In her book Girl Hunter, chef-turned-hunter-turned-author Georgia Pellegrini chronicles a year of uncommon adventures: chasing wild hogs along the banks of the Mississippi in an ATV; stalking turkeys along the Sonoma Coast; crossing creeks in hot pursuit of javelinas in West Texas. All for meat she can secure with her own hands.
The French Culinary Institute grad honed her cooking skills at pioneering farm-to-table restaurants in the United States (Gramercy Tavern and Blue Hill at Stone Barns) and France (La Chassagnette). In her book, she writes, “The pleasures of eating are trumpeted loudly in today’s society and that is a wonderful thing. But the pleasures of knowing what occurred on the journey from field to the table are just as important, because the food tastes better that way.”
So in Girl Hunter, she dips into rural, forgotten spaces, seasoning her sporting skills and educating the reader on the merits of wild game. Recipes are included.
Along the way, she meets a cast of spirited, wine-collecting characters, including a 60-year-old Montana native named Wilbur, who listens to Italian lute music and “sips a serious cabernet in sixty-dollar stemware from which he refuses to drink from standing up, for fear it will break.” Deep in the Arkansas Delta, she feasts on “ribs soaked in apple juice, cooked until the edges are rendered to a caramel crust” and crawfish corn muffins, sipping a 30-year-old Châteauneuf-du-Pape in antique lawn chairs under starlight.
The beauty of the old-world hunt she describes, at times, resembles the grace of winemaking. Any hunt is about the experience itself, she says, even when you end up empty-handed. Much like winemaking, hunting is a pursuit in which you can still find comfort in the simplest of things: watching the sunrise and walking with a loyal canine, reveling in the mysteries of Mother Nature, and, when the stars align, creating something beautiful and transcendent that is shared with friends while breaking bread at the table.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Pellegrini.
When talking with those new to wild game, what are some of the reasons you suggest for eating beyond the usual beef, chicken, and pork?
Hunting and gathering, when done ethically, are the last natural and instinctive interplay between humans, the land, and animals. Hunting is also about conservation — a way to help animal populations that have overrun their carrying capacity as we eliminate their habitat.
Hunting is an act involving all of the senses. It is part of the natural cycle of life. Humans eat animals, animals eat animals and plants, plants feed from the dirt, and we turn to dirt.
So much of our food system has been industrialized in a way that doesn’t sit well with me. Hunting my own meat is a way for me to step outside of that system and participate in every part of the process, and to not have an anonymous relationship with my ingredients. As a chef and an omnivore, this has been a very eye-opening and gratifying experience.
What are some of the challenges and considerations when pairing wine and wild game?
Wild animals are athletes; they roam freely and eat whatever they please. This means they are more muscular with less fat, and so you don’t need the same heavy cabernets that you would need with a fatty steak, for example. Also, since every animal eats what it pleases, each one will taste slightly different from the next, depending on its habitat. This means that each dish will be a new culinary adventure, and as such, the wine pairings are also an adventure. In a way, it’s a chance to experiment. You may stumble upon a combination that is once in a lifetime.
In the chapter “NASCAR Hog Hunting,” you mention that smoked whole hog is a favorite wild game dish. Do you have any favorite wild game-and-wine pairings?
Pine Ridge Cab with venison, or for something less expensive, a decent zin always pairs well.
Williams Selyem Estate is, in my opinion, one of the best pinot producers in the world, and smoked wild hog is one of my favorite pairings. Also, a good oaky Sonoma chardonnay with quail or fried dove usually does the trick.
What is the most unexpected wine pairing and wild game dish you’ve enjoyed?
Chateau d'Yquem Sauternes and wild duck.
Besides your kitchen, what are one or two favorite restaurants you head out to for wild game dishes and good wine?
True wild game can’t be found in U.S. restaurants, because U.S. laws require all of it to be farmed. But over in England, I’ve had some amazing game and wine at St. John's Bread & Wine. Other restaurants, like Freemans in New York City, do a nice job though of conveying that “primitive modern” spirit in their cuisine.
