Make it a stag night

Fancy a steak? Nervous of beef and BSE? Well, it's time you discovered venison, the juicy tender meat that's easy to cook, says Michael Bateman
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The Independent Culture
Has Venison missed the boat? British beef has been on the ropes for 10 years, but deer farmers have failed to put over the idea of this extremely attractive alternative. One problem is its image. Many people still think of tough old stags culled by tough old ghillies, and beasts hung till they decay (to tenderise them, but hold your nose). You remember the recipes? The long-suffering cook had to marinate the meat in wine for several days (to further tenderise it) before casseroling it for many hours to break down those tough sinews.

This is not true any more, yet most people will be unaware that farmed deer tastes like beef and cooks like beef (except that it has less fat, which these days is usually considered as a bonus). Nor is wild deer tougher or gamier than farmed, as is supposed, not if it is killed young.

The market for game has doubled over the last five years, says the Game Marketing Executive, and is now worth pounds 34m per year. Very well, but we're talking 1 per cent of the meat market, and venison is only a proportion of that, if bigger than game birds and rabbit.

So what has been holding up sales? The Bambi effect, suggests Hampshire deer farmer John Green. "That big-eyed cartoon character which wraps itself around the neck of a bottle of a Babycham. I've been at trade fairs and heard what people say, how can you eat an animal with such beautiful eyes? But what are you supposed to do, eat only ugly animals?"

In Scandinavia, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is a welcome visitor to the festive table, as are his larger cousins the elk and moose. Germany, too, has a prodigious appetite for venison and is the major importer of British doe-eyed roe deer.

Venison is the name given to the meat of all deer, be it the red deer (a sturdy 4ft high), smaller fallow deer (3ft high) or roe deer (a mere 2ft high, not much bigger than sheep). Fallow and roe deer are found across the country in forests and parklands, put in place for ornamental rather than gastronomic reasons, a delightful sight silhouetted under the shade of trees which they clip to head height (though they're less charming when they stray into your garden and eat your flowers).

Red deer may be wild or farmed. Wild deer mostly roam the Highlands and become available on the market when they are culled to keep herds down. From an eating point of view, there is no guarantee of consistency or quality, which depends on age, especially since the ghillies try to take old or injured animals first (an 18-year-old stag is not good eating; farmed animals, however, are killed at 18 to 28 months). So you need a trusty game dealer on your side.

Farmed red deer provides the bulk of our venison, and there are 233 farmers with some 36,000 deer. Nichola Fletcher of Auchtermuchty, a pioneering deer-farmer and author of Game for All (Gollancz pounds 12.99), raises a sticking point - the cost. Venison is priced well above comparative cuts of meats. "The reason is that cattle and sheep in Britain are subsidised to the hilt. Deer farmers get nothing." So it's infuriating for them to see a store such as Tesco selling imported New Zealand farmed deer.

You might wonder how can they send it 12,000 miles and still undercut British farmers. Ah, the meat is only one source of income to deer farmers in New Zealand, says Fletcher. "They sell the velvet (the young antlers) to China and Japan as an aphrodisiac at NZ$75 per kg (pounds 75 to pounds 300 for a large pair). This is not far off the value of the carcass. Does this not constitute a subsidy?" The velvet is taken from live animals, so this is not something our farmers would consider for a moment, given the force of our animal lobbies.

In fact, it was in New Zealand 18 months ago that I became aware of the potential of modern venison cookery. Beef or lamb for dinner isn't so adventurous in New Zealand, considering they've eaten nothing much else for 200 years. Thus, every restaurant has venison on the menu (although it's not called that, red deer being as close to local affections as rodents since they overrun much of South Island, stripping bark off the trees and greenery from the hillsides).

But 20 years back, enterprising farmers rounded up some prime specimens and started farming deer. A national competition settled on a new name for the meat: cervena, with Franco-Italian connotations (cerf is roe deer in France, cervo in Italy).

Everywhere I went, cervena was on the menu, inspired in part by Corbans, the big New Zealand wine company, who put up a pounds 10,000 prize for the menu best matching their wines. It was cooked superbly, usually quick-cooked, not slow-stewed in the British tradition.

My favourite (and Corbans' the previous year) was the cervena at Ramses, a stylish, modern restaurant in Auckland, patronised by advertising executives. The chef-patron Judith Tabron cooks it with deceptive simplicity. She fries a tender fillet in hot oil to colour and seal it, then transfers it to a fairly hot oven roasting it for barely five minutes more. She removes the fillet and - this is very important - rests it in a warm place for 20 minutes to allow the juices to settle. The meat also continues cooking, though it should be red when served.

She returns it to a pan and heats it through with a sauce made from huge, black New Zealand cherries preserved in grappa, and serves it with mashed orange kumera (NZ sweet potato).

Full marks, says Fletcher. The great mistake with venison is to let the meat dry out in cooking. She recommends setting the oven to very hot (450F/ 230C/Gas 8) to start with, and giving a venison joint (say 2.5kg) a 30- minute blast, before turning down oven to medium (350F/180C/Gas 4) for another 45 minutes. Some people like to slather it with butter or oil before roasting, but she prefers to seal it by first browning it in a frying pan. The important thing, at the end of the cooking time, is to leave the larger joint to rest in a cool oven (150F/ 70C/Gas 14) for 30 minutes to continue to cook internally, and let the redder juices which have been driven to the centre return to the edges.

