Fair game

Game is quietly zooming up the popularity polls, with chefs and butchers promoting its health benefits and consumers increasingly confident about cooking and eating it. Carina Perkins reports

There is no arguing that meat is facing some tough opponents at the moment. Once the realm of extremist animal rights groups, hysterical meat headlines have become a national obsession over the past year, with scientists, MPs and even celebrities quoted in newspapers calling for a reduction in meat consumption. Thankfully, the majority of consumers are still aware that meat is an important part of a balanced diet, and have continued to buy their burgers and bacon. One impact the negative press has had, however, is to drive higher-income consumers towards meat that is perceived as 'ethical' and lower-impact. It is no wonder, then, that we have continued to see an increase in sales of game meats - which offer excellent animal welfare, minimal fat content and a carbon footprint that would please even the most virulent environmental campaigner.

Game sales have seen a staggering 64% growth since a dedicated promotional body, Game-to-Eat, was set up in 2002. According to the latest Mintel report, released in August 2008, growth has continued over the past few years, with sales up 21.1% since 2006. "It was expected that the market would reach 69m last year, with sales growth levelling out at around 8%," says Game-to-Eat director Alexia Robinson. "Everything we are hearing from butchers, supermarkets and caterers suggests that sales will hit these predictions, or even exceed them. Game is seeing the highest sales growth of all meats."By all accounts, game sales have remained robust throughout the recession. Ben Rigby, of Ben Rigby Game, says: "Game is definitely still growing in popularity and people haven't stopped buying it because of the recession. We have noticed that people are switching to cheaper cuts, but they are still buying game." Alexia believes that game's ability to ride out the recession lies in the fact that consumers are looking for something a little bit special to cook at home. "One effect of the recession has been a renewed interest in home cooking," she explains. "People are experimenting more and seeking out game as an alternative to mainstream meats."

== Chef support ==

As is often the case, it is the foodservice market that has led the way in turning game from an extremely niche meat to a regular dinner choice. Much of Game-to-Eat's 1.4m spend on promoting the game market has been targeted at training chefs and increasing the amount of game offered on pub and restaurant menus. "The work we have done in the catering sector has had a big impact on making game more accessible for consumers," explains Robinson. "We have been slowly plugging away in the foodservice area and game is now an exciting and integral part of pub menus. People are getting used to eating game in a pub environment and this means that they are more likely to eat it at home."

It is not just pub chefs that are making the difference. Game is a favourite amongst celebrity chefs and Rigby says: "Cookery programmes have made a big difference. It really is amazing what they have done in terms of promoting game."

One celebrity chef in particular is throwing his weight behind the game campaign. Phil Vickery, a big fan of British seasonal produce, has produced a series of web-films for Game-to-Eat's website. The films feature six consumer-friendly recipes using partridge, pheasant and venison and include Chinese-style pheasant, simple roasted partridge and braised venison with smoked bacon, red wine and apricots. The films are supported by downloadable recipes and available on the Game-to-Eat website www.game-to-eat.co.uk.

Other famous game fans include Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Valentine Warner from TV series What to Eat Now, who described game as "one of the most underrated British foods". Its not just celebrity chefs getting behind game either. Alex James of British band Blur and US actor Nicholas Cage have both declared their love for British wild game, while former Conservative MP Lord Tebbit has recently released a game cook book detailing his favourite game recipes.

== Retail push ==

Another factor driving game's impressive growth has been the uptake of game by major multiples. "Supermarkets have started stocking it and they are battling against each other for sales," says Rigby. Supermarkets are certainly increasing their share of the game market. According to Mintel, sales of game though farm shops, farmers' markets and online increased by 60% between 2003 and 2007, while supermarket sales increased by a massive 150%.

Game-to-Eat did a lot of promotional work with supermarkets last year, including in-store tasting. "We ran a huge supermarket sampling campaign last year, the biggest ever in the UK," says Robinson. The campaign has not forgotten butchers, however, and has a range of point-of-sale material, recipe booklets and posters available for independent outlets. "We also have newsletters for butchers and buyers, as well as free listings for butchers on our website," says Robinson.

