Wild about eating game

In most provinces it’s illegal to sell the most local of meats. Jacob Richler says it’s time to rewrite the rules
Jacob Richler
Jessica Haydahl

One night this summer, while tirelessly eating my way across the country in search of restaurants for a Maclean’s special issue, I found myself at Raymonds in St. John’s, where I came across a menu item that had me beckoning wildly for the maitre d’. At issue was the daily pasta: hand-cut pappardelle with moose ragù. Yes, moose. How could this be?

“We have a licence to serve game,” restaurant manager Jeremy Bonia explained matter-of-factly.

This was exciting and unexpected news. A licence to sell prepared game: I had never heard of such a thing.

Sure, up North hunting is sometimes a geographic necessity. In Inuvik, in 2002, I saw a supermarket freezer full of hunks of muskox and caribou that looked to have been randomly carved from a frozen carcass with a chainsaw, if not hacked off with an axe.

Now, in every province of the Dominion outside of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, the game meat you buy in a restaurant is sourced from an animal that never enjoyed a glimpse of unfettered nature, except over a fence, or through the ventilation slats in the truck that carried it to the slaughterhouse.

If your local bistro peddles elk, duck, bison, pheasant, rabbit, venison, and even “wild” boar, that animal grew up on a farm. And according to the dictates of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, it was slaughtered in a provincially approved processing facility. Or a federally approved one—like, say, XL Foods—if the meat had to cross a provincial border in order to get to your plate.

Wild animals are usually protected from such a fate. For example, take the law in lightly populated and wildlife-riddled Saskatchewan, as summarized by ministry of environment conservation officer Gary Provencher. “Saskatchewan Wildlife Act and Regulations prohibit any person or business from trafficking in any wildlife.  Trafficking means to offer for sale, sell, buy, barter, exchange, deal, solicit or trade, or advertise for the purpose of doing any of these things. This includes wildlife taken by Status Indians.  Therefore, wild game cannot be offered for sale in restaurants in Saskatchewan.”

Aside from in Nova Scotia, where restaurants are free to offer the meat of wild bears, beaver, rabbits, pigeons and such delicacies as racoons and crows, other provinces follow the Saskatchewan example. For, in the name of conservation, the easiest way to prevent a species-threatening level of exploitation is to arrest the trade in wild game before it even starts.

Where I live in Ontario, the only way for restaurants to serve real game is to arrange to have the meat donated for a designated event. Then the chef will prepare a special menu free of charge, while—nudge, nudge, wink, wink—billing their specially briefed customers $150 each for a bottle of mineral water or the use of a cloth napkin, all the while hoping no inspectors show up on a random check and complicate matters with questions about meat inspection certificates. Which is to say that in a big city like Toronto, such banquets have been known to happen. But all the same, a nicely cooked loin of Arctic hare remains far more difficult to come by locally than, say, a bag of heroin.

“Game meat is wild, it’s organic—nothing beats it; it’s my favourite protein,” Raymonds executive chef Jeremy Charles told me over the phone from St. John’s.

The latest offering at his restaurant is roast breast of local partridge served with its braised legs and thighs and a jus made from its roasted bones, lightened and balanced with partridge berries. And there is so much more game to play with over the year.

“The caribou herd is in rough shape—but you see one sometimes out of Labrador. Here, every weekend someone’s got a moose—we have more moose than people. We snare rabbits. We’ve got partridge,” and on he goes, enumerating the flavourful catalogue of wild meats that he can put on his restaurant menu for everyone to enjoy. “It’s a big part of our culture—we’re unique that way.”

Earlier this summer I enjoyed a sampling of the exciting range of what good restaurant dining might be like if the rest of us followed Newfoundland’s lead. It serves as a culinary example to other provinces, hopefully inspiring them to draft their own legislation allowing the controlled sale of game meats.

The setting was the Clubhouse, the West Coast Fishing Club’s premier lodge in the Haida Gwaii, on the northern tip of Langara Island, within sight of Alaska. The occasion was their annual David Hawksworth and Friends Culinary Adventure, a ne plus ultra salmon-fishing trip cum culinary retreat. And the guest chef was the Alsatian-born Marc Thuet, who teethed on a wooden spoon and was given a hunting rifle for his third birthday.

As it happened, in my capacity as liaison between the Toronto chef and the Richmond, B.C.-based fishing club, I had been charged amongst other things with the job of passing along Thuet’s shopping list. So I can tell you first-hand that organizers were unfazed by the chef’s requests for kinome, or sea urchin (which they plucked from Langara rocks), but slightly stumped by his request for a half-dozen seagull eggs. I can also attest to the fact that while the club shared Thuet’s conviction that a game menu would be just the ticket for the setting in the northernmost wilds of B.C., they also felt that some of his proposed menu phrasing would best be toned down in deference to the sensibilities of the gathered anglers. For example, following their request while writing the menu, I typed “civet of wild game” in place of Thuet’s admittedly more evocative “civet-of-everything-I-shot-last-year.”

The menu began unchallengingly enough with a salad of baby tomatoes and cherries plated with a soft, creamy burrata Thuet had tossed up, all drizzled with a warm vinaigrette studded with bacon. Then there was an elaborate composed salad of Parisiennes of melon, seared scallops, thin-sliced cured duck, shavings of foie gras torchon, and a sea urchin vinaigrette. And then, with the crowd nicely buttered up and expectant, the wild things started to flow.

The aforementioned civet was a ragù of uncommonly deep, rich flavour, nicely offset with smooth, creamy gnocchi made with fingerling potatoes and mascarpone. As the diners tucked in, they were so preoccupied with the news that the supple and flavoursome slice of ham draped over top came from a leg of bear that they completely forgot they had no information as to the identity of the diced braised meats composing the civet. But when the answer came—wild venison, wild duck, grouse, more bear, and a splash of beaver tail—some jaws dropped, but no forks. Some gasped, some laughed, but either way they carried on happily.

Next, there was loin of white-tailed deer Thuet had shot near Ontario’s Georgian Bay, cooked sous-vide, then briefly seared. It was plated with a slice of braised pork belly, a cube of head cheese rolled in panko and fried crisp, leek purée, onion choucroute, glazed baby vegetables and a drizzle of venison jus. After a fantastically original dessert of sharp Dragon’s Breath cheese enveloped in chocolate feuilleté with chocolate sauce and sorbet, I sat down with Thuet to talk about what a shame it was that such fantastic, wild Canadian ingredients were prohibited from the restaurant table.

“I don’t care,” he said. “At my next restaurant that’s all I’m serving.”

Which you might take to mean that he is soon headed to court—or Newfoundland. Or perhaps instead as a reflection of his passion, an inspiration to lobby for change in our game laws. A little balance between conservation and culinary fulfillment cannot be hard to achieve. Europeans have been hunting and eating wild boar for thousands of years and they are still overrun with them. There are so many bears prowling the woods around our cottage two hours outside of Toronto in the Kawarthas that one is discouraged from letting children walk in the woods alone with candy in their pockets. The bears break into peoples’ cottages constantly; last spring, someone snapped a photo of a cub perched on his porch railing, downing the sugar water from his hummingbird feeder as if it were a tequila shot. The local road is overrun with wild turkeys. Surely we can follow Newfoundland’s lead and spare a little something for the restaurant table?