Monarch of the kitchen: Meat doesn't come much more ethical than organically reared venison

Sophie Morris follows Britain's most pampered herd from pasture to plate

A A A

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.

Rabbit

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.

Pheasant

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.

Pigeon

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

Method

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

independent.co.uk/venison

Suggested Topics
News
Alan Bennett criticised the lack of fairness in British society encapsulated by the private school system
peopleBut he does like Stewart Lee
Sport
David Moyes and Louis van Gaal
football
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Ed Stoppard as her manager Brian Epstein
tvCilla Episode 2 review: Grit under the glamour in part two of biopic series starring Sheridan Smith
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
Vote with your wallet: the app can help shoppers feel more informed about items on sale
lifeNew app reveals political leanings of food companies
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of Dark Side of the Moon
musicCan 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition? See for yourself
Sport
New Zealand fly-half Aaron Cruden pictured in The Zookeeper's Son on a late-night drinking session
rugby
Arts and Entertainment
Worldwide ticket sales for The Lion King musical surpassed $6.2bn ($3.8bn) this summer
tvMusical is biggest grossing show or film in history
Voices
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Arts and Entertainment
Salmond told a Scottish television chat show in 2001that he would also sit in front of a mirror and say things like,
tvCelebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Life and Style
food + drink
News
Rob Merrick's Lobby Journalists were playing Ed Balls' Labour Party MPs. The match is an annual event which takes place ahead of the opening of the party conference
newsRob Merrick insistes 'Ed will be hurting much more than me'
News
A cabin crew member photographed the devastation after one flight
news
Life and Style
Carol O'Brien, whose son Rob suffered many years of depression
healthOne mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
Life and Style
The Google Doodle celebrating the start of the first day of autumn, 2014.
tech
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Secret politics of the weekly shop

The politics of the weekly shop

New app reveals political leanings of food companies
Beam me up, Scottie!

Beam me up, Scottie!

Celebrity Trekkies from Alex Salmond to Barack Obama
Beware Wet Paint: The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition

Beware Wet Paint

The ICA's latest ambitious exhibition
Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Pink Floyd have produced some of rock's greatest ever album covers

Can 'The Endless River' carry on the tradition?
Sanctuary for the suicidal

Sanctuary for the suicidal

One mother's story of how London charity Maytree helped her son with his depression
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits