Game Renaissance Dinner
Featuring Matt Wilkinson and Paul Cooper
Field to fork. Paddock to plate. Farm to fridge. Slaughter to side dish.
Do you know where your food comes from?
Last month I came across a clipping in The Age promoting the Game Renaissance pop-up dinner, an event hosted by Rebecca Sullivan of Dirty Girl Kitchen. For those of you who don’t know, Dirty Girl Kitchen is an Adelaide-based catering company that specialises in protecting ‘granny skills’, you know, the kind of skills that include everything from that perfect chicken soup recipe and your nana’s famous quince jam to how to kill chickens and skin rabbits. That’s right, a couple of generations ago people actually slaughtered their own food.
The part of the clipping that caught my attention read: “A variety of animals will be slaughtered and prepared in full view of diners...” I took a snap on my phone and posted it to the Poppet’s Window Facebook page (What’s that? You feel a sudden urge to ‘like’ the page? Go on then!), asking one simple question: “Would you go to this?” The lengthy debate that followed revealed mixed feelings. On one side of the fence was the argument that everyone should know where their food comes from. On the other side, the ‘against team’ disputed we no longer live in a hunter-gatherer society, therefore it’s not necessary to observe every part of the process that puts food on the table.
I had to know more. I got in touch with Rebecca (who was kind enough to invite me to the dinner as a guest), as well as chef Matt Wilkinson (Pope Joan, Bishop of Ostia, Spudbar) and Paul Cooper from O'Connell's Centenary Hotel in South Melbourne. Both chefs are renowned for using seasonal ingredients and sustainable methods in their cooking. What follows is part recount of the Game Renaissance event and part insight into sustainable food philosophies from some of the best in the industry.
But let’s start with Rebecca. Through events such as Game Renaissance, she’s gone to a lot of trouble to reteach granny skills since founding Dirty Girl Kitchen. So what’s the big deal?
“The game thing is huge to me. There’s such a generational gap between our grandmothers and us. I mean, (game) used to be the norm for them, but they also have bad memories of it because it was usually served pretty revoltingly,” she says.
But as Rebecca points out, this notion of game as practically inedible has changed. Nose-to-tail eating is trendy these days; you can hardly visit a decent restaurant in Melbourne without encountering some form of pig’s ear on the menu (I had an amazing pig dish at The Estelle a little while back, have a look here). For Rebecca, it’s about taste as well as reducing landfill.
“We’ve got this clean slate. With all of our technology and bad stories (about traditional game eating), we’ve turned those things around and made them bloody good, and they’re cheap, and they’re good for us… It’s really important to tap into that, especially in a time where waste is at the forefront. Our problem is not feeding the world because of lack of land etcetera, etcetera, it’s because of waste and distribution. And if we don’t learn to respect a whole animal by using the whole carcass, including the fur, then what chance have we got?”
As for the dinner: somewhere along the line there must have been a miscommunication. To the relief of those who read the clipping in the paper, nothing was actually slaughtered in front of the diners. Instead, Matt Fowles from Fowles Winery skinned a rabbit he had shot earlier — in less than 20 seconds flat — between courses. The name of the event, Game Renaissance, is a double entendre: all the food served was game, but Rebecca also sought to introduce people to less commonly eaten wild meat, and nose to tail dining. She dared us to try something new by asking, “are you game?”
When people think of game, whether they picture sloppy rabbit stews or tough and stringy goat ‘braise’, it’s not usually positive. The most amiable part of the Game Renaissance dinner, held at The Little Veggie Patch Co., was the quality of the hearty dishes.
Upon arrival, beautifully set tables and what was essentially a nursery in the guise of a hunting lodge greeted us. White and Wander event stylist Emma Clements set the tables with hessian and paisley cloths, antlers and an abundance of candles in jars. Displays of wooden baskets, stuffed animals, furs and skins decorated every surface.
The evening began with Stone Dwellers sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir and amuse bouche. Pigeon cigars were presented in a vintage tin lined with checked cloth. The tender meat was encased in fried pastry; it was essentially a gamey take on a spring roll.
Moreish salt and pepper quail followed, as did a silver tray of roasted chestnuts toasted on the open Webber.
We took our seats and cooed over the adorable personalized sprout that marked our places (mine is now thriving in the garden!), complete with an official Game Renaissance badge.
