Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Game Birds

 'Game Birds & Barley'
Wood Pigeon, Pheasant, Partridge & Quail's Eggs with Girolles, Pied de Mouton, Walnuts & Sloe Gin Sauce
     Ok, ok...a mouthful.

     Definitely a more fussy style than my usual rustic approach.  The presentation is modern and deconstructed, yet I am a fan of this sort of dish if everything on the plate compliments each other and there is some semblance of purity to the final execution.  We are coming into serious game bird season and there is more than enough to go around.  The key is not to overcook the little beauties.  Nice and pink or they will go to sawdust in your mouth.  Make good use of the rest of the bird in a confit or stock and those little fillets you removed can be saved for a broth, risotto or salad at a later date.  It is always a laugh to serve a creature with what it may have eaten- barley; and a feisty sloe gin sauce with the last of the season's wild mushrooms rounds off a light and fresh take on some big winter flavours.  
     Of course I love the traditional arrangements of whole roasted birds with bread sauce, game chips, root vegetables...etc.  Yet there is something to be said for the perfect breast coaxed in frothing butter to a sublime and savoury pink morsel.  A sexier foil to the rustic norm.
     Pigeon is my absolute favourite.  Like baby venison.  Doe-eyed Bambi loin on a plate.  So sweet, yet heady with a subtle earthiness.  Another time when I wonder why the hell these aren't in the supermarkets when the U.K. is overrun with them.  Never mind the fact that my fellow Canadians wouldn't even have a bloody clue.  'Pigeons? Ewwww...!'  Sigh.  So out of touch with the land and their own taste buds.  (But more of the Europe/North America flavour divide at a later blog...it's not all bad.)  A couple of pigeon points of note: For all those squeamish Canucks- Passenger pigeons were once the world's most abundant bird.  An estimated 5 billion in North America until we ate them all.  For my Dad- You won't like this one old man...it was the traditional main ingredient in that hallowed family dish- Tourtiere.  In fact, discovering this shock horror has spurred me on to perfect this most classic of Quebecois fare.  Watch this space.
'Seared Pigeon, Foie Gras & Spinach Croute, Blackberry Sauce'
     A note on sloes.  The fabulous prunus spinosa, blackthorn or 'sloe' is an abundant crop round my parts in the autumn.  Carefully pick a kilo or two, freeze for a day and infuse in a jar with double the quantity cheap gin and caster sugar to taste.  Let sit for as long as possible.  The resulting deep crimson liquor I used for this recipe is around two years old.  The longer kept the better.
     An afterthought on microherbs and leaves- use them wisely.  Think about the flavours and apply them sparingly.  A mound of shiso cress on top of a mushroom risotto does not work.  Chefs are going overboard with these dainty yet powerful trendy additions. 

'Eat me...please.  There are ten million of us in the U.K. alone.'

The recipe:

Game Birds & Barley

Ingredients for 4 main courses:

450ml Strong beef stock (Or a tin of consomme in a pinch)
250ml Sloe gin
150gm Barley
2tbsp Finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 Tomato, blanched, skinned, de-seeded and finely diced (concasse)
1/2tsp Lemon juice
1-2tbsp Rapeseed or extra virgin olive oil
6 Quails' eggs
16-20 Walnut halves
2 Pheasant breasts, fillets removed
2 Pigeon breasts, fillets removed
2 Partridge breasts, fillets removed
Sunflower oil
100gm Unsalted butter
12 Girolles or pied de mouton mushrooms
Micro leaves to garnish such as radish or red chard (Now grown in Devon!) 


1) In large saucepan combine the beef stock and sloe gin.  Bring to the boil and reduce until somewhat thickened, down to about 150ml.  Take care not to over-reduce to marmite!  Reserve.
1) Bring the barley to a simmer in a large saucepan and cook for 45-60 minutes until just cooked.
2) Drain and cool spread out on a tray.  Place in a bowl and mix in the parsley, tomato concasse, lemon juice, rapeseed oil and seasoning to taste.  Set aside.
3) Fill a bowl with ice water.  Bring a medium pan of water to the boil and carefully submerge the quails eggs for 3 minutes.  Straight into the ice water for 10 minutes     before peeling and slicing in half.
4) In a 200 degree Celsius pre-heated oven, toast the walnut halves until golden.  Let cool somewhat and rub off the papery filament. 
4) Lightly oil the skin sides of the game bird breasts and season well.  Pre-heat a large non stick pan to high.  Place the breasts skin down and fry until golden. 
5) Reduce the heat and add the butter, turning the breasts and basting all the while.  3 minutes for the pigeon and partridge, 8-10 for the pheasant.  Rest on kitchen towel.
6) Reserve the excess juices and butter from the frying pan in a small bowl and keep warm.
7) Using the same pan without cleaning, crank up the heat and drop in the mushrooms.  Fry on a high heat,      adding a knob of butter and seasoning, for 4-5 minutes.  Keep warm.
8) Heat the sloe gin sauce and mount a la minute with a wee knob of butter.  

To serve:

On large dinner plates, randomly mound seven tablespoons of barley on each.  Using a sharp, thin bladed knife slice the pheasant breasts into six and the remaining breasts into four.  Place each slice onto a mound of barley.  Dot artfully the walnut halves, mushrooms and quail's egg halves.  Drizzle the sloe gin sauce and pan juices over the plates and flourish with micro leaves.  
I recommend staying on the sloe gin for this one- just add a little soda.

Parting Shot:

A note for all the posh Brit hunters this season-

'Kill no more pigeons than you can eat'.
-Benjamin Franklin


  1. Definitely time to start eating more pigeons and get the population down. Your photo of Seared Pigeon, Foie Gras & Spinach Croute, Blackberry Sauce, looks seriously delicious. Your writing on food is great! Have learned and am learning a lot!

  2. Great! Thanks Janna, really appreciate the comments. Of course, we are not talking about the feral and flea ridden pigeons of down town Van here...pristine wood pigeons.
    The sad thing is that the posh knob hunting parties here might kill 2 or 3 hundred game birds a day for fun, and not eat a one. They actually get plowed by a JCB back into the land. Now that is what I call inhumane. Take a life for a reason I say.

  3. Pigeons are for racing. Drop them off in Wales, and they return to you in Ireland. Go figure.