I must confess, I was slightly confused when I was asked if I would be interested in reviewing a game night at a Chipping Norton pub.
It took a full 10 seconds for the penny to drop that it would be an evening involving eating meat from wild animals, rather than Cluedo, Monopoly and Scrabble. Once I realised, I had no hesitation in accepting.
Game, much like offal, is one of those things that separate the true foodie from those that just eat to stay alive. Many turn their noses up at the thought of eating something that was living in the wild, even branding it cruel to make a meal of a creature that was shot (while, ironically, tucking into factory farmed produce). Many worry about biting into pieces of shot. Others just don’t like the gamey taste. But isn’t flavour what makes food so great?
So it’s three cheers then for the Blue Boar in Chipping Norton for starting a regular Game and Wine Night, to celebrate the delicious food that so many shy away from. And all washed down with matching wines.
It’s a booking only affair, with a limited three-course menu, but it is all the better for that. Assistant manager and all-round cheeky chappie Christian Grant creates a welcoming and friendly atmosphere for the diners, making it more like a dinner party than a meal out, especially in the Blue Boar’s spectacular dining area created in the former stables.
Well, it did differ from a dinner party in at least one way – it started with a demonstration of how to skin, bone and prepare items of game, including grouse, a pheasant and even a decapitated roe deer. Definitely not one for the squeamish, but if it’s your thing, it was a fascinating and entertaining glimpse into butchery.
We returned to our tables to find a little treat waiting for us – wild boar Scotch eggs and wild boar sausage rolls from the pub’s bar menu. As someone who has munched his way through tonnes of these sort of snacks in his time, I can honestly say they were the best I’ve ever tasted. The sausage meat was sensational, the pastry was perfect and the egg yolk was still runny.
The starters kept up the high standard. My local wood pigeon breast with butternut squash and sage risotto was a marriage made in heaven, with the rich bird – almost livery in flavour – complemented by the sweet, autumnal flavour of the squash.
My wife loved her crispy duck leg croquette with poached pear, but the star of the dish for her was the celeriac remoulade – coleslaw-like shreds of the raw root vegetable in a sweet, tangy mayonnaise dressing – she wouldn’t leave the restaurant without extracting the recipe from chef Dale Ventham.
So now we entered the business end of things with the mains. For me, whole roast partridge with bubble and squeak, roasted parsnip and redcurrant jus. The bird was nice and moist, thanks to it being vacuum-packed and cooked in a water bath before being brown off before serving. The bubble and squeak was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and loaded with potato, carrot and cabbage, while the parsnip was a lovely sweet accompaniment. I would have liked a bit more redcurrant in my gravy, but nevertheless it was a lovely dish.
My wife’s venison, wild mushroom and celeriac pithivier was a hearty pie, served with roasted heritage carrots, shallots and a port jus. The aniseed flavour from roasting the veg with fennel seeds got mixed reviews, and the jus could have done with an extra glug of port, but the pastry was crisp, and the filling was rich and moist.
We might not be counting down the 12 days of Christmas yet, but it seemed fitting to follow partridge with a pear. It was poached in port and served with a crunchy walnut crumble and was beautifully light and not over-sweet. A seam of thick, almost cheesy clotted cream filled the inside of the pear, providing the ideal contrast in flavours. Sublime.
My wife’s cheese board was equally impressive, including Oxford Blue and Alex James’s little Wallop. Rock and roll.
All the courses were matched with a specially chosen wine, plus a glass of fizz to start and port to finish. Which makes the price of £35 per person exceptionally good value.
So, I would judge this first event a success. Bring on the next one: game on.