Crumbed Scotch quails eggs awaited us, delicious crumbed morsels with their yolks barely runny.
The Kitchen Gardener Michael Weldon (a runner up on Masterchef 2011) and Marsha Busse (formerly of Heston Blumenthal’s three Michelin starred UK restaurant, The Fat Duck, who runs Marsha's Sweets) teamed up with Dirty Girl Kitchen’s Yasmin Whitehead to cook up the game feast. Each of the three courses was served on gorgeous old-fashioned china. The entrée, served with Are You Game Pinot Noir, was a flavoursome pan-fried pigeon breast served on a bed of pearl barley risotto with pretty pink Rosella petals and crunchy, deep-fried Brussels sprouts (definitely the way to go if you want your kids to eat them!).
In between the entrée and the main, Matt Fowles turned a fluffy little rabbit into a cut of meat. He made it look incredibly easy, and not a single person averted their eyes. A word of warning, the following images are quite graphic, but hey, that’s what this is all about.
When we returned to our seats, a potted rabbit with a silky top layer of butter was ready and waiting. Warm crusty baguettes were passed around whole, each person breaking off chunks to accompany the pâté. To cut through the oiliness of the butter, piquant, home-pickled onions were also served. We literally ‘broke bread’ together; it was simply lovely.
A large dish of melt-in-the-mouth slow roasted goat arrived before we could finish our mouthfuls, accompanied by wilted greens and spiced carrots. Just in case there wasn’t enough food, the beetroot and smoked goats curd salad spotted with crisp-fried sage leaves and dripping with a burnt sage butter sauce was the perfect accompaniment on the cool, clear night. The mains were served with Ladies Who Shoot Their Lunch Shiraz, the only wine in the world specifically blended to match wild game meat.
Keeping with the homeliness of the game fare, dessert delivered us a devilishly rich chocolate pudding, which oozed soft chocolate from its centre and was drizzled with spiced caramel. Made by Marsha, we knew it was going to be good before it arrived. The smooth vanilla bean ice cream was a nice contrast against the incredibly rich steaming pudding. Thankfully, the tartness of the poached quince with which it was served meant we could finish the entire thing.
The cherry on top was Dirty Girl Kitchen’s own rosemary and olive oil truffles. We indulged ourselves by washing them down with port, brandy, rosella tea or Nespresso Grand Cru coffee… or all of the above!
The night was undoubtedly a success. Not only was everyone game at the Game Renaissance dinner, we all learnt a thing or two and made some new friends. But the most important component was the message Rebecca is spreading.
“They loved the food, they loved the rabbit skinning, they loved how different it was… it was generally quite different, which is what we wanted it to be… Everyone was really engaged… I think probably half of my audience were already captured anyway, they were already converted, but maybe only ten percent of them had actually seen a rabbit skinning before. Even if it’s only 100 people that we’ve got, those hundred people tell other people don’t they? And you hope that that message spreads and people talk about it more…”
The message is important. How can you know what you are putting into your body if you don’t know where your food comes from? How can you know that the animal was treated properly, or that those vegetables weren’t sprayed with chemicals? There will always be people who won’t want to touch a bloody steak or will refuse to pluck a chicken, but Rebecca maintains it’s important for individuals to know the provenance of what they put into their mouths. In fact, she admits it’s an “obsession”. Her mission is to connect people with their fare. In her opinion, “If you can’t touch raw meat and if you can’t understand where your food comes from, then you shouldn’t eat it.”
But it’s not just about being aware of the treatment of your food. It’s also the unsettling reality that the next generation often don’t know what their food is, let alone it’s origin.
“It shocks me constantly when I come into contact with kids who don’t know what a broccoli is, or that a cow is the steak that you’re eating in your hamburger. It’s so important for everything; it’s a basic life skill… it’s of the utmost important for the next generation to understand where their food comes from and to be connected to it more,” urges Rebecca.
It was clear on the night that people were interested in learning more. Everyone asked questions. They wanted to know why certain meats had been chosen, where they came from, and why it was matched with certain wines. To borrow Rebecca’s words, the Game Renaissance dinner “was educational and fun and tasty!”
Rebecca is not alone in her line of thinking. Chef Matt Wilkinson shares many of her ideas about food. He was going to be part of an event during the Melbourne Food and Wine festival at Greenvale Farm in the Grampians, where those who attended would have had the option to see a pig slaughtered in the morning and then used, nose to tail, in a number of cooking demonstrations. The event was cancelled due to lack of interest.
