If the Great British Public has learnt one thing so far this year, it is that cheap meat is bad, very bad indeed. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver's Channel 4 programmes on intensive chicken farming provided more than just a talking point in January, they hammered into every home possessed of a TV that bargain-basement meat bought from suspect sources should simply not be served up at dinner time.
Now that the ethics of eating a broiler versus a free-range bird have been ironed out, is it possible that people will get try to get under the skin of the issue? Sainsbury's reported a 50 per cent increase in sales of free-range chickens in the week following the programmes, which suggests that shoppers are demanding better standards of animal welfare.
Enter venison, possibly the UK's most ethical meat. Venison might not be a common choice for a Sunday roast, but it's in season, it's in the UK, and it makes a rich and flavoursome alternative to roast chicken or beef. Culls of deer herds, carried out to keep numbers down and the correct ratio of stags to hinds, provide much of the venison on sale. This process is a sort of natural pruning to keep a herd healthy, but hasn't done the meat's reputation much good in some quarters: the culled animals are a mixture of young and old deer, and the flesh is of varying quality. Farmed venison, on the other hand, turns out consistently tender meat.
Organic deer are a fairly rare commodity – the Soil Association, a big certifier of organic products, has fewer than 10 herds on its books. The largest is the Daylesford herd, and the russet-coloured Bambis I meet in Staffordshire are cosseted creatures, far more pampered than many humans.
The deer are part of a fast-growing, aspirational and posh organic produce empire run by Carole Bamford. Bamford (Lady Bamford to all her staff, and the wife of JCB tycoon Sir Anthony), opened a farm shop on her Cotswolds estate in 2003, and the Gloucestershire glitterati descended on her kitchen-garden vegetables and home-churned cheeses, not to mention the café, desirable home objets and spa treatments that followed. When in London, devotees can stock up on the Daylesford brand of eating and entertaining in numerous genteel locations, including Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Daylesford store in Pimlico.
Opposite this emporium, full of mothers who all seem to know each other and the staff, is the Daylesford butchers. Its venison comes from the Bamfords' Wootton estate in Staffordshire, far from the moneyed yoga crowd.
Our vehicle is the only one in sight as we enter the 4,200-acre estate at dawn. The Bamford family bought the land in 1963 and began its conversion to organic more than two decades ago. After a short trundle up a tree-lined driveway Richard Smith, the senior farms manager and agricultural brains and brawn behind both estates, stops the 4x4 on the approach to a gentle hill. We clamber out into the frosty morning mist to see a group of around 30 red deer peering over the crest of the hill, edging inquisitively closer until we strike out in their direction. They quickly retreat, an elegant bundle of gallops, hops and leaps in the half-light.
In past years, the herd has numbered more than 1,000 animals, but it currently stands at 500 hinds, 19 breeding stags and six young stags, the latter saved from the abattoir last year for their potential to sire good-quality offspring.
Smith has been part of the outfit for two years. He grew up in a farming family in Northamptonshire and ran his own farms in New Zealand before returning to the UK to run the Oxford University estates, where he picked up a lot of his technical knowledge about cutting-edge organic farming. "Cutting edge organic" might seem a contradiction, given that organic should connote simplicity, but re-learning what our farm industry has forgotten takes effort.
Smith looks the no-nonsense country farming gent, the sort you might expect to dismiss organic as new-agey rubbish. That, he says, is the attitude he encounters in many farmers, but he soon talks them round to the common sense underpinning organic farming. His speech overflows with details of soil types, breeding groups, weaning times and endearing tales such as that of his poultry man who won't risk leaving his birds alone to take a holiday. This inspiring stuff is interspersed with details of the cruelty large-scale farming has engaged with in its desperation to breed more, bigger and better beasts at the expense of, for example, the Belgian blue cow, with its freakish muscle-bound rear.
Venison has an exclusive reputation, but deer are economical to keep. Hinds live to between 12 and 16 years. They produce one calf a year. Rutting is in September and October and calving begins in mid-May. Wootton calves are tagged quickly – important for understanding breeding groups – but stay with their mothers until they are weaned. Smith will then identify about 20 stags as potential additions to the herd dependent on their growth ratio. Just two might actually be kept on.
