As you read this, 10 frenzied chefs are sweating over their hot stoves in a kitchen in deepest Ayrshire.
Each hopes to win the accolade of Game Chef of the Year and bag the prize of a trip to Sweden to shoot wild boar. Organised by Braehead Foods in Kilmarnock, the competition is unique in the UK and requires contestants to cook their signature dish using Scottish small game birds and/or venison, hare or rabbit and to cook it under the watchful eye of judges Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart. Entry numbers have tripled in three years, with 150 whittled down to today's chosen shortleet.
With only days to go before the end of the Scottish shooting season at various dates in February, after which it becomes illegal to kill small wild birds such as woodcock, grouse, pheasant, snipe, duck; and red deer (though it's open season all year round for rabbit, wood pigeon and hare), it's interesting to note how highly-prized our beautiful wild creatures remain - not only among the fieldsports fraternity, but also in the world of haute cuisine.
Small birds and deer can be difficult to cook well as their meat is lean and can dry out quickly, yet there's a growing trend for them on top menus. Martin Wishart's £75 tasting menu features a partridge ravioli; Michael Caines's £125 version offers pheasant cumin and pumpkin puree; Heston's £195 menu has a jelly of quail; and so on.
Inevitably, game's unique culinary challenge makes it more attractive to the notoriously competitive cheffing community. Craig Stevenson, who founded Braehead Foods some years ago, a major supplier of Scottish game, finds chefs enjoy cooking with game because it's a good showcase of their skills. Demand is growing, and his outlets currently include Gordon Ramsay's three-star Royal Hospital Road, Claude Bosi's two-star Hibiscus, Angela Hartnett's Murano, and the Trianon in Paris.
The dishes being prepared today do indeed showcase heart-fluttering creativity. Who but the most skilled would have thought of sloe-gin cured wood pigeon with millet porridge and raw turnips; smoked game boudin with pain d'epice; a trio of mountain hare with fruit and bitter chocolate sauce; pigeon Wellington; venison pastrami; or roe deer liver, kidney, spelt, beetroot and hawthorn?
Another reason Scottish game is so popular is the allure of its unique provenance. It's sourced from all over the wildest Scottish moors and glens, from Wick to Langholm, which adds the magic ingredient of romance. And the beasts in question fly or walk miles to keep themselves warm and well-fed on wild, pesticide-free plants and berries, which makes their meat the leanest and healthiest possible to eat.
Yet the majority of ordinary consumers have never tasted it. Some farmers' markets and independent butchers sell prepared game meat for easier cooking. Major supermarkets sell Scottish venison, but birds are more difficult come by. Today's contest between chefs from a variety of reasonably priced restaurants will ensure more diners get to experience it. Heaven forfend that Scottish game remains the preserve of the culinary elite.
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