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Call of the wild

Karen Pinchin chases game birds in New Brunswick with chefs Jesse Vergen and Todd Perrin

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Chef Jesse Vergen and Hunter, a five-year-old Llewellin setter, walk the grounds of the Shepody Pheasant Preserve in search of their quarry. Photo: Mike Erb

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Pheasant Smoked on Hay

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It’s only early autumn, but there is already winter chill in the air at Shepody Hunting Preserve, a hilltop slice of paradise about 20 minutes outside of Fundy National Park. We’ve gathered here, on the southern coast of New Brunswick, for an overnight stay and morning pheasant hunt, along with an early-morning off-preserve quest for Canada geese.

“Did you bring the face paint?” asks Jesse Vergen, wide-eyed, insistent, as soon as I arrive. It seems he’s not joking, and I hate to disappoint. “We could always use mud,” volunteers his friend and fellow chef Todd Perrin. “No, cork,” says Vergen solemnly. “We can burn cork and rub it on our faces.” (It turns out that was a joke—we didn’t need to paint our faces.)

  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Both busy chefs and entrepreneurs, Vergen and Mallard Cottage chef Todd Perrin are quick to savour a weekend off the line. Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
  • Photo: Mike Erb
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With a hunting and fishing outfitting industry dating back to the 1800s, hunters come to New Brunswick from around the world to land a few of the myriad geese, woodcock, ducks, grouse, pheasant and snipe that flock across its fields and waterways.

Vergen is a renaissance man: chef and co-owner of the popular Saint John Ale House, owner of the Quispamsis BBQ joint Smoking Pig, farmer of a small acreage and a keen hunter. He’s invited Perrin, chef and co-owner of Mallard Cottage in Quidi Vidi, Newfoundland, to spend the weekend hunting and drinking buckets of Moosehead Alpine and Picaroons beer, and I’m along for the ride.

After arriving at our four-bedroom lodge, we head out in Vergen’s silver truck to scout our goose-hunting home base, a verdant field that slopes down towards the ochre cliffs and endless low-tide beaches of the Bay of Fundy. The dusk sky is quietly spectacular; we’re told that hundreds of geese alight here every morning, but Vergen is emphatic our hunt isn’t just about coming home with food for lunch.

“It’s not all about the actual shooting, which is extremely fun, but it’s about the camaraderie, being in the fresh air, seeing the seasons change,” says Vergen. “There’s the calm of the water, how the wind moves through the trees. It’s any one of those things. It’s the whole experience. You can have a great hunt and still not bag any birds.”

The next morning we’re out of the house by 5:25 a.m. We’ve filled the backseat of the truck with equipment. “I’m increasingly learning that they make everything in camouflage,” quips Perrin. The truck’s headlights cut through the cool blackness of the early morning.

Then comes the lugging. Vergen owns a gaggle of giant plastic Canada goose decoys, with black furry heads and splayed feet, some standing, some grazing. Striding abreast, we carry enormous green duffel bags down to the field.

Soon Vergen and Perrin are encased in coffin blinds, essentially low-lying reclining chairs wrapped in camouflage and covered in grasses, reeds, plants and dirt ripped from the ground. I hunker down in a nearby row of bushes, legs crumpled underneath my body in the cold dew, covered in a ream of camouflage burlap. They’ve ordered me to stay very, very still. The clouds turn mauve, salmon, peach. Periodically, Vergen blows a goose call and flaps a kite-like wing simulator. As time drags on, clouds on the horizon are lined with neon pink and the morning light refracts through the million dewdrops hanging off each blade of grass. The dew is silvery, beautiful and probably why I’m shivering as I huddle in the grass.

Not a single goose flies by. Reluctantly, at about 8 a.m. we pack our gear, lugging it all back up the hill, when a cluster of four geese fly above Perrin’s head. “I just unloaded my gun,” he says. Vergen smiles: “That’s how it goes.”

Back at the Shepody Game Preserve before our pheasant hunt, Claude Dixson, who runs the preserve with his wife Lynn, echoes Jesse’s sentiment. “It’s like fishing,” he says. “You should have been here last week.”

Luckily, because this is a stocked hunting preserve, where birds are released specifically for hunters, Perrin won’t be going back to Newfoundland empty-handed. At 8:30, our guide Doug Hawkes meets us in the field above our lodge in a green four-wheeler with Hunter, a handsome five-year-old Llewellin setter he trained from a puppy.

As we walk slowly across rolling hills, fields, and forest paths that crisscross the 162-hectare preserve, Hunter points his body towards birds as we tromp through the underbrush and force them to air. Vergen gets his first, a handsome red-ringed male, while Perrin, who hasn’t fired a gun in decades, surprises himself when his first shot at a flying brown female, lands home. “That’s the first bird I’ve shot in 20 years,” he says. “It was awesome. I’m just glad I hit it, that’s all.”

Our pheasants hang in a mesh-fronted box under a sign for the preserve while we eat an egg and sausage breakfast. “We’ve had hunters from all over the world here for years now,” says Lynn, who opened the preserve with Claude, a former game warden, in 1989. “We started with 500 birds,” he adds. “Our friends and neighbours thought we were nuts. And now we’re raising over 7,000 every year.” For cooks who don’t hunt their own birds, the Dixsons sell leftover pheasant to the public for about $15 per bird.

Shepody is the largest upland game bird outfitter in Atlantic Canada. But as time passes, the couple is considering selling the preserve. “This requires young blood and passion,” says Lynn. “We’ve had a good time but it’s getting to be time we passed it along to someone with new ideas, energy.”

Back at our lodge, Perrin and Vergen prepare a rustic lunch feast, featuring bacon-wrapped pheasant on hay, goose breast—shot the day before—with heirloom-tomato chorizo sauce and a simple seared breast of pheasant, with sides of white beans and a cider-braised cabbage.

When cooking game birds, Vergen says the most important thing to remember is to not overcook the meat, which doesn’t have as much fat as farm-raised birds. While the flavours of geese and pheasant pair nicely with strong, wintry spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, it’s also important not to be scared of the intensity of the meat.

“From a chef’s perspective, when working with game, we can capture flavours that aren’t normally available,” says Vergen. “You’re tasting something with real flavour. Don’t be fearful of the gaminess, because that’s what you’re going after. That’s the end result.”

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