It’s a hanging debate
Matt Limb OBE looks at the myths around hanging game birds before they are ready to be prepared for the table.
As a nation we have always been proud of our heritage when it comes to eating and our diet – think of the many regional dishes: Yorkshire Pudding, Lancashire Hotpot and locally, Lincolnshire Sausage. Yes, there are fast food outlets, but as a nation we prosper on our Sunday lunch; often shared, it is something to be enjoyed with family and friends. The great tradition of roast beef, pork or corn-fed chicken, accompanied by locally sourced vegetables, really can’t be beaten.
But also, as a nation, we are becoming more adventurous in our eating habits. Many say it comes on the back of our summer holidays, which are now often taken abroad, where we are exposed to a wider diet.
Our food exploration is continuing much closer to home as well: in recent years the amount of game we eat has increased massively. Here I would guess the most popular is venison, and it is easy to understand why. It is a very healthy meat full of flavour with virtually no fat. Also gaining in popularity is pheasant, the traditional countryside’s much-loved meat, alongside one of my all-time favourites, partridge.
Game can easily be locally sourced, so there are not considerable food miles from transporting it across the planet. This also means that you can more easily trace where it came from. Plus it allows for a wide range of cooking options, including the traditional roast. So it is no surprise that game is making a regular appearance on tables across the country, especially for Sunday lunch.
However, for many people venturing into cooking game, there is a question that I am asked on a regular basis, concerning the preparation of any game before it is ready to eat. Do you really need to hang game – and for how long?
I was reminded of this during the cold snap that hit the country just before Christmas. I was out with the dogs on a local shoot carrying a couple of pheasants when a colleague commented that, given the bitterly cold and freezing temperature, the pheasants would need to be hung for a longer time. This started a conversation about how long any game should, or should not, be left, or hung, before being considered ready for preparation and eating. I was surprised at the various comments and individual thoughts and beliefs, which highlighted that it is a very personal thing, dependent on your taste and to an extent the menu and cooking process for which the pheasant is destined.
I really should not have been surprised. A few years ago I was with a small group of Americans in London on business, they said they had been taken out to dinner the previous evening and pheasant was on the menu. Naturally, I asked if they enjoyed it, and one of the group said no, not at all.
He acknowledged that the meal was outstanding and well presented, but he found the pheasant almost inedible. Describing the meat as far too strong and almost bitter in taste, I told him it sounded like it had been hung for too long, before being prepared in the kitchen.
My American colleague was not into his shooting – or as it is known in America, hunting – so it took some time to explain. However, over a year later, we spoke after he had eaten pheasant again, and this time he commented that the meat tasted totally different. Clearly, this bird had not been hung, or at least for a far shorter length of time.
Like most game, there may not be a great depth in the taste. The secret to eating game meat is the way it is prepared and cooked. But the taste can be altered by hanging game; typically a brace of pheasants will be tied together, then left hanging on a nail in the shed for a few days.
In years gone by it was said that game was only regarded as ready for eating when maggots appeared on the meat. In fact, if you speak to people who do not eat pheasant, or game, on a regular basis, they still think it is normal. But I suspect the whole maggot story has more to do with country folklore than any grain of truth. I have eaten game all my life and have never encountered this, myth or reality.
The process of hanging will age, or mature any meat; today this is normally done in a temperature-controlled room, with good, controlled airflow. While the meat is hanging, the enzymes in the meat make the fibres within the muscles softer, ultimately leading the meat to become more tender – but it can change the flavour. As it hangs, meat also loses some of its moisture, which is regarded as a good thing when it comes to cooking. In the simplest terms, when meat is hung it will start to decompose.
So are pheasant, partridge and other game any different when it comes to hanging? It is widely acknowledged that larger animals, especially cows, would be almost inedible without a period of ageing – remembering we would regard a well-hung, mature piece of beef as ideal. But smaller animals, including poultry, are often sold before hanging. Plus, they generally have a more tender texture of meat, hence do not require hanging.
So, it would appear today that the ageing, or hanging, of game has become more of a matter of taste than a necessity. Here I will put my hand up and confess that I am not overly keen on pheasant or partridge; in fact, any game that has been hung for longer than a couple of days. That said, the good lady wife has a recipe for pheasant pâté where it is better for the birds to have been hung for a little longer to acquire a slightly stronger flavour.
Today, most people prefer the taste of pheasant when it is relatively fresh. Yes, you need to allow the bird to rest and the meat to set, so typically it will be left for up to 48 hours, in feather, before being prepared for the table.
So, after getting your brace of pheasants from the local farmers’ market, assuming they have been shot in the previous couple of days, they will be ready to prepare after you arrive home. At this point I should add that hanging is only required for birds that are in feather – that is, a bird that still requires plucking and cleaning. Oven ready birds will not require hanging.
But I think there is a greater point to be had here, beyond the simple argument of how long a brace of pheasants should, or should not, be hung before preparing them for the table. The very fact that we can have this conversation shows how in touch we are with our food; no green miles on a pheasant for the pot, the chances are they have travelled less than an hour, field to fork, so we know where they came from. If that is not good for the planet and our health, then I do not know what is.
Photographs: Matt Limb OBE