It tastes, say chefs, the way chicken is supposed to, but the divisive sight of a brace of pheasant outside the butcher’s shop has put three in four people off ever having tried it.
However, the marketing of a breed of “game to go” is said to be generating a renewed appetite for one of the oldest food staples.
Not only pheasant but also rabbit, pigeon, venison, grouse and partridge are finding their way on to the nation’s dinner tables in numbers not seen for decades – handing, according to one industry figure, an unprecedented commercial opportunity to the shooting set.
The launch of a competition to invent new recipes and to convince hunters that they are “in the food business” is the latest initiative to take game into the mainstream.
It comes as Britain’s daily consumption of chickens approaches 3m, and amid warnings from agriculturalists that the country is running out of space to rear them.
James Horne, the food entrepreneur behind the Eat Game Awards, said: “If we don’t consume what we shoot, then I would suggest there is not a lot of justification for shooting game in the first place.”
Mr Horne, who previously shook up salad dressings by introducing the best-selling Pizza Express and Mary Berry brands to a market previously dominated by more conservative labels, said a similar opening now awaited game producers.
“There’s no doubt that more people are eating game, and it’s very important that we build upon that,” he said.
“The opportunity for the shooting world to broaden the breadth of consumption is huge. If the figures are right that nearly three quarters of the population has never eaten game, then it’s got to be capable of becoming more mainstream. It’s not as if it’s unaffordable.”
But he said hunters had to take responsibility for its provenance, from field to fork.
“The shooting world has to realise that it is in the food business, not the game business,” he said.
Mr Horne, who chairs the gun making firm, James Purdey, said he was “astonished” that the awards, which he founded last year, attracted more than 4,000 entrants on their first outing. They are being launched again now, bolstered by the increased availability of game at Tesco, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Waitrose, Aldi and Asda.
Esther Veerman, a Thirsk farmer, chef and author of a book on game cookery, who will demonstrate recipes during the Countryfile Live event at Castle Howard in a fortnight, said: “There is definitely a resurgence.
“People got used to seeing the pheasant in feather outside the butcher’s and got the idea in their head that they were going to have to pluck it themselves when they got home. They were frightened of it. They thought it was something reserved the shooting set and not for everybody to eat, and that it was difficult to cook.
“But absolutely anyone can make a game pie – it doesn’t always have to be about fine dining. And it’s widely available now – to go, so to speak.”
She added: “People have started to question that supermarket chicken in the cellophane wrap – where has it come from, how has it been produced?
“Pheasant tastes as chicken should, and it has a smaller carbon footprint. It’s as native as you’re going to get.”
Ms Veerman, author of From Field and Moor – A Country Cook’s Sport, said: “We’ve been eating game for a very long time. People say pheasants aren’t native to Britain but they have probably been here since the Romans.”
She added: “We’re seeing a big change. Sales of venison have increased fivefold at our local farm shop this year.”