It's fair to say that game suffers from a couple of persistent preconceptions. For some, it immediately conjures up a banquet image of lavish and rich feasting, whilst others can't get past the idea of eating Bambi. Despite these obstacles, Scott Martin and Marc Dennis, the two men behind Duchy Game, are finding customers increasingly passionate about eating birds and animals that have thrived in the wilds of the Cornish countryside.
The business was founded in 2012 with the idea of supplying both restaurant clients and the general public with fresh, traceable and affordable Cornish game. The majority of their birds come from Caerhays Castle, located in a sheltered valley overlooking Porthluney Cove on the south Cornish coast, whilst their venison comes from Tregothnan just outside Truro – still a traditional working estate. Duchy Game prides itself on supplying quality produce from field to plate, and it is not an empty boast, with Scott (a licensed hunter) actively involved as a regular beater on both estates.
The pair met playing rugby at St Agnes. Scott had already moved from hunter to supplier and started a stall at the Truro Farmer's Market as a sole trader. Marc explained: "Scott had an injury and wasn't playing, so I asked how it had happened. He told me he'd picked up a huge red deer and twisted his knee. It wasn't what I expected to hear. We got talking and discovered a lot of common ground and a shared passion for locally-sourced wild Cornish produce. It all went from there."
Marc's experience in the fine meat trade started 15 years ago, when he joined a quality catering butchers based in South London. He met Scott shortly after moving to Cornwall with his family, and the partnership was born.
They supply fresh venison, rabbit, partridge, pheasant, wood pigeon and woodcock. Until recently, far and away the most popular product was the diced venison, snapped up by the public and commercial clients alike, including Grumpies of Cornwall who use it for a pie that is stocked by Harrods. But with the warmer weather, sales of their barbecue-friendly products such as sausages, burgers and venison haunch steaks have shot up. Scott said: "It's something different – everyone has been given a shrivelled up beefburger or a blackened bit of sausage, so when you present them with a delicious, juicy pigeon or pheasant breast served rare with herbs and garlic, it's a revelation."
Marc said their range of venison burgers and sausages are also going down well with visitors to the Farmer's Market, where it is often a case of letting the public try before they buy. He added: "We're trying to change people's perceptions of game. As soon as you mention deer a lot of people think of Bambi. It's funny how lamb isn't viewed in the same way, because everything is small when it's young. Another problem is that most think of venison as having a really strong flavour, and a lot of the farmed stuff you get in the supermarket will do. We try to explain about different species having different flavours, but the best thing is for people to try it. So many customers come back the next week and say they can't believe it and will use it for Bolognese and other dishes from then onwards. The fact is that venison is higher in iron and vitamin B than beef and lower in fat. It's versatile and – another thing that surprises customers – it's affordable. We're trying to make it a part of people's everyday diet."
Duchy Game currently sell their 400g packs of venison sausages for £3, including varieties like apple, red wine and garlic, chorizo or gluten free. Pheasants and the other birds are sold oven-ready – no need for the arduous plucking often associated with cooking game.
As well as a loyal and growing customer base, the pair's regular presence at the Saturday Farmer's Market has also led to a fruitful partnership with chef Richard Musgrave, founder of catering company Downright Delicious. Richard is enjoying coming up with recipes to complement Duchy Game's products, and also makes the spice mix – free of e-numbers and preservatives – that goes into their venison and chorizo burgers and sausages.
When I meet the three on a gloriously sunny day at English Heritage's Pendennis Castle in Falmouth, Richard is barbecuing a host of tempting game products from a tent overlooking the impressive 16th century fort. As well as the Duchy Game burgers and sausages, he whips up a venison haunch steak beautifully presented with rose petals and sesame seeds, pigeon breast served rare with crushed garlic, smoked pheasant breast that needs nothing and another simply done with thyme and pepper. He tells me: "The quality of the produce is amazing – wild and nicely reared. I won't touch farmed stuff or anything out of season. The idea that game is hard to cook with is rubbish. It's a joy, you just need to know what goes with it." Tips include fresh tarragon used sparingly with venison, garlic with both pigeon and venison and thyme as an all-round star herb for game.
What with regularly taking part in hunts and shoots, making their products and running the rest of the business, life is busy for Marc and Scott. But the pair seem to be thriving under the challenge. Although currently based in Threemilestone, the business is looking at new premises in Portreath that could accommodate a farm shop selling their full range, as well as ready meals devised by Richard. Marc said: "We're not talking about your typical ready meals here, but things like a venison wellington en croute with all the trimmings, or two haunch steaks with vegetables, a pepper sauce and all the herbs and spices as well."
Ultimately, Duchy Game want to supply their wild Cornish produce to top eateries across the country. It is still early days, but the response from the home turf is certainly encouraging, as Scott explains: "So many people come up to us at market and ask if it is farmed, and they're so happy when they learn that it's not. You're living off the land, which in my opinion is how it's meant to be."
For more information visit duchygame.com and countrysportssouthwest.co.uk.