Even when you waltz in off the street and buy it from a butcher, there’s something about game meat – rabbit, elk, venison, boar – that catapults a shopper beyond the sterilized realm of polystyrene trays and plastic wrap into the very forests and fields from which it came.
And yet, unless you own a gun and have a hunting permit (or a generous friend with both), when it comes to the “game” available to most Canadians for purchase, there’s nothing wild about it. That’s because it’s illegal to sell hunted meat in almost every province in Canada (Newfoundland and Nova Scotia are two exceptions). And while the intrepid chef might occasionally find a loophole to slip through, when you see it on a menu or a chalkboard – and you can expect to, as game is becoming increasingly trendy – it has almost certainly been farmed.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Unlike your average domesticated livestock, farmed game is exceptionally lean, since it typically has access to pastures and therefore plenty of space to move around, not to mention a diet that is close to what it would eat in the wild (chickens and cows, by contrast, are subjected to heavy grain feeding in order to fatten them up). If anything, because hunted game works so hard in the wild, it tends to be a bit tough, while farmed game produces tenderer cuts.
That’s not to say that eating farmed game meat is entirely without controversy: Raising domesticated game in areas with high concentrations of their wild brethren living nearby can put the wild population at risk of disease should any of the farmed animals make an escape. According to Terry Church, manager and resident veterinarian at the Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch near Calgary, sound farming practices – such as the use of double fences – can mitigate such risks.
That’s the sort of thing you’ll want to ask your butcher about. If he or she is up on the trend, a knowledge of farm conditions should be a given. Buyers should also be prepared to pre-order (you can’t expect to find a pre-boned saddle of rabbit every day of the week at even the best butcher shop) and to exercise patience (the rack of elk we planned to cook for this story, for instance, proved to be unattainable, since elk is only available seasonally. We used venison instead).
Once you get the meat to your kitchen, you’ll want to pay special attention to cooking times. Tender cuts such as loin (see the venison rack here) are juicy, but so lean that you have to be careful not to overcook them, whereas tougher cuts such as shoulder – used in the wild-boar ragu on Page 8 – acquire wonderful tenderness and flavour when slow-cooked on the stovetop, as long as they’re cooked in plenty of liquid such as wine or stock.
The recipes for game presented here are prime examples of how a little technique – and an old-fashioned method or two – can yield impressive results the next time you’re hosting guests who appreciate an adventurous menu. As for flavourings and accompaniments, consider the old saw that game tastes best with whatever it had for dinner (i.e., simple greens, tubers and taproots).