Let The Game Begin

posted by Ben Reade

Male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos)

At Nordic Food Lab we have a constantly evolving focus. One fundamental idea, however, is how the study of whole ingredients comes down to a study of biology. We analyze the ‘edible biogeography’ (the distribution of edible species within our area) using a systematic approach to enable us to build a system of ‘gastronomic taxonomy’, or ingredient classification. Modeling our outlook on the phylogenetic trees used by biology to represent the evolutionary similarity and difference between species, we can start to build our own ‘culinary phylogeny’.

While analyzing the edible biogeography one of the first things to become apparent is the furred and feathered wild game. These wild animals spend their time eating so many of the ingredients which are so celebrated by the gastronomic world, such as mushrooms, herbs and berries – which all impart their flavour to the meat. Typically wild animals live very active lives which gives the meat unique texture and taste. Getting to know a good hunter could be one of the most valuable things a chef can do. As a neophile (someone always searching for new tastes) wild animals offer a unique opportunity to step away from the norm and serve something with genuine character. It may seem ironic to talk about new tastes when talking about game – after all, it is the single most traditional food source on the planet. In Scandinavia we have fantastic examples of rock art depicting exactly this in Alta in northern Norway.

Roe deer legs curing with juniper and salt

Let us take Roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) as our first example. After being shot, the gutted animal can then be hung to develop more flavour. Perhaps a good rule-of-thumb for how long to hang the deer is this: to find the number of days to hang,  multiply the hanging temperature by the number of days until you reach 40 – this will give you an appropriate length of time. For example, at 6°c the deer might be left to hang for around 7 days. The deer should be suspended from its hind legs. Once hung and skinned, the chef has many options – but I’d like to talk about how we can introduce this deer to salt in order to cure it, thus spurring an intimate relationship between the dead meat and living microorganisms – representatives from the transformative branch of our gastro-taxonomy.

Curing meat is the product of cultures dealing with the problem of how to extend the shelf life of meat by making it inhospitable to pathogenic microbes. The earliest preservation techniques would have dried meat using the sun, wind, rock salt, or salt from partially reduced seawater as well as ash from certain salt rich plants. Partially drying meat allows the survival of only certain microbes with anti-pathogenic qualities whereas removing all water makes it impossible for the survival of all micro-flora. 

In Northern Europe the ancient meat preservation techniques have used smoke to create a physical layer on the salted meat which keeps it from spoiling. In the photo below is a leg of roe deer onto which we have put to salt, making our version of the Norwegian Fenalår. Though normally the meat used for this process is lamb, we’ve chosen to experiment with different meats. Last year I made two of these ‘hams’ both of which turned out to be very delicious. As these were so successful I kept one of these hams way past its prime in order to use the molds and lactic acid bacteria to inoculate this year’s ones. Using wild bacteria, yeasts and moulds can be a risky process, but when a successful fermentation occurs, this can and should be used to inoculate the next batch. This year’s venison fenalår has also been smoked (more on this in the next post) adding an extra dimension to the flavour – and of course, over the year of meditation I have had time to adapt the recipe. Of course as venison lacks the thick fat of pork, it must have some protection to stop it drying too much over the year, so after two months of drying it will be dipped in fat to slow the drying process, after a further 4 months it will be dipped in bee’s wax to completely halt its dehydration. The recipe for our fenalår is as follows:

Male mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos)

Rub a well-trimmed and clean roe deer leg with yogurt whey

Leave at 5 degrees overnight

Rub the leg with juniper dust and salt (around 2% of weight)

Leave at 2 degrees for 7 days

Rub the leg with spruce resin tincture

Hang the leg at 2 degrees for four days

Place the leg in cold smoker for 4 days

Remove and hang for two months

Dip into rendered deer fat

Leave a further 2 months

Dip into melted bee’s wax

Leave a further 2 months

Remove wax, slice thinly and enjoy!

Products that are designed to age for a long time are traditionally made during the cold months of November or December. This allows the drying process to happen in cool temperatures; the aging process, a slow enzymatic process can then occur over the summer months to then have your cured product ready to eat thinly sliced the following winter. Now is the season, get experimenting!

Finally, I have to tell you about a bird that stole my heart: the beautiful ptarmigan. For those of you who have been denied the opportunity to work with this very special bird you should do your utmost to get your hands on a brace. The bird comes from the grouse family, and in its winter plumage, this pure white bird is one of exceptional natural beauty. Upon plucking the carcass free of its white down, I eviscerated the animal. I have to say it was quite a surprise, for never have I gutted an animal and found its entrails to smell, well, pleasant. The insides of this little guy smelled incredible, an evocative terpenous note of pine and forest started to fill the room. After a quick investigation I found that it had been eating only crowberry foliage and it was this which had imparted its incredible flavour to the bird. I have never in many years working with food found such a clear example of how the feed of an animal can effect its flavour.

When cooking ptarmigan, treat it like grouse, and cook it gently. High heat will destroy it. Don’t worry too much about the colour on the outside and take the cookedness of the flesh into primary consideration. To preserve the fantastic aroma, I suggest cooking the crown sous-vide at 62°C until warmed through, followed by a flash in a medium hot pan with plenty of basting with butter. This is a spectacular bird, and the eating only enhances the awe of the raw product.