The Game Cook with illustrations by Debby Mason

An Excerpt from the Mail article by Norman Tebbit regarding ‘The Game Cook’ Cook Book

It all started in my local butcher’s shop, the New Street Butchers in Horsham, West Sussex. I often took in to him pheasants, partridges and ducks from my days out shooting.

I was looking at the pheasants priced between £4 and £5 and said: ‘Why do people pay more for a rubber-boned supermarket chicken than they would for a pheasant?’

‘Well,’ he replied, ‘I think mostly it’s because they don’t know how to cook them – and they think it would be very difficult.’
Norman Tebbit and his wife Margaret prepare a meal at their home

Kitchen cabinet: Norman Tebbit and his wife Margaret prepare a meal at their home

That, I thought, is probably correct, but something should be done to put it right. So I wrote down a couple of my favourite pheasant recipes, printed a few dozen copies and put them on his counter (probably a breach of Hygiene and Food Handling Directive Two Million and One from Brussels).

Norman Tebbit_Hare_Chapter

To my delight, the recipe sheets disappeared – and so did the pheasants.

From then, I was on the hook and bit by bit I gathered together recipes we used at home, put them all together and created The Game Cook. A lot of my friends were somewhat surprised that I should have written a cookery book rather than one about how they are all cooking the books at Westminster, but I was interested in food even before politics.

In fact, I cannot remember a time when I was not interested in food.

I grew up in an ordinary North London family in the Thirties when times were still hard in the wake of the Great Depression. We did not have much money to spend, and then through the war and post-war years, we queued for our rations and any luxuries such as oranges and bananas.

My mother was the daughter of a butcher (alas, he had retired before the war or we might have done better), so she knew a thing or two about meat and certainly how to make much out of little.

From her I learned some basic cooking skills and, just as importantly, how to buy food, especially meat. Without convenience food – unless you count baked beans – and without refrigerators, my mother’s generation had to think ahead and work hard in the kitchen.

Of course we grew what we could and particularly during the war we kept rabbits and chickens in our tiny garden. They were mostly laying hens (though if they went off lay they went into the pot), but there was always a cockerel for Christmas.

The vegetable production increased when a row of houses opposite us was bombed and we annexed one of the gardens. This was no time to be sentimental.

Whether it was one of our own rabbits or chickens or one acquired through some miracle of back-door or saloon-bar dealing, it came in fur or feather. It was my mother who dealt with such things and it was from her that I learned how to skin and clean rabbits and hares, and to pluck and clean a chicken.

Indeed, I remember when someone brought her a live goose, which was understandably in a pretty sour mood, she demonstrated how a rather small lady could quell such a large bird and wring its neck in the kitchen.

I must confess that these days I have become rather idle, relying on my butcher to prepare my birds, but when I shoot pigeons I usually take off the breast myself and leave the rest for my local fox in thanks for his help in keeping down the rabbit population.
Enlarge Pheasant with apples and cream

During my childhood, boys were not really expected to cook. They were conscripted to wash up, peel potatoes and prepare sprouts but not to prepare a proper meal.

Breakfast was different, however, and my mother taught me not just to fry bacon and eggs but also to poach eggs in a saucepan.

I suppose if any teacher was bold enough to try to teach such skills today, she would be stopped by some ‘Elf ‘n Safety fathead declaring that children might scald themselves with hot water. Fortunately, there were no such creatures around then (can one imagine their advice on what to do during an air raid?)

The post-war Labour Government was reluctant to give up the wartime controls. The idea that ‘fairness’ requires ‘equality’, which these days is poisoning our education system, made rationing attractive to them, and it persisted here long after it had been abolished by our former enemies.

It was eventually ended as much by the public, who simply opted out of rationing into an ever-widening black market, as by Churchill’s ‘bonfire of controls’ in the Fifties.

Food in Britain in the late Forties was still scarce and lacked variety until after Labour’s defeat in 1951. By then I had completed my National Service and begun to travel, first by motorcycle to France, and then, after training to become a pilot, with my Royal Auxiliary Air Force Reserve Squadron to Malta and Germany.

In 1953 I joined the British Overseas Airways Corporation and began to travel more widely, discovering the delights and disasters of eating around the world in grand hotels, at pavement stalls, restaurants, pizzerias and drugstores on all five continents.

I can still remember the delights of kippers and Carlsberg for breakfast in the BOAC Rest House at Kano in northern Nigeria after what was in those days a long night flight across the Sahara from Tripoli or Rome, and the hot and spicy ‘bearers’ curry’ in the Karachi Rest House.

Further afield in Singapore, I tried the unequalled sweet and sour garoupa at the famous Fatty’s restaurant in Boogie Street. Yes, the food was cooked on the street. Customers selected their fish from the kerbside stall and waited indoors for it to be carried in triumph to the table. A whole magnificent fish, enough for six people at least, would appear.