Although supermarket competition is always a threat, butchers have several important advantages over multiples when it comes to selling game. "Buchers have the benefit of talking one-to-one with customers and explaining the flavours of different types of game, and how to cook them," says Robinson. "They can also highlight the provenance of their game in-store."

== Breaking it down ==

Venison is undoubtedly the most popular game meat, with three-fifths of the market share. Mintel's latest report showed a 25% increase in venison sales, with the venison market worth a projected 40m in 2008. "Venison has always enjoyed high growth, especially with the increase in healthy eating," Robinson says.

Venison has always been regarded as a healthy meat and recent research by environmental and agriculture specialist ADAS has confirmed this, revealing that venison contains significantly less saturated fats than other red meats. The research, sponsored by Defra and the Scottish Government through the Sustainable Livestock Production LINK Programme, revealed that venison has one-third of the fatty acids found in beef sirloin steaks, and a quarter of that found in lamb chops. In addition, the proportion of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids was found to be much higher than in other red meats.

"Compared to other red meats venison has real health benefits: not only is it lower in fat, but it contains higher proportions of the polyunsaturated fatty acids that the body needs," explains Mervyn Davies, project leader at ADAS. "The ratio of polyunsaturated to saturated acids is well above the desired health threshold and much higher than in beef and lamb."

Despite its low fat content, the meat came up trumps in taste tests. When ADAS conducted venison tasting surveys in farm shops, farmers' markets and multiple retailers, venison was judged to compare well with other meats and scored highly for 'tenderness', 'juiciness' and 'overall liking'. A massive 91% of respondents indicated that they would purchase venison in the future, including 79% of previous non-eaters.

The main reasons cited for people not eating venison were "don't know where to buy venison" (20%) and "don't know enough about it" (18%), rather than a particular dislike of venison. "People are not eating venison because of limited supply, or because they don't know where to buy it, rather than because they don't like the taste," explains Davies, who describes venison as an untapped market. "There is clearly a large potential to increase venison consumption among current non-eaters," he says.

Price, always a limiting factor for venison, is less of a problem now that beef and lamb prices have increased. "The recession has meant venison prices are now competitive with high-end beef cuts", says Robinson, although Rigby points out: "Some of the higher-end venison products, such as roe deer, which is the best of the best, have priced themselves out of the market."

== Bird's the word ==

Aside from venison, says Rigby, it is the meats highlighted in cookery programmes that are seeing the biggest growth. "Pheasant, partridge and pigeon are favourites of celebrity chefs and they are becoming more and more popular as a result," he explains. Mintel's report also identifies pheasant and partridge as "the major-players in the game bird sector", commenting that they have benefited from amendments to game laws, which have made them more accessible out of season.

Mintel predicts that the feathered bird side of the game market will grow in value over the next few years, with greater presence in multiples as well as farm shops and butchers.

Game is not all about venison cuts and whole birds and the sector has seen an increasing amount of new product development over the past few years. "There is an ever increasing range of game ready meals and ready-prepared, well-presented and easy to cook convenient cuts of meat," says Robinson. "Butchers are excellent at developing their own game products, such as sausages, pies and pasties."

Game pie in particular has seen a resurgence of late, with increased presence in butchers' cabinets and on pub menus. A game pie was even crowned triumphant winner of the 2009 British Pie Week Challenge. The pie, made from locally sourced venison, rabbit, pheasant and pigeon, was the creation of chef Ashley Robbins from the Keystone Pub in Guildford. "Customers love the strong flavours pulled together in a hearty but exceptional value dish. I cannot make them quick enough," said Robbins.

== Growing trend ==

Rigby believes that, for the time being, game sales will continue to grow, although he is not sure that UK demand for game will ever match that in Europe. "I see game as a growing trend as people become more and more aware of game meats and how to cook them, but I don't know if growth will continue indefinitely, or if game sales will reach a ceiling," he says.Game-to-Eat will certainly be doing its best to drive Britain's game consumption closer to that of its Continental neighbours. "We will continue to promote game in supermarkets and expand our catering workshops. We will also be enhancing our point-of-sale material and working to establish our website as the definitive information hub for game," says Robinson.