As Georgia Pellegrini intimated, it’s possible for restaurant-goers to find game meat year-round; adventurous eaters are devouring it for many reasons. Game meat is often leaner than meat from farm animals, and it’s lower in fat and richer in flavor. “Plus, it’s totally sustainable,” says Gloria Ciccarone-Nehls, the executive chef at San Francisco’s Big 4 Restaurant. “The animals I buy graze on vast acreages of land, so it’s almost like having wild.”
Some of my favorite places to dine often have a game dish or two on the menu; here are four to try.
The Painted Lady, Newberg, Oregon
In the heart of Oregon wine country, chef Allen Routt and his wife, Jessica Bagley, create an enchanting dining experience in a beautifully restored Victorian house. The chef is an alum of the nationally revered The Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. His wife works front-of-the-house at The Painted Lady and also manages the wine program.
An Oregon native, she remembers her dad hunting wild ducks and deer. After a successful hunt, she says, her mother would make simple preparations like cracker-crusted duck breast.
The chef and his wife say they love working with game meat because it’s so rich in flavor. Together they picked the following wine to complement one of their spring plates.
The dish: Pheasant Roulade. (Making a roulade with the confit leg meat and foie adds richness and depth of flavor, says Routt.)
The wine: 2007 ROCO Private Stash Pinot Noir
Big 4 Restaurant, San Francisco, California
The Big 4 Restaurant is legendary for its recurring Wild Game Week, a 25-year-old tradition. This “beast feast” includes a series of dinners featuring wildly creative fare like crispy piranha chops and Himalayan yak tenderloin, grilled rattlesnake sausage and game cassoulet.
Chef Gloria Ciccarone-Nehls sources game from more than 10 farms and ranches. “I feel good about game because there’s no antibiotics and no hormones; it’s all natural meat,” she says. The wine pairing below was picked by Big 4’s food-and-beverage director, Simon Harrington.
The dish: Roasted Baby Rocky Mountain Elk Chop “Rossini style” with Pan-Seared Foie Gras, Creamed Spinach, Souffled Manchego-Potato Crêpe, Black Truffle Pan Jus
The wine: 2007 Robert Mondavi, Oakville, Cabernet Sauvignon
Serratto Restaurant and Bar, Portland, Oregon
When chef Tony Meyers led a class called “Game for Entertaining” at In Good Taste Cooking School in Portland, every seat was taken. At Serratto Restaurant and Bar, the chef always includes at least two game dishes on the menu.
Meyers finds game meats fun and interesting to cook, and for his patrons, these dishes are often the favorites of the evening. “Any game dish we bring on as a weekend special will usually sell out,” he says.
The dish: Roasted quail stuffed with Italian sausage and forest mushrooms, walnuts, apples, marble potatoes, bacon, green beans, Oregon huckleberry demi-glace
The wine: 2009 Belle Pente Willamette Valley Pinot Noir
Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, Virginia
Tucked into the leafy cobblestone streets of Old Town Alexandria, the team of chef Cathal Armstrong and his wife, Meshelle, tell a story every night with thoughtfully sourced and seasonally inspired fare. The 34-seat Chef’s Tasting Room features a five-, seven-, and nine-course prix fixe tasting menu called the Earth & Sky, always an ode to meats and game. The wine pairing was picked by sommelier Todd Thrasher.
The dish: Beaver Creek Farm Squab with Eve’s Garden Rhubarb, Young White Asparagus, and Foie Gras-Squab Emulsion
The wine: 2007 Domaine François Villard ‘Reflet,’ Syrah
Chef Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve
Chef Allen Routt and Jessica Bagley, The Painted Lady
Chef Tony Meyers, Serratto
Chef Gloria Ciccarone-Nehls, Big 4 Restaurant
Related book: Girl Hunter
Kerry Newberry is a wine and food writer based in Portland, Oregon. She believes a good glass of wine is a story of people, place, and time. Join her here as she seeks out the personalities, politics, and poetics that craft a wine from vine to table. Follow her online and on Twitter @KerryNewberry.
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