Quality control is a careful process: let one hastily chosen stag impregnate a large number of hinds and the genetic make up of the herd will change. The impressive stags we encounter as we drive further are gathered, as if briefed for the occasion, under a large oak by the 16th-century Wootton Lodge, a massive house with leaded windows. It was the home of the fascist Oswald Mosley in the 1930s.
Back to business: while some hinds are housed between Christmas and May and eat dry feed, much is silage from the farm. The other animals forage. Both are ecologically sound and pretty cheap ways to feed a beast. By the time they are reared at 15 months, the carcasses weigh between 40kg for the smallest hinds and 50 to 55kg for stags. Not bad when 500g of prime venison fillet retails at £15.
You can walk away with a pack of six sausages for £4.40, though, which Claridges plumped for in its organic breakfast over Christmas. A chunk of the proceeds disappear into Daylesford's marketing machine, but, says Smith: "the priority is animal welfare". Not only do these deer spend their lives roaming idyllic parkland, they are even spared the journey to the abattoir, as they are slaughtered on site.
And where does Carole Bamford fit into daily life on the farm? "Lady Bamford is fantastically passionate and energetic," says Smith. "She is very perceptive and always pushing boundaries."
Unable to negotiate a ringside seat at the slaughter of 16 deer, I settle for a tour of the apparatus by the alarmingly chirpy slaughterman. Having nothing to compare it with, I can only conclude that against the thousands of animals that might be killed on a single day in an industrial abattoir, these animals – expertly skinned, gutted and hung – got a good deal. Tomorrow morning they will be in the butcher's window.
A gamey meat, venison is traditionally cooked slowly, so is best as a casserole or roast. Steaks work if seared and then cooked briefly in the oven or pan-fried. Venison is high in protein, low in fat and full of vitamins B12, B6 and omega 3 essential fatty acids. I made venison with red wine and rosemary, possibly the least labour-intensive dish I have ever made. Served with fresh pasta it was greeted with approval all round. Everyone admitted they would have been unlikely to choose venison from a menu, but might well do so now.
Much has been said of the aristo-organic Daylesford lifestyle, and a good few well-founded jibes have been directed at the contradictions in the Bamford family's eco-rhetoric and jet-setting ways. But if you want to try out some organic venison reared to impressive standards, now's the time.
Game on: other ethical options
Last summer, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs relaxed controls on the production and sale of game meat, which means it should be making more frequent appearances in shops and on menus.
Sheepdrove Organic Farm in Berkshire has been championing wild rabbit. It points out it is a neglected meat that used to be commonly eaten. The countryside is packed with rabbits, which sustain themselves, so it makes sense to eat them. Sheepdrove recently held a Slow Food workshop to show how to skin and cook rabbits. Sheepdrove has shops in London and Bristol, or you can buy its meat at www.sheepdrove.com. Jamie Oliver likes its chicken.
Slightly tricky, this one. The evergreen defence of pheasant shooting is that landowners maintain vast areas of woodland to rear and shoot pheasant in, spending £250m on conservation each year. On the downside, you have two ethical hot potatoes: the intensive rearing of some pheasant chicks, and the thorny issue of blood sports.
There is an ample population of wood pigeon there for the taking in Britain's countryside, much the same situation as with rabbit. And as with venison, pigeon is known as a rich meat best served in a thick stew, but warm pigeon breast makes an excellent foundation for a salad, perhaps with some bacon or beetroot. Pigeon is best in late summer or early autumn.
Venison with Hedgerow Berry Sauce
450g or 1lb boned saddle venison
30ml or 10 fl oz venison stock
3tbsp olive oil
6 juniper berries crushed
Sprigs of thyme
50g or 2oz butter
1 large glass red wine
1 ½ tbsp bramble, rowan or currant jelly
Make collops, by slicing quarter-inch thick slices of venison rump fillet, and marinate them in olive oil, juniper berries and lots of fresh thyme in the fridge over night. Heat some oil and butter in a frying pan and quickly sear the pieces and place them covered in an oven proof dish for eight minutes at 180C or gas mark 4. Add the wine to the frying pan juices and reduce, then add the stock and reduce again; add the fruit jelly and 1 oz of butter, season well and pour over the venison.
From Daylesford Organic's 2008 Kitchen Diary