I’m a bit of a fan of game. I somehow always gravitate towards it on a menu. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because it’s less common than seeing a steak or a bit of chicken.
Maybe it’s linked with its provenance and it’s journey to our plates. If you’re a meat-eater you’ve always got to acknowledge where the hunk of flesh on your plate comes from and how it gets to you, and I somehow feel there’s maybe something a bit more honest and down-to-earth about the hunting of game than the industrialised ‘easy win’ way that so much meat makes its way into our kitchens.
Even a firsthand experience on a deer stalk didn’t serve to curb my love of venison – instead giving me a renewed respect for those who undertake such activities. Of course, I recognise it’s not all this simple, and I could be white-washing over the fact that I like game for anything from its flavour and texture to some strange sense of snobbery. Who knows.
Either way, when game expert Mike Robinson opened The Woodsman – a restaurant focused on game – in the heart of Stratford-upon-Avon it went straight on the list. And, like so many places, has stayed there when 2020 decreed it would be staying there for quite a while longer.
Lucky for me, by the time the second (so-called) lockdown came around, it had joined plenty of other restaurants in offering The Woodsman at Home. From game-focused starter selections to showstopping mains like a venison Wellington or roe deer shoulder, the menu remains one of the most appealing I’ve seen and at £45 per person at the time I ordered, it was pretty reasonable for such quality.
Oh, and you can even order cocktails like their own negronis to enjoy at home. Not quite the same experience as the cocktail trolley that lurks in their restaurant as an endless recrimination for not getting to The Woodsman while we could, but a close second.
Keen to support local businesses as much as we could and, quite frankly, reluctant to wait into 2021 to try The Woodsman’s offerings, Jamie and I treated ourselves to a feast fit for two kings, a queen and a few extended relatives if they’d wanted to join us. If you’re normal, I’d order half of what we did, or you could follow in our footsteps and end up with food to last a whole weekend.
To start, a wild bird and pork terrine laden with mallard, pheasant and pork, pressed into a tightly-formed, richly complex terrine served with a sweet, spiky piccalilli.
A rustic-style tart was my first foray back into the world of crab since swearing off it following a bad case of food poisoning a few years ago (for the record, we don’t even know if it was the crab that did it – but that’s my enduring memory of the flavours I spent a night reliving. Apologies if that’s too much information). The tart was great – buttery, short, crumbly pastry filled with a light, fresh filling that could convince even a crab-hater to change her mind.
A nice start, but nothing on the main course. We had opted for the roe deer shoulder – slow cooked by the experts at the Woodsman so it only required a quick roasting and a basting in apple glaze before being served up with their trademark ‘dirty mash’, woodfired aubergine, tenderstem broccoli and a rich, gamey gravy.
We’ve had some wonderful main courses ordered from restaurants to enjoy at home, but Jamie is adamant that this is the best. I think he may be right. Tender, sweet yet gamey meat that yielded at the lightest of touches. The rich, slightly heady flavour teased out even further thanks to the saltiness of the bacon and sweet apple glaze. The kind of meat that is rustic and homely yet somehow so decadent you feel it somehow merited more of an occasion than a simple Friday night dinner.
The dirty mash was, well, ‘dirty’ in all the best meaning of the word when it comes to food. I’m more than aware this is a term that has recently sparked all sorts of debate but for me it means the stuff of carnal pleasures that’s all about the senses. The silkiness on your tongue as you shovel in the first spoonful, the meaty flavour from the addition of what I think was extra venison and the crunch of breadcrumbs on top.
A second confirmation that nobody puts side dishes in the corner was the smoked aubergine, while the simple brassicas finished off the feast. As the sum of its parts, the meal showcased all the hallmarks of excellent cooking with the comfort of a rustic, home-cooked meal.
It was enough, and as alluring as the next chapter was, we decided to wait. And boy was it worth the wait.
A whole Tunworth cheese, wrapped in a brioche plait and ready to bake in the oven. We nearly cooked it the minute we saw it but wanted to do justice to what is the most basic of winning combinations – bread and cheese, fat and carbs, warm pillowy dough and oozy, melted cheese – and so we waited.
It served as dinner the next day, after we watched the dough puff into a golden crown, encasing the Camembert-style cheese that gave the illusion of being solid yet broke free from its rind at the gentlest touch, spilling out of its bread wall in a tidal wave of loveliness.
I don’t need to go on. It was stupendous, and the video of that sexy dunking moment is now the most liked post I’ve ever shared on Instagram (I mean, that doesn’t say a lot, but gives you an idea of how sexy it was).
We’d ordered dessert too. Of course we had. And had to wait for those too. Again, they were worth the wait. Simple classics, executed to a high level – and still delicious despite being served up at home after a delay.
Profiteroles were light and airy, with the hint of a crunch on their choux pastry shell, draped in a chocolate sauce that was the right balance of bitter and sweet and just the right viscosity to coat the tongue then melt away before the next mouthful. For me, tarte tatin was the winner, topped with rich caramel sauce and a simple dollop of clotted cream.
It was a feast that nearly lasted three days, with every course a delight. I had hoped it would stave off my desperate desire to go to the Woodsman but it’s only served to move it higher up the list of places I plan to visit as soon as we’re allowed as well as augmenting my frustration that I have no idea when that will be.
There’s no doubt dining at The Woodsman will be a great experience – from choosing cocktails straight from their trolley to seeing them cook sustainably-sourced, carefully prepared game and other meat over open fire in their beautifully done out restaurant. Or maybe seeing that roe deer shoulder laid out with all the sides as it should be, rather than in my own kitchen, and eating those desserts amid the sounds, smells and sights I miss so much from restaurants.
But in the meantime, their at home menu is a triumph. The food lends itself perfectly to being reheated and served up at home, without sacrificing quality or feeling like an inferior option.
You’ll be pleased to know The Woodsman now do nationwide delivery and if anything will cheer you up, fill your belly and give you some much needed sustenance for both your stomach and your soul over the coming winter months, I know this will.
[We paid in full for our meal from The Woodsman and they didn’t know I was a blogger]