What makes the perfect shoot lunch? The best shoot lunch will keep visiting guns coming back for more. Robert Gibbons reveals the ideal shoot menu.
The best shoot lunch can be hearty or meagre, on the hill or in the hut, stewed in port or fizzing with the best Champagne. It all depends what fits best on your sporting day. But, it’s not all about lunch. Ensure you look the part too with our what to wear when shooting feature. And take heed of our pheasant shooting tips in order to make the best of your day. Even if not much makes it to the bag, the best shoot lunch is sure to be fun. Robert Gibbons tells us what to serve to make a lunch that goes with a bang.
THE BEST SHOOT LUNCH: 19TH CENTURY
Everyone has their own opinion of what makes the best shoot lunch. The other day I was thumbing through one of those books espousing the pleasures of the so-called “Golden Era” before the First World War. Long hot summers, languorous days by the river, garden parties, calm and contentment all over the land. One of the photographs of a best shoot lunch showed a shooting party having lunch in a field, with attendant staff. The large table was laid with a cloth and piled with food, ice buckets and wines, and all were dressed as if for church. The caption read, “Earshed Hall 1908”. It must have been a grand shoot on a great estate to warrant all that linen and silver. In a lifetime’s shooting I have never sat at such a table – I doubt one still exists – and yet lunch on a shooting day remains a welcome break in the day’s sport as well as an event in itself.
THE BEST SHOOT LUNCH: SUCKLING PIG
The best shoot lunch has to compete with the three main rival categories: the good, the mediocre and the inedible. On the good side, I can recall only one lunch that could be described as a sumptuous best shoot lunch. It was given on a shoot in Yorkshire by a friend who had the good fortune to head up a major international hotel group and therefore had access to staff, ingredients and facilities not readily available to the normal shooting host. The shoot was a two-day affair, double guns. We were put up at a local hotel, a former coaching inn, which had been more or less taken over for the occasion.
After four drives there were 300 pheasants in the bag when we stopped for lunch. When we went into the oak-beamed dining-room and saw the table laid with crystal and silver amid a huge flower display, I knew we were in for something special. The chef had come up from a West End hotel. We started with pâté de foie gras with warm brioche rolls and an ample glass of chilled Château Yquem. This was followed by suckling-pig accompanied by tiny apples (which, at first, I thought were potatoes) and a delicious light gravy which, I was told, aficionados call a “drizzle”, to soften the crackling. There was quite an exceptional St Emilion served in balloon glasses on the thinnest of stems followed by fresh raspberries with kirsch. A large blue Cheshire cheese, celery, pickled walnuts and ginger cake were then passed round with a choice of vintage port or an aged calvados. The repast was finished off with coffee, dark bittermint chocolates and Havanas. A similar feast was served the following day.
By way of contrast, my shooting invitations as a young man invariably advised to bring your own “piece”, certainly in the north. There was little chance of a best shoot lunch. This could have been as a result of food rationing. Nowadays invitations always state “lunch provided”. For the most part, even the best shoot lunch no longer involve three or four courses. On very cold days some hosts provide a soup followed by a casserole, no pudding but a good cheese. However, I take exception to being served pheasant casserole on a pheasant-shoot. That is taking economy too far. If soup is not provided, the main dish is usually followed by a good pudding; crumbles seem to be the fashion, although I have noticed an increase in the popularity of bread and butter pudding. There is always a reasonable cheese to end up with, coffee and sometimes a piece of cake. The custom of having Stilton accompanied by ginger cake seems to be dying out, which is a pity as they make a great combination.
