The Wild Side
Julius Caesar’s memoir about his war in Gaul is not a particularly funny book. I discovered that this past summer when I tried to read all seven turgid volumes. However, amidst all the veni vidi vici, I fell upon one curious episode; Caesar gives us the first reference in Western letters to the most delicious of all animals, the elk.
According to Caesar, elk live in Germany. They are just like large goats, except that they have no knees. Their legs are completely rigid, and so they have to sleep by leaning against a tree. When the Germans want to hunt them, they sneak up to the elk’s favourite tree and saw it away until the trunk is completely severed but still balanced upright on the stump. In the evening, the unsuspecting elk slumps against the tree for a little shut eye, and boom! It topples helpless to the ground, where the German can harvest it at his leisure.
This is, of course, complete codswallop. Elk have knees. Knees are pretty much essential. The only quadruped without knees is a dining room table. My theory is that when Caesar was “questioning” some captured German soldiers for material to pad out his book, these barbarians decided to have a little fun with the inquisitive Italian dude. They also informed him they hunted unicorns and elephant-sized cattle. Julius Caesar, the most bad-ass Roman general in history, ate it up with a spoon. I guess he didn’t notice how his captives kept giggling.
The other thing the German informants failed to tell him was how tasty elk is. Perhaps they didn’t want to give away the secret. Certainly the best steak I ever had was from elk. The dense, dark meat is packed with complex nuances, and sometimes has a minerality like a bottle of Graves.
Game meats are now a hot item in Canadian cuisine. “Chefs have always loved these things, but the collective palate is advancing just now,” Brook Kavanagh told me when I met with him at the restaurant La Palette, in Toronto, where he has been head chef for seven years.
A range of factors seem to be bringing game meats into focus: a concern with more authentic food, a quest for different flavours, and perhaps even a touch of Canadian pride, since some of the best game is in our Northern hinterland. “There are so many animals out there besides cows, sheep and pigs. From an ecological perspective, it’s good to focus on other animals besides cows and pigs. Plus, it is often better quality meat — muskox and bison are raised in pristine conditions; big forest-like conditions, arguably better than what their wild counterparts live in.”
The only problem with game meat is that it’s often not as wild as we think it is. Strict regulations about how animals are raised and slaughtered keep almost all wild meat out of restaurants and butcher shops. Most “game meats” are raised on some sort of a farm. However, the mere fact that it is farmed meat doesn’t mean that it is inferior. “It depends on the farm,” Brook said. Some game farms are essentially a tract of woods with a big fence. “The more an animal can eat what it wants to eat, the better it will be. A fenced-in area in a forest will taste wild … terroir is as important for game as it is for wine.”
High quality farmed venison and elk can have the rich, earthy flavours of hunted game. However, if you crave the authentic taste of truly wild meat, you have only a few options. You can buy a rifle. You can hang out at an aboriginal reserve. Or, if you’re in Toronto, you can visit La Palette, where Chef Brook has a special connection that sometimes brings in muskox and caribou from Nunavut. “I’d say we get about 80 per cent of all the wild meat that comes into the city,” he said.
His muskox is incredible; a dense but tender meat with a distinct bready flavour. “It’s the same animal as it would have been 30,000 years ago,” Brooks says with a grin. “It was a contemporary of the woolly mammoth, but the muskox survived the Ice Age. It’s closer to sheep or goat than ox. It’s got lamb-like fat, and some cuts are very well marbled, almost like Kobe beef in the sirloin, but instead of corn, they eat arctic lichen.” Other animals on the menu have almost as fine a historical pedigree. “Wild boar is its own species; it has tusks and hair. It’s Iron Age pork, the kind of pig our ancestors used to eat. Wild boar would be the original, or at least as original as you can get.”
The special flavours of game meats present some challenges when it comes time to select a wine. “Game meats tend to be quite lean, so wines paired with them have to have some level of tannin, but not anything so young or strong that will overpower the flavour of the meat,” Lesley Martin, a Toronto sommelier told me. “Braised game or game served with a sweet, fruity sauce can hold up to richer, New World wines such as Washington Syrah or even a restrained Australian Shiraz. Grilled meats, however, need more tannin and structure to help coagulate the proteins, resulting in a softer overall mouth feel … a well-aged Bordeaux would work well.”
Of course, game can also include flavourful birds like partridge or quail. “A game bird simply roasted would be lovely with a lightly oaked white Burgundy or an aromatic white such as Pinot Gris,” says Lesley. “Served with a rich berry sauce, however, and it can hold up to richer, lower-tannin red wines such as Merlot or Grenache.”
For my own part, I like to open a Barolo with my muskox. The tannins massage the dense protein, while the Nebbiolo’s autumnal flavours pick up on the wild accents in the meat. I also choose Barolo because it cellars for so long. It’s a little insulting to eat an Ice Age animal with anything but the oldest wine you’ve got.
pan roasted pheasant with oyster mushrooms in a whiskey raspberry sauce
wild boar belly stuffed duck neck
pickled bison kidney and bone marrow persillade