Alas, urban development and Singapore’s own ‘Elf ‘n Safety has long overwhelmed Fatty.

We lived quite well in those days and with no emails, mobile phones, fax machines or even landlines out to the Far East, we had a healthy detachment from home base at Heathrow.

The flight from Singapore to Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) always left a little early on Sundays and with fuel economy cast to the wind and the plane’s Rolls-Royce Merlin engines at the maximum continuous-power settings, we could just make the glorious Sunday fish curry lunch at the Mount Lavinia Hotel.

It was even better flying ageing York cargo planes. With no passengers to consider, I recollect Captain Kryzanowski (a man of huge stature, masterful individualism and impenetrable accent) telling me as his navigator that we would ‘press on to Barcelona – the food is better there than Tripoli’.

I learned a lot about food in those days when all too often at home one was offered Brown Windsor soup and grey tasteless slices of reheated roast meat immersed in tasteless gravy.

As a young bachelor I hardly ever cooked for myself, apart from late-night fry-ups of sausages over the fire in my room in the officers’ mess at RAF North Weald, or at the Surrey pub where I rented a room to stay between trips overseas.

All that changed in 1956 when I married a Westminster Hospital nurse, the daughter of a small farmer from the rich fenlands of Cambridgeshire. Living the strange life of an airline pilot who was often away for three weeks, then at home for two, it seemed natural to share the kitchen as well as the bed with my wife when I was at home.

Margaret was already a good cook having been taught by her mother. She had then taken a food and catering course and risen to manage the staff canteen of a Cambridgeshire department store before starting her nursing career.

She often reminds me that one of the first presents I bought her was a cookery book called Curries Of India, which we still use almost 60 years later. Another book, Plats Du Jour, published in 1957 and rebound in leather long ago, sits on a kitchen shelf alongside Robert Carrier, Delia Smith, the Grigsons, the Two Fat Ladies and Elizabeth David.

Cooking changed a little as our three children arrived and they grew up from milk, rusks and strained vegetables to roast joints, casseroles and curries.

We all learned more about food together, not least by taking holidays across France, Michelin guide in hand, and on a memorable posting in 1960 to Hawaii. Nearly 50 years on, I can still bring back to mind the wonderful aroma when a whole pig wrapped in banana leaves and cooked under hot coals on an earth oven was unwrapped on a warm, sandy beach at Waikiki.

That all changed completely with my abrupt transition in 1970 from airline pilot to Member of Parliament, but despite the odd hours (in those days the House of Commons sat longer and later, and Members did not expect the taxpayers to buy second homes for them, their extended families or their ducks), Margaret and I still worked together in the kitchen.

By then the children were cooking, too. ‘If you eat, then you cook’ was the dictum, and I am proud to say we have raised three good cooks.
Enlarge Partridge Hotpot

My wife was a far better teacher than I was. Far more able to let them make a mess and make mistakes, which is the best way (I really know) for any child to learn. I suppose that my experience of flying and politics leads me to try to stop people making mistakes – though without much success these days.

When Margaret Thatcher won the General Election in 1979 she invited me to go to the Department of Trade as the Minister for Aviation and Shipping.

I accepted the post with mixed feelings as, having already taken a hefty pay cut to become an MP (and we were not able to claim for expenses for mortgages, meals or grocery bills in those days), I had just begun to build up some outside business interests, which, as a Minister, I had to relinquish.

So I had to tell my wife that the good news was promotion and the bad news was another pay cut.

Department of Trade lunches were not epics of culinary note, but in Brussels the European Commissioners and my colleagues in the Council of Ministers did themselves rather well, and the time spent in restaurants was some compensation for that spent in meetings.

There was a good deal of travel within the EEC (as it then was) and other governments seemed anxious to impress Ministers with the scale and style of their hospitality. At the other end of the spectrum, a three-day trip on a mackerel fishing boat off the west coast of Scotland put me off mackerel for months.

Ministerial office led naturally enough to meals eaten at No10 and although the grand dinners for visiting Presidents, Prime Ministers and the like were always full of extremely good British food, I regret to say that I rather doubt if the Prime Minister really noticed.

I think Mrs Thatcher regarded eating as most of us regard putting petrol into the car, and the smaller lunches for colleagues were not meals to be remembered for the food (highly likely to be coronation chicken or the like) even if the discussions were sometimes quite hot and peppery.

Had I ever become Prime Minister I think coronation chicken would have had about as much chance of getting on to the menu as Arthur Scargill would have had of getting through the front door of Downing Street.

The next abrupt change in our life came with the Sinn Fein/IRA terrorist attack on the Grand Hotel Brighton 1984, which almost cost my wife and me our lives and left her cruelly disabled for life.

Since then Margaret has been a spectator in the kitchen while I, with the help of a succession of carers from all over the world (literally Abyssinia to Zululand) have been the head cook.

