This is part of a series exploring the cultural, technological and social trends that are informing the way we dine and select what we eat. Read the rest in the series here.
For anyone who appreciates the particular earthiness of wild venison or the liver-tinged intensity of a well-aged pheasant, finding the words, “Game May Contain Shot,” on a menu is one of dining’s great little thrills.
With Quebec announcing that it’s lifing the ban on hunted wild game for 10 select restaurants, and other chefs in the rest of the country hoping to follow suit, those magic words may well be coming soon to a restaurant near you.
Canadian wild game is the envy of chefs around the world, but it’s been years since any has appeared on restaurant menus. This fall that’s set to change and the impact of Quebec’s limited experiment – allowing licensed hunters to sell certain wild species to restaurants – on our culinary scene could be dramatic.
While there’s no question that a backstrap of wild venison or tenderloin of moose ribs will give chefs plenty of opportunity to create exciting dishes, the real action lies inside the animals. For the chefs I spoke with it’s the offal, the animal’s internal organs, that has them most excited.
“Deer heart is just one of those sacred things,” says chef Jesse Vergen of Saint John Ale House in New Brunswick. “When you get a deer, there’s just one heart in there and it’s the first thing that you’re going to eat. …When you’re field dressing an animal that’s when you start pulling out the offal and the heart is one of the first things that we grab off and harvest. The liver’s good, too, but the first thing I go for is the heart.”
Vergen prefers to treat the heart delicately. He butterflies the organ, trimming off the sinewy valves and then simply seasons it with salt and pepper before grilling it over a charcoal fire with a bit of the leftover fat from the gutting process to balance out the meat’s leanness.
“The fat on wild deer is just mind blowing,” he says. “It just has this nutty wildness to it that you can’t duplicate through agricultural practices.”
As both a hunter and a chef, Vergen’s appreciation for the whole animal – not just the most tender, glamour cuts – shows both a respect for the life of the creature and an understanding of the culinary potential within.
Canadian restaurants and diners have grown accustomed to seeing offal (the “off-fall” from a carcass) on menus. Restaurants such as Toronto’s Bar Buca, with its skewers of lamb intestines, and Vancouver’s Campagnolo Roma, who’s Quinto Quarto dinners have featured duck feet and lamb kidneys among other ephemera, are taking the fear factor out of this style of eating.
The next step will be to start applying that aesthetic to wild game. The trick will be balancing sustainability along with our appetites.
For Maison Publique’s Derek Dammann – one of the Quebec-based chefs who was instrumental in changing the laws in that province to allow wild game – it’s the offal of game birds that he’d most like to work with next.
“The big question around that,” he explains “is that we can’t serve migratory birds because they’re not indigenous to Canada. They’re 50 per cent from here and 50 per cent from where they migrate to.”
Dammann worked with wild game birds extensively as a young cook apprenticing at St. John in London, one of the English restaurants responsible for the influential Nose-to-Tail movement that emphasizes utilizing some of the less celebrated parts of animals.
“If you want to take it back and go old school, Antonin Careme-style,” he says, “all those classic patés and terrines were all wild duck livers and wild rabbit livers. They didn’t farm ducks back then.”
“Grouse livers especially are amazing,” he notes. “I love using them for some sort of parfait or paté. You cut them with foie gras to mellow out the gaminess and make it a lot more creamy. That’s a beautiful product. ”
Over at Joe Beef – another restaurant participating in Quebec’s wild game program – chef and owner David McMillan is preparing to go even more old school.
“You kind of almost have to put on your voyageur hat,” he says. “Ask yourself, ‘What would the voyageur have in the backpack?’ I’m sure he doesn’t have coriander seeds.”
For his part McMillan is particularly looking forward to working with tongues: moose, deer, caribou, but is approaching the ingredients cautiously and with respect.
“The whole trick with all of this new stuff is going to be really getting to understand the flavour,” he says, “and not masking it with heavy sauces and vinegar reductions.”
When some of Canada’s most respected chefs approach ingredients with the kind of reverence they reserve for wild game offal, it’s obvious there’s something special going on.
“For the amount of hunting that goes on in Canada during a season, it’s crazy that a lot of those parts get tossed by the wayside,” Vergen says. “If you take an animal from nature the least you can do is use all of it.”