With an established presence on pub menus and increasing space on supermarket shelves, game is certainly back on the table for UK consumers. With red meat in the firing line from all and sundry, this highly sustainable meat might just be the healthy, ethical alternative that concerned consumers are looking for.


=== Deer connection ===

The red deer was recently voted the Scotland's most iconic animal. The country's hills and forests are brimming with the animals, along with roe, fallow and silk deer, and Scotland enjoys a thriving venison industry as a result.

Around 107,000 deer are culled annually in Scotland, producing about 3,500t of meat. With venison increasingly recognised as one of the most healthy and sustainable meats around, Scotland's main producers have joined forces to put Scottish venison firmly on the map.

The Scottish Venison Working Group (SVWG) is a collaboration between the Association of Deer Management Groups (ADMG), the British Deer Farmers' Association (BDFA), the Deer Commission for Scotland (DCS), the Forestry Commission Scotland (FCS), the Scottish Gamekeepers' Association (SGA), and Scottish Quality Wild Venison (SQWV). It is the first time that these groups have worked together to promote Scottish venison. "The DCS has never had anything to do with promoting venison before, but was asked by the Scottish government to foster a more active interest and take a more positive role in the promotion of the meat," explains SBWG chairman Stephen Gibbs. "In turn, the DCS turned to the processors and producers and various organisations and said 'Let's all work together'."

The SBWG was formed last year and activity culminated in a venison event held for MSPs at Holyrood in January. The event, attended by a number of high-profile Scottish politicians, including Richard Lochhead, cabinet secretary for rural affairs and the environment, told the story of venison from hill to plate through displays and presentations. MSPs had the opportunity to meet those who work in the industry - stalkers, deer farmers, processors, and land managers - and there were demonstrations from acclaimed venison chef Nichola Fletcher and butcher Bruce Brymer. "The event was very well-attended and seemed to go down very well," says Gibbs.

Having impressed the politicians, the group has now turned its sights on consumers and recently announced the launch of Eat Scottish Venison Day, which will take place on 4 September. The website will offer a range of information about Scottish venison and its heritage, listings of where to buy and eat Scottish venison and recipes from chefs and the public. SBWG is keen to get butchers involved in the initiative. "We have already done some work with butchers and we will have posters and display material to use in their shops," says Gibbs. "We are also encouraging butchers to buy in venison in advance of the day. We will be focusing on giving them our maximum support between September and December."


=== Greys' anatomy ===

We tend to think of meats such as venison, rabbit and pheasant when we talk about game, but the Britannia Encyclopedia states that game used in gastronomy is the "flesh of any wild animal or bird". Ed Chester, head chef of Otterton Mill in East Devon, seems to have taken this rather to heart. The chef enjoyed national fame for serving up squirrel kebabs at Otterton's restaurant and said he would like to put badger and rook on the menu too.

Chester argues that grey squirrel is one of the healthiest and most sustainable meats you can find - high in protein, vitamin B6 and selenium, but low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. "Squirrel is a very tasty meat, with a flavour between wild boar and chicken," he said. "When we put our squirrel kebabs on the menu we sold over 40 portions in 90 minutes."

The decision to put squirrel on the menu was also driven by Chester's desire to highlight the plight of the native red squirrel, being forced into extinction by the hardier American greys. Organisations such as the Red Squirrel Protection Partnership and National Trust promote the culling of grey squirrels to encourage widespread re-establishment of our native red species. Simon and Caroline Spiller, the owners of Otterton Mill, were so overwhelmed with enquiries when their restaurant served up Chester's squirrel kebabs that they set up Squirrel Direct, a service to supply restaurants and butchers grey squirrel meat nationally. With orders from high-profile chefs including Heston Blumenthal, it might not be long before squirrel becomes a game meat to contend with.