However hard we may try, no one who has not had to face the consequences of either the long, slow decline of a debilitating illness or the dreadful shock of sudden incurable injury, can understand the enduring hurt of being left near helpless and unable to perform even the simplest of the tasks we once took easily in our stride.

My wife was a very good cook. I still do not attempt the various sweet and savoury soufflés she used to make and I sometimes marvel at her patience when she has to sit and watch me bumbling around the kitchen to do things she used to do so well.

Those wartime rabbits and hares apart, my interest in cooking game is comparatively recent. It dates back to the early Eighties, not long before we were injured, when I took up shooting.

Strangely enough, a good many shooting men – many far better shots than I am – are quite useless in the kitchen, having little idea of how to prepare or cook the game they have shot, and some seem not to really notice how it is cooked and served.

What also surprised me is how little these TV cooks I call the ‘titans of the kitchen’ have to say about game, and I think that was at the back of my mind when I decided to write The Game Cook.

I began to put together my own and my wife’s favourite recipes and borrowed some from Game To Eat, which campaigns to promote game, and some from the illustrator of my book, Debby Mason.

I think it is a pity that some of the campaigners against the intensive rearing of chickens, and the dreadful conditions in the sheds in which chickens live for only a few weeks before being slaughtered, are prejudiced against shooting.

They forget that despite a lot of artificial rearing of pheasant chicks in particular, game birds have felt the air under their wings and the sun on their backs. They have lived and loved, flown and roosted in the trees, eaten real food and the smart ones may live into their second year to defy the foxes and guns alike.

So who would not rather be a partridge, pheasant or duck, let alone a grouse or woodcock, than even a so-called ‘free-range’ chicken – that is free to range only a few yards for a few weeks.

It is that element of natural life which, in the same way that Highland pastures give something extra to prime Scottish beef, provides game with its flavour and makes it a healthy, low-fat food.

As we become a more urbanised society, hunting our pre-packed food only in the freezers and coolers of the supermarket, I think it important that we should know something about (and, indeed, respect) the creatures we eat. If we lost touch with our past as predators, I think we lose something of our human identity.

That is why in The Game Cook I have included something about each of the animals, birds or sea creatures I regard as game.

Some of the facts are quite prosaic – others such as the social habits of mallard or just why March hares have boxing matches may help readers to set (or even triumphantly win) their local pub quizzes.

Debby has added wonderful mezzotints of all these creatures – something quite different from any other cookery book on the market.

All that apart, it is the recipes that make the book. Of them all, I think my favourites are rabbit with cream and two mustards, and pheasant with apples, Calvados and cream.

I have had high cholesterol levels all my life but only the harmless, rather than the nasty sort of cholesterol. However, if you have had a talking to from your doctor or have to take those awful statin tablets, game really is good for you, and there are plenty of low-fat casseroles, grills, and roasts included in the book. You could try the partridge hotpot, which is terrific, or the salmon in pastry which is simply the best possible way to eat salmon.

In selecting recipes for the book I have thought quite a lot about costs and, of course, top-grade venison or grouse make an expensive meal. On the other hand, my butcher sells wild rabbits ready to cook for as little as £2.50, and these days shoulder of venison – or the shanks – are reasonably priced.

When I decided to write my cook book I certainly did not set out to rival the celebrity chefs. For a start I do not think I swear enough and I am certainly too slow to be in Ready, Steady Cook.

My thought was both to help the Game To Cook campaign to make better use of the game produced in Britain, a lot of which is exported to France these days, and to introduce more people here to the delights of pheasants, rabbits and venison.

I have tried very hard to make the recipes easy to read and easy to follow. There is no Holy Writ about using exactly half a teaspoon of thyme or sugar, and I hope that readers will develop their own versions of most of the dishes in this book.

Some, like the pheasant with apples and cream, are just my versions of classic recipes. Others such as the risottos are ones that I have developed myself, often with the advice and criticism of my wife, friends and carers too.

There really is no reason why you should not do the same. There is room at the end of most recipes for your own notes whether it reads ‘never again’, ‘needs more cream’, or ‘gave this to the Smiths when they came to dinner’.

Some of these recipes, such as the easiest-ever curried pheasant, take no time at all. Others do take a bit of time and effort. Some even suggest you marinate the meat for 24 hours, but it is an easy book to find your way around – and one, I hope, that will become a friend in many kitchens just as Curries Of India and Plats Du Jour have been friends in mine for more than 50 years.

Old age protects us from the pleasures, and dangers, of some of those things we did in earlier years, but we can still enjoy food, drink and fellowship. I certainly count food – and indeed thinking about it and preparing it – as part of the pleasure of eating it.

The sharing of food is an important social ritual and it is a sadness to me that in so many homes the dining room has become a computer-game centre, and families seem never to sit down to enjoy meals together.

Good food is such an enriching thing that I am sure proper eating will be restored by the coming revolution. ‘Foodies, fly the flag for fine food’ will be our war cry.

See the full Norman Tebbit – The Game Cook article from the mail on-line here



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