Wild Game Culinary Adventure at Barry Conservation Camp

If you shoot game, respect for life comes with a nice sauce
Grilled squirrel legs were tossed with a buffalo hot sauce and offered as an appetizer.
Photo by susan laughlin

I never felt so much like a real New Hampshire woman until I "skun" a squirrel. I had this opportunity at a Wild Game Culinary Adventure at Barry Conservation Camp in the wilds of the White Mountain National Forest outside of Milan.

Along with about 35 other attendees, I spent a weekend at a rustic summer camp designed for kids. There wasn’t time to write letters home; we spent a full day viewing the breakdown of a deer recently bagged by a bow hunter, smoking a bear, filleting a trout and, yes, skinning a squirrel.

True confession. I didn’t know there was a Gray Squirrel Season (September 1 to December 31) and that people really enjoy their tiny legs. If you are curious, they do taste like chicken — maybe a bit chewier. And there was a lot more to learn, especially for avid hunters and their counterparts who deal with the bounty.

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Department offers hunter education classes — 16 hours of training before you can get a license and set forth into the woods with a firearm, but those classes mostly cover weapon handling. But what do you do after you bagged an animal and it’s laying at your feet?

Gary Sleeper, volunteer and director at the Belnap County Sportsmen Association, saw the need to give people information on breaking down animals safely and enjoying the dividends of game meat properly dressed, quartered and prepared. Venison and bear do not cook up exactly like the shrink-wrapped feedlot beef available at Hannaford.

Sleeper enjoined the help of renowned game chef/outdoorsman John Schumacher of Connecticut, Rick Warbin of Baker River Deer Farm in Wentworth and James Kersch of the Healthy Buffalo in Chichester. The later is a retail store offering game meats for those who don’t hunt or are unlucky in the field.

Chef John Schumacher pan fries pheasant cutlets and then adds a cherry sauce.
photo by susan laughlin
Attendees grind the majority of the venison that was dressed and quartered earlier in the morning.
Photo by susan laughlin

The Hungry Buffalo in Chichester, also owned by Kersch, is a casual restaurant serving game meats. As a chef, Kersch had two words of advice for cooking game: low and slow. Low because high heat can cause the proteins in lean meats to toughen and slow because many cuts of game need to be cooked thoroughly to make them fork tender.

 Chef Schumacher, who has hunted across the globe and was chef/owner of a first-class restaurant south of Minneapolis, offered cooking tips for fish, fowl and game. Maybe most important was to keep everything sanitary with a light bleach solution — one tablespoon of bleach in a gallon of water; even wiping the meat down when necessary. And don’t forget to remove the shot or pellets.

Schumacher demonstrated removing the feathers from a pheasant and, after a few cuts around the legs, if they are fresh, the outer skin with feathers slip off like a fur coat from a casting couch actress.

Rick Warbin demonstrates breaking down a venison shank.
photo by susan laughlin
Attendees take part in a lesson
on filleting trout.
photo by susan laughlin

In a cooking demo he flattened pheasant breasts to get them an even thickness. After dipping in seasoned flour, they were sautéed in clarified butter. When the breasts reached a golden brown, he added wild cherry jam (or cherry pie filling), shallots, sherry, lemon juice and baked the lot in a 350 degree oven for 45 minutes. Schumacher also suggested using fresh bread crumbs rather than dried. They are simple to make in a blender or food processer. Just cut the crust off first.

Birds and squirrels can be easy to prepare from field to flame, but deer and other upland game need quite a bit more preparation. Rick Warbin runs a meat processing plant in Wentworth where deer are brought in by hunters and picked up a few days later neatly packaged in white freezer paper. The average 100-pound deer only yields about 35 lbs. of finished venison.

Chef John carves up a smoked bear shank.
Photo by susan laughlin

Warbin demonstrated the field dressing of a deer after the animal has been gutted. All told, it’s a grim affair. The participants looked on in respect for the animal and the skill of Warbin. He started with cuts on the upper legs and peeled back the hairy skin using the knife pointed outward to keep hair away from the meat. He worked with the animal on the ground until he was ready to remove larger portions of hide. His blade carefully separated the skin from the flesh to preserve the quality of the meat. While the deer was hanging upside down from the winch, he pointed out where different cuts of meats were located. The front shank is usually ground as is the back shank. Steaks are on the top mid-section while the tenderloin, the most prized cut, is actually removed from the animal with the hands, gently tugging it from the back through the front opening.

Warbin later showed how to quarter the pieces for cooking by carefully removing the silver skin and cutting between any sinewy ligament structure with a sharp knife and a sure hand.

The group later took the tougher pieces and put them through an electric grinder, careful not to let the meat get too hot by throwing in an occasional ice cube. Venison can be quite lean and a little fat was ground up and added to the mix. The smell of the venison brought me back quite a few years to when my father dispatched a deer in Wisconsin and butchered it in the basement. It isn’t an unpleasant smell.

Barry Conservation Camp is named after long-time executive director of NH Fish and Game, Charlie Barry, and his wife Rebecca, both long-time supporters of the camp.

Many of the participants had come to hunting through family ties too. The skills are passed down to family and friends and the tradition continues. From the stories I heard around the campfire on Saturday evening, “deer camp” is like a holy holiday for the fraternity of outdoors men — not to be missed if you’re lucky enough to be invited. But a few attendees were new to hunting culture and NH Fish and Game classes, not family, are their portal to wild New Hampshire.

Sleeper, this event organizer, is also instrumental in preserving Barry Conservation Camp. His two-year long effort in organizing volunteers and raising funds has preserved this camp for children, many who would otherwise be tethered to a TV. This weekend alone raised $6,000 to help keep the camp open.

Hunting is part of our reality, whether it’s done for us or we’re active participants. Wildlife or even domesticated animals are a precious resource and respect for their sacrifice should be part of our understanding of the cycle of life. After all, we’ll all be part of the continuing cycle at some point too.

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