Herbs and spices have always been very important ingredients in the cooking of game meat. To find out why, we spoke to Caroline Westmore, Consultant Chef to the world’s largest herb and spice producer McCormick Foods.
Caroline explains spices were originally used to help improve the flavour of meat in the days before refrigeration. “People forget that modern refrigeration hasn’t been around for that long, and for many centuries people had to rely on salting or curing meat to preserve it, which affected the flavour,” she says.
“Spices were therefore used to improve the flavours of the preserved meat, and that’s precisely why the stronger spices were so highly regarded. With the advent of refrigeration, spices have come to be used more to complement or enhance the meat’s flavour rather than improve upon it.”
Spices are frequently referred to in the same breath as herbs, with both regarded as must-haves in the modern kitchen, but what is the difference between the two? Caroline explains herbs are leaves, flowers or stamens of plants, while spices are seeds, pods or bark of a plant or tree.
“Typically a spice has a low water content – coriander seed or cinnamon bark is very dry and hard – whereas a herb like a basil leaf is full of water. Historically this meant that spices could be easily preserved because they can be kept dried and retain a very strong flavour for long periods.”
Caroline says there are many spices which are ideally suited to enhancing the flavour of game meat.
“Game tends to be very lean – the beauty of it is that it’s usually high in protein, and has a distinctive flavour which can be enhanced by spices you may not normally think of.
“For example, Allspice – which despite its name is not a collection of different spices, but in fact is a berry which has characteristics of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. This multi-layered flavour makes it ideal for game meat.
“A good spice blend with cinnamon and nutmeg also works very well with game, because those distinctive characteristics will complement that rich, gamey flavour. People often think of sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg as only for desserts, but a couple of teaspoons will add a lovely warm taste to game meat.”
McCormick Spices provides a comprehensive rundown on the different types of spices on its website, which includes details on the history of their use, cuisine types which they suit, and photos of each to help you identify them.
“All the middle eastern spices are really good for game meat,” Caroline says, “for example McCormick’s Moroccan Mild Chermoula style blend. Also McCormick Bush Spice with Mountain Pepper – this is made with Australian native ingredients and its distinctive flavour is sure to enhance your game meat.”
So what’s the best way to add spices to your favourite Game Farm product? Caroline says: “The best way to cook game is either very quickly, or very slowly in liquid. Coat the meat with a little bit of oil, crack your spices open and make up a blend to put on top of the meat. Or use a combination of spices and herbs – very earthy flavours like coriander seed and cumin go well in a curry, sauce or casserole. Many dried herbs like rosemary, thyme and sage are traditional accompaniments to game meat.
“For example a traditional way of cooking Quail is over hot coals – this is a slow-cooking method and strong spices were used to complement the flavour, for example peppercorns and bay leaves. Cardamom, which we tend to think of as a middle eastern spice, was used extensively throughout Europe and in England and is ideal for game poultry. Instead of combining cardamom with cumin and coriander as you would to get a middle eastern flavour, combine it with bay leaf and dried tarragon for quail.”
Caroline adds that when slow-cooking game meat, as in a ragout or casserole, you need to think in terms of ‘layers’ of flavours. “Game meat works very well with a really rich base layer of warm spices coming through from the bottom, then some strength in the middle – garlic, onion, chilli and so on – and the top notes are the fresh herbs like fresh basil, coriander, lemon and lime. Think in terms of base warmth, middle richness and top freshness.”
How to store herbs and spices
Spices don’t like sunlight! Caroline explains: “When a herb or spice is dried, essentially what happens is the moisture is removed, which concentrates the volatile oils within. The more you subject dried herbs and spices to sunlight, the more those volatile oils evaporate and the spices become dry and lose their flavour. A good way to think of it is if you pick a fresh piece of bark off a tree, at first it has a nice woody fragrance. But after a few months of lying on your kitchen bench it will turn into a piece of dry old timber with no smell. The same thing happens to spices, so it’s important to store them away from sunlight and moisture.
“The pantry cupboard is the ideal place – or anywhere that’s dark. Some people store their spices right above the stove, but that’s the worst place you could put them because they’ll get all the moisture and heat from your cooking.”
It’s also important to avoid handling herbs and spices except when you’re actually ready to cook with them. Keep them airtight – in sealed containers that are impervious to evaporation. “You don’t want to be transferring them from one container to another,” Caroline says, “and the less you handle them before cooking the better. Whatever they’re packaged in, make sure it keeps the light and air out, and they’re kept cool. Keep an eye on the use-by dates and don’t keep for longer than indicated on the original packaging.”
Fresh herbs should be kept in water in the refrigerator and covered in a plastic bag. “That way when the leaf’s natural water has evaporated it can still absorb water from its stem, so your herb won’t dry out,” Caroline advises.
“The other good thing to do with fresh herbs is change their water every day – do that and you’ll find they’ll last twice as long.”
Have a go at our Roasted Five Spice Quail!