The Countryside Alliance, through its Game-to-Eat campaign, has been doing some good work in promoting venison. It is higher in protein and lower in fat than other red meat; some supermarkets are now offering venison steaks and sausages, but fewer than 10 per cent of the population buy the meat. Since deer numbers in Britain have apparently never been so high, and the government has been advised that they should be reduced by a third, wild venison, generally with a better flavour than deer that have been farmed, should be more generally available. Thanks to friendly persuasion by the Alliance, wild venison was introduced last year on the menus of Great Western and Anglia trains.
The Queen enjoyed (one hopes) a dish of roe venison at the Mansion House lunch last month to celebrate her official 80th birthday. This had been chosen, after a series of television programmes, by a panel of judges and by viewers, and was cooked for the occasion, appropriately enough, by a Scotsman. Another contender for the main course was venison Wellington, prepared by an Irish chef, Richard Corrigan, and using red deer (see illustration). Gary Rhodes also has a recipe for venison Wellington, made with a saddle of fallow deer. He incorporates a stuffing, between the meat and the pastry, made with an awful lot of ingredients which include mushrooms, bacon, chestnuts, sage and thyme. (Gary Rhodes: New British Classics has the full recipe.)
So which sort of venison should one go for? When I last had red deer I remember it being rather fibrous meat, but it may have been from an old beast. Roe deer (otherwise known as Bambi) is a smaller animal and has a less gamey taste. In France it is more highly considered than other venison and called chevreuil. Fallow I have recently eaten, from a young animal shot by my son-in-law in Essex, and we thought the meat outstanding, in flavour and tenderness. Rare-cooked steaks were eaten one night, and a roast loin for Sunday lunch, with new potatoes, a purée of peas and gravy made with port and redcurrant jelly.
According to the books which I have to hand, roe venison is the most popular choice, sometimes with recipes from Germany and Austria, where I have enjoyed a ragout of Wild with noodles after a day’s skiing in the Vorarlberg. In Germany, roe steaks may be eaten with a sauce made with crushed juniper berries, red wine and cream (fresh and/or sour), and — a tip which is new to me — should always be served on very hot plates, as venison cools more quickly than other meat.
In mediaeval times, when deer hunting was the preserve of royalty and the aristocracy, venison was normally steeped and cooked in frumenty, hulled wheat boiled in milk which had been sweetened and spiced. The menu for Henry IV’s coronation banquet at Westminster in 1399 includes, among a variety of other animals and birds, ‘venyson en furmenty’. I have heard of venison being soaked in buttermilk before roasting, but today wine and vinegar are normally used in the tenderising process, perhaps turning a haunch of an old red stag in the marinade for three or four days. Alternatively, the venison may be casseroled with beetroot, which apparently contains an enzyme capable of breaking down the meat’s fibres. However, a young animal should not need to be marinated, or hung once it has been killed. And its liver will make a delicious treat if eaten fresh. Years ago, in Iran, I was given the liver, cooked over an open fire, of an antelope which had been shot only an hour before.
Roe deer, in particular, is often cut into chops and may be eaten with a chestnut purée, or with lentils or sliced apples. Several French recipes advise making a sauce poivrade with roe. When this involves a demi-glace, it can take hours, but in a simpler version a mirepoix of vegetables is softened in butter, then combined with wine and vinegar, plus bay leaves, thyme and a sprinkling of flour. When this has been boiled down for about half an hour, it should be sieved and added to the venison juices, stirring in some crushed peppercorns at the end.
For those who prefer their venison wild, we are halfway through the season for shooting roebuck, the season for red stag opened in Scotland at the beginning of this month, and the shooting of red stag in England and of fallow buck is permitted from 1 August. There is no close season for muntjac, that ugly little brute introduced by the Duke of Bedford at Woburn in the 19th century. Having spread across much of southern England, it tramples through gardens, eating almost everything in its path, and seems to have a particular liking for the flowers on graves in country churchyards. But it does make good eating, with the taste of strongly flavoured, lean lamb.