One thing I have never understood it is why some hosts who provide a best shoot lunch seem intent on serving the cheapest wine they can find. I have been on too many shoots where the red wine not only smelled like paraffin but tasted like it as well. Given the overall cost of a shoot, whether one is a guest or a paying guest, there is no reason to be poisoned by a bottle of Bela Russe red. Those who still serve port can also err in this way by providing either a ruby red concoction or a deep black simulated vintage, both of which would happily find a place on the official Poisons List held by any High Street chemist. I recall having a particularly revolting red wine which smelled so strongly of paraffin with a TCP aftertaste that I had qualms about lighting my cigar near the bottle. Apart from exceptional cases, homemade liqueurs should be avoided. The cloudy pourings described by the host’s wife as “simply delicious” are the very opposite. I never, ever did get the stain out when I spilt a droplet of homemade blackcurrant brandy on my Harvey & Hudson.
THE BEST SHOOT LUNCH: CURRY AND COCKROACHES
Then there are those who seek to create a best shoot lunch by serving something different based on the mistaken assumption that people are bored with shepherd’s pie, beef casserole, sausage and mash, steak and kidney pie, and so on. Curry and rice, Chinese, Tibetan, Thai or Indian food do not have their place at a shooting lunch. I have a friend who serves pheasant curry with rice followed by mint ice-cream at his shoot lunches. Should you accept an invitation to travel in his Range Rover you get the odour all day. I have told him I will not attend again until he changes his menu. This certainly does not rank on my list as a best shoot lunch.
There is little excuse not to serve a hot meal during the winter. Cold ham and roast beef are most welcome on grouse days and even with September partridges, but won’t make the ranks of a best shoot lunch on a January shoot. Well-made sandwiches, baps or bread rolls can be welcome on the hill but, even if accompanied by a Penguin chocolate biscuit or a Mars bar, do little for one’s temperament if presented in a plastic bag on a December day, however good the soup. It does not mean that one cannot be innovative without causing offence. One of the best cold lunches I’ve had was some years ago, shooting partridges in early September, when the host provided chilled champagne and cold kippers, brown bread and a delicious Vacherin cheese.
Two lunches I can never forget occurred one after the other, albeit on different shoots and with different hosts. The first was in Hampshire on a lovely late-September partridge day, with the lunch served in a splendid room converted for the purpose from a stable. The casserole was tasty until some of the crunchy bits turned out to be cockroaches. The other occasion was in Gloucestershire when what looked like ap-petising individual steak and kidney pies were inedible despite the application of piping-hot gravy. The microwave had failed to beat the deep freeze so that, once the outer crust had been attacked, the contents were frozen solid, as were the accompanying chips and sprouts.
Apart from the shooting lunch itself, the location is not unimportant. There is nothing better than sitting in the heather on a warm day with tablecloth spread out and cold pork pies, hams, beef, salad, some quail’s eggs and the like arrayed before you with cold white wine which the host has carefully kept chilled in the burn and cans of McEwan’s Export for those who want it. Some hosts are brave enough to invite the guns back into the dining-room for lunch. This has its problems, particularly on wet days, as it usually involves changing, which can be avoided if there is a separate lunch hut or bothy, barn or stable. Any of these can serve just as well as a luncheon room.
THE BEST SHOOT LUNCH: THE IDEAL
What, then, constitutes the best shoot lunch? In winter I think a good hot dish is essential and at home this usually means shepherd’s pie made with venison, Brussels sprouts and carrots, with Worcestershire sauce on the table for those who want it. This is followed by a good pudding and we usually opt for an apple and blackcurrant crumble, cheese and biscuits, Stilton cheese with some brown ginger cake, damson gin or whisky (we don’t do port at lunch) being the preferred option. On the hill we usually retire to lunch in a hut near one of the lochs and on warm grouse days cold ham and beef with sometimes a plate of smoked trout, local crab from Oban, summer pudding and a good Mull cheddar satisfies most appetites.
When it comes to drink, in every instance there should be available a modest chablis, although personally I favour a dry white graves and a respectable middle-range claret to wash the lunch down, whatever it is. Beer and cider should be on standby and the usual spirits.
All in all, the shooting lunch should be neither extravagant nor poorly. I admire a friend of my late father who had a delightful shoot near Andover, whose invitations always read, “do come to lunch and bring a gun”.