The Meat of Kings
Once upon a time I had little idea that venison is the overall term for meat from various types of deer. But a chance conversation with a friendly gamekeeper put me in the picture. I learned that the UK is home to six species of deer, ranging from the pint-sized muntjac to the majestic red deer. There are also roe, fallow, sika and Chinese water deer. The meat from fallow, muntjac, roe and sika deer is considered the best; red deer meat is tougher and coarser.
Once prized as the meat of kings, venison has become easier to find now that people have cottoned on to its health benefits. Being free to roam and grazing almost entirely on natural forage, deer produce iron-rich, exceptionally lean meat, containing about 50 per cent less fat than beef or pork, and more than twice the amount of iron.
Depending on if, and for how long, the meat has been hung, the flavour varies from mildly gamey to intensely so. I raised the question with my gamekeeper pal about any flavour differences between the male stag and female doe. "I'd normally be hard-pushed to tell – except during the rutting season. When the testosterone is flowing, stags tend to smell like gent's toilets. But that doesn't necessarily affect the flavour," he laughed.
Venison is traditionally associated with decadent amounts of cream and brandy. Though fine ingredients in themselves, they rather miss the point of the meat's nutritional credentials –sometimes a simpler treatment works better. Classic venison-friendly culinary partners are gin, port and gutsy red wine, sharp-tasting fruit such as redcurrants, morello cherries and Seville oranges, and strongly aromatic herbs and spices – think rosemary, sage, thyme, juniper and lots of black pepper.
Venison can of course be marinated for additional flavour or to tenderise wild venison. For traditional dishes choose a rich marinade of red wine or port, olive oil, onions, garlic, herbs and spices. For a lighter flavour, use a mix of olive oil, lemon juice, herbs and seasonings.
Make sure you choose a cut suitable for your chosen dish. Alternatively, base your dish on available cuts.
Grilling and frying: loin chops, cutlets, fillet, haunch (leg) steaks
Roasting: boned and rolled loin, haunch, saddle, rack
Stewing: neck, shoulder, shin
Braising and pot-roasting: shoulder, shoulder chops
Thick steaks and medallions sliced from the fillet can be pan-fried, but resist the temptation to overcook; the meat toughens and is much better rare or medium-rare. Thinly sliced, the tender fillet can be used in Venison Stroganoff – a sixties classic usually made with beef or pork, plus mushrooms and onions. The meat cooks in minutes and a slightly sharp soured cream sauce keeps everything moist and well flavoured.
Joints such loin, sirloin and saddle from young animals are the ones to use for roasting. Some people like to bard the meat with bacon to prevent drying but I think this adds an unwelcome
flavour. Far better is a light marinade of oil and lemon juice, and attentive basting during cooking.
Minced venison offers plenty of possibilities too. It's a world apart from its beefy counterpart and makes superb pasta sauce, shepherd's pie and burgers.
Moving on to tougher cuts, the shoulder, neck and breast make richly flavoured stews and casseroles, and can be substituted for beef in most recipes. Cut the meat into decent-sized chunks so that it doesn't disintegrate. The meat is robust enough to stand up to, and indeed benefits from strong sharp flavours as in my recipe for fiery Venison Vindaloo. Do give it a try.
Venison to look for
• Fallow: strong well-flavoured meat.
• Muntjac: small deer highly prized for its dark gamey meat.
• Roe: truly wild, considered the finest venison. Milder tasting than most.
• Sika: strong gamey flavour, at its best in autumn
© Christine McFadden, October 2021