Most restaurant chefs like to cook with venison, none more than Ian McAndrew, former Michelin-starred chef now running the bistro-style Boathouse in Southampton. He is also author of a book on the subject, Poultry and Game. He has recently been working with deer farmer John Green, who has a herd of 250 in nearby Marchwood, experimenting with smoking haunches of venison and making sausages. He has specially produced two modern venison recipes for us. If you have difficulty getting these choice nuggets, fillets or loin, he says you can substitute venison steaks.

Most supermarkets have some venison on their shelves, both steaks and grills (as they describe burgers). Marks & Spencer have all-year-round venison sausages, and next week they push out the Christmas boat with a haunch of roasting venison (around pounds 6.99 per kilo). Safeway sells wild venison steaks at pounds 6.99 for 340g, and venison grills at pounds 1.99 for 227g. Waitrose and Sainsbury are similarly priced, as is Tesco with its mostly New Zealand-farmed meat.

Or you can order venison by mail-order from Nichola Fletcher (all overnight delivery service), who offers every sort of cut. Because Fletcher's matures venison in the traditional way (hanging it), they normally need three weeks to guarantee supply. However, anticipating Christmas orders, they do have stock in hand. You can also order various products such as pies, pates, and haggis.

Fletcher's, Reediehill Deer Farm, Auchtermuchty, Fife, KY14 7HS. Tel: 01337 828 369

IAN McANDREW'S MIGNON OF VENISON

WITH A SALAD OF RED CABBAGE, ROAST BUTTON ONIONS AND CHERRY TOMATOES

This dish is designed as a starter but would be equally suited as a light main course.

Serves 4

1/2 red cabbage

1 small onion

4 mignons of venison cut from the loin, each weighing 2oz/50g

2 tablespoons walnut oil

6 tablespoons salad oil

2 teaspoons sugar

5 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons salt

freshly ground white pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

12 peeled button onions

40g/11/2 oz unsalted butter

12 cherry tomatoes

Remove the thick ribs from the cabbage and very finely shred the leaves. Peel and finely slice the onion. Mix these together along with the walnut and salad oils, the sugar and red wine vinegar. Add about 5fl oz (1/4pt) water, mix through well and season to taste. Leave this to stand in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours, turning it twice in this time.

Blanch the button onions in boiling salted water for two minutes, remove and refresh.

In a frying pan heat half the olive oil. When hot add half of the butter, season the mignons of venison and sear them well in the hot fat; reduce the heat and allow to cook for about two to three minutes on each side. The venison mignons should still remain pink. Transfer them to a warm place. Clean out the pan and add the remaining olive oil and heat it through till smoking. Add the remaining butter and the onions and brown these well over a high heat. When almost ready add the cherry tomatoes and lightly season. Remove from the pan when the onions have browned and the tomato skins are just starting to split.

Drain the cabbage well and place a pile in the centre of each plate. Arrange the onions and the tomatoes around, slice each medallion in two and place on top of the cabbage. Spoon a little grain mustard vinaigrette around.

IAN McANDREW'S LOIN OF VENISON

WITH A RED WINE AND BEETROOT RISOTTO

Serves 4

650-780g/1lb 8oz-1lb 12oz venison loin, trimmed

I shallot, finely chopped

60ml/21/2fl oz olive oil

250ml/I0fl oz red wine

100g/40oz arborio rice

200ml/8fl oz chicken stock or water

75ml/3fl oz port

75g/3oz unsalted butter

salt and freshly ground white pepper

1 medium beetroot, cooked

10g/1/2oz freshly grated Parmesan

25ml/1fl oz red wine vinegar

200ml/8fl oz veal or chicken stock

Reduce the red wine over a high heat until only about two tablespoons remain. In a pan, gently fry the chopped shallot in 35ml (11/2fl oz) olive oil. Add the rice and stir, add the chicken stock, wine and port. Simmer gently, stirring occasionally until almost all the liquid has been absorbed. The rice should be just cooked. Transfer to a tray to cool.

Heat the remaining oil in a frying pan, add about 25g (1oz) butter, season the venison and seal well in the hot fat. Reduce the heat and cook gently for about eight to 10 minutes. It should still be quite rare in the centre. Rest it in a warm place.

Tip the oil from the pan and add the vinegar and veal stock. Reduce this by about half and strain. Cut the beetroot into wedges, and place in a pan along with the risotto and a little more stock or red wine if it is too dry. Gently warm this through for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. Sprinkle in the Parmesan and add the butter, working it in with a spatula till it becomes creamy and the butter and cheese has melted. Season with salt and pepper.

Re-heat the venison for about two minutes in a very hot oven. Place a mound of the risotto on each plate. Carve the venison into thin slices (around five slices per person) and arrange on top. Spoon the sauce around.

NICHOLA FLETCHER'S BRAISED VENISON WITH MUSTARD AND ALE

Serves 6

1.3kg/131b rolled venison haunch or shoulder

75g/3oz butter, lard, or hard margarine

I bottle brown ale or sweet stout

3 tablespoons wholegrain mustard

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

Chill the fat in the freezer, then cut into sticks. Lard the meat by making deep slits into the joint and pressing the sticks of fat into the holes. Spread one tablespoon of the mustard over the joint, place in a fireproof dish and pour the ale around it. Cover with foil or a lid, and braise for two hours at 350F/ 180C/Gas 4, basting frequently with the beer.

Remove from the oven, spread with the remaining mustard and dredge with the sugar. Return to the oven for 30 minutes without the lid and the venison will emerge beautifully glazed. Skim the fat off the stupendous gravy, check the seasoning and serve with mashed potato and steamed leeks.

Game for a change? Ian McAndrew's Mignon of Venison, served on a salad of red cabbage, roast button onions and cherry tomatoes, left

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