Fame of the game

Once seen as the preserve of kings, game is cheap, nutritious, flavourful, and a healthy choice. And

A supper table from 'Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management.
A well-laden supper table. A print from 'Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management', circa 1860. Credit: Getty Images

Once seen as the preserve of kings, game is cheap, nutritious, flavourful, and a healthy choice. And you’ll find it in many more places than the very poshest restaurants.

It took a trip to Iceland for me to sense the sea change in British culinary culture. On the hunt for Chipsticks (the freezer chain is, oddly enough, one of the few places that still stocks this indescribably delicious corn-based snack), bigger quarry caught my eye: a "Luxury Pheasant Wellington" nesting among the Mini Kievs.

To me, this bird, so beloved of the landed gentry, seemed out of place in a value-conscious London supermarket. Game is the ideal example of what the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik calls the inextricable link between diet and politics. In France, shooting for sport seems a more egalitarian activity, with most communes boasting a club de chasse for outings to the local woods.

The difference is, as ever, historical. Although the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy enjoyed drive hunts on a grand scale - what the historian Emma Griffin has described as "a comprehensive slaughter of wildlife" - game was also a vital source of food for those who could afford little else.

The conquering Normans, keen hunters in their homeland, were quick to claim all game within the English royal forests as the property of the king. "Men of the best sort and condition," as Elizabeth I put it, have assumed it as their birthright ever since. No wonder, then, that during the civil war these wooded aristocratic playgrounds were stormed by the aggrieved masses. "A fine meal of venison on the plates of the poor signified the world turned upside down," Griffin observes.

But, after the Restoration, revenge was swift and cruel. The notorious Game Act of 1671 has been condemned by historians as "a classic example of class selfishness". Only the generously landed were permitted to hunt.

Furthermore, to discourage poaching, the sale of game was made illegal, a prohibition that kept venison, partridge, pheasant and their ilk off the national menu for over 150 years - for law-abiding folks, at least. Farmers, who had to watch the creatures rampaging through their crops, turned a blind eye to the midnight hunter, and in retaliation their betters turned to spring guns and mantraps with names such as "the Crusher" and "the Thigh Cracker" to help protect their furred and feathered property.

Game on

So dangerous was the sense of rural grievance that in 1831 the government was forced to relax the property qualifications for the game licence, giving the nouveau riche admission to the shooting party. The main beneficiaries of the changes, however, were the wealthy urban gourmets described by Mrs Beeton; with game back on sale, her Book of Household Management is lavish with recipes that would have been all but irrelevant 50 years earlier.

Its peculiar supply chain means game remains a niche product - but slowly Britain is rediscovering its appetite for the stuff. Richard Townsend, director of the supplier Yorkshire Game, recalls that ten years ago his customers were "principally the better class of restaurant". Thanks to the enthusiasm of TV chefs such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, he says, they are increasingly likely to be pubs and chains. There's also more game around than there used to be. Shooting has become "more popular and affordable", and 99 per cent of pheasant and partridge that are shot get eaten: consequently the price of a brace of pheasant is a quarter of what it was in the 1980s.

Whatever your feelings about hunting as a sport, these semi-wild animals offer an undeniably ethical as well as interesting alternative to your average piece of supermarket meat. Do your bit for the class struggle - eat the king's game.