Vivek Singh, co-founder and executive chef of the Cinnamon Club restaurant and a regular on the BBC’s “Saturday Kitchen” and “Celebrity MasterChef.” “It’s a really good alternative and distraction to everyday eating. When it’s managed well, it’s an aspect of life that one should not ever miss.”
Restaurants such as the Cinnamon Club and the others that I visited get their wild game from shoots that take place on private estates in the English regions of Yorkshire and Northumberland, as well as in the Scottish Highlands.
Shooting in Yorkshire is a world away from American “Duck Dynasty”-style hunting. On an English shoot, gentlemen dressed in head-to-toe tweed stand in an open field, known as a moor, with assistants who load and sometimes aim their guns. Fieldworkers flush the birds out of hiding, and the shooters fire into the sky. Participating in a shoot isn’t cheap and usually requires inside connections.
The elitism associated with shoots has contributed to the perception that game is only for posh people, but young entrepreneurs like Waugh and respected chefs like Singh have introduced a cool-factor.
Singh opened the first of his acclaimed Indian restaurants in central London in 2001 and has built a name as a culinary game warden. In October, when a number of birds are at their best, he offers an unapologetic revision of game cooking with a six-course tasting menu at the Cinnamon Club, housed in the Old Westminster Library.
On my visit to the white-tablecloth restaurant, I ordered the roasted loin of Cumbrian red deer with sauteed potatoes, rock moss and onion sauce. It was one of my best meals. The venison tasted lean and moist and was deftly complimented by a dark, sweet, Indian-spiced drizzle. The chef’s inspiring methods combine the best of old and new, using tandoor ovens and Rajasthani flavors and techniques.
“I look at this whole aspect of game as an opportunity to reinvent, revisit or reimagine how things might have been in the past,” Singh said in a phone interview.
No culinary wild game excursion to London would be complete without a visit to Rules, which bills itself as the city’s oldest restaurant, in Covent Garden. Antlers and stuffed birds adorn the walls, which are also crowded with political and entertainment memorabilia. Equal parts museum and restaurant, Rules is worth a visit simply to experience the garish ambiance or to sip its signature pink gin cocktail, The Rules, served in an antique-style Champagne glass.
Four bites into enjoying my red grouse entree at the more than 200-year-old institution, my teeth made a discovery.
“Mmmm!” I alerted my tablemates, pointing at my mouth as I jostled its contents, rooting for a tiny intruder with my tongue. After finally separating the lead shot from the bird meat, I set it on my plate.
“A piece of shot! Isn’t that supposed to be good luck?” I asked our waiter.
“If you don’t break your teeth, then you’re really lucky. If you do, you’re not,” he laughed.
“Guess I’m lucky,” I said, flashing him a toothy grin.
Rich is a freelance feature writer based in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.