It would seem that people can handle a rabbit skinning, but not a slaughter. According to Matt, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you are willing to witness an animal being killed before you eat it, as long as you trust your suppliers and the places you dine out.
“Speak to the farmer and see how the meat is produced. Ask the farmer what abattoir he goes to and why he takes it there; you’ll get an insight into how it’s going to be killed. And then obviously, if it’s going to a respectful restaurant, you know it’s had a good life and I think that’s enough,” he says.
It’s interesting that people can feel an emotional attachment to, say, a pig being slaughtered, but they can go fishing without any qualms. Again, it comes down to suppliers. Matt highlights industrial fishing, where large nets are trawled in and bring with them a lot of unwanted species that are discarded, not to mention the dangerous level of overfishing that goes on. “It’s basically the same as just ramming a whole lot of cows into a ramp and into an abattoir,” he says.
So how does Matt deal with preparing animals from scratch?
“For me, it’s about creating as little pain to anything before you actually eat it, which I think is the same with most people. My main philosophy on it all is if you’re going to go out and you are going to go hunting — and whether that’s hunting or fishing, or snorkelling for abalone and crayfish, or whether you are spear fishing or shooting with a gun or a bow and arrow — then you must eat it afterwards. Shooting for fun is a massive no-go in my beliefs, it’s just wrong, as are large-scale abattoirs.”
Paul Cooper is another chef who always cooks in an informed and sustainable manner. For him, it’s all about respecting the produce.
“I personally love to go out and hunt and forage for food. It is a very rewarding process, and the results are always very satisfying. I grow a lot of my own herbs in my backyard. This is to ensure I know the quality is there... I work with food every day, and when I know where that produce comes from — so if it has been well handled, or fished in an environmentally friendly way, or picked from the garden, or the neighbours tree before I leave for work — it makes me and the chefs around me respect it more, to do justice to this amazing produce,” he says.
While slaughtering, gutting and skinning animals is gruesome, someone has to do it. And as people’s interest in the provenance of their food continues to grow, perhaps more will readopt the ‘granny skills’ that Rebecca is trying to spread. Regardless of the uptake on an individual level, renowned chefs are increasingly using sustainable practices in their cooking. Paul is one of these.
“Having personally gutted and feathered game birds, it’s a pretty dull and monotonous task. The Game Renaissance dinner makes me think of the cultural classes in Game of Thrones, the new TV show… Modern chefs are now bringing this style of hunter-gatherer back to the forefront. Rene Redzepi is a very strong advocate for foraging, he only forages in the region he works, and serves produce from only the country he is in. This is influencing many chefs around the world. I believe this will continue to evolve,” he says.
Paul is cautious in pointing out perhaps the only disadvantage of the Game Renaissance dinner: ‘doing’ and ‘witnessing’ are two very different entities, and people learn more quickly in a hands-on scenario when it comes to food preparation.
“At a dinner like (Game Renaissance), the process becomes a little removed, less rewarding, because the foraging and hunting has been done for you. You are simply watching... Having said this, I also think it is important for people to understand how food is processed and prepared.”
At the end of the day, it’s extremely difficult to constantly monitor where the food on your plate is coming from. The simplest solution is to grow your own food. Start a veggie patch, plant fruit trees and keep chickens. But not everyone has the resources or time to do this. Farmers’ markets are also a great option, as they support smaller suppliers and you can chat to the stallholders about their produce. You can buy from a local butcher, who should technically know where his meat has been slaughtered and how. You can eat at places, like Pope Joan and O’Connells, which stay true to sustainability. But the test is to actively consider the product you are buying so you can make the right choices. Matt acknowledges that like many, he finds it challenging to always be informed about where his food comes from, but he has some invaluable advice when it comes to mindful eating:
“I don’t think everyone needs to see how something is killed… There are all these ethics in food and I think that the debate on killing is one of those ethics... Like free-range eggs: free-range is now 20,000 chickens in half an acre. That is a lot of chickens in one area… Just go to Hong Kong and stand in the subway and see how you feel. No one likes it. So all those things come under ‘ethics of food’. If you believe in it and you want to follow the practices, just go with people that you trust… there are so many ethics in food that you can’t fight them all, and that’s what I find the most difficult.”