Everyone's favourite ingredient: a deer for Christmas

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Venison, the flesh of deer, is becoming Britain's fashionable meat. With the lean, dark meat finding its way on to more and more dinner tables - especially around Christmas time - farming deer is now becoming an attractive enterprise for farmers once sceptical of anything other than beef.

Desmond McElney, who runs a herd of 600 on 180 acres of rolling South Wales countryside, said: "The taste for venison has been building up quietly in recent years." He added that no one was denigrating beef, "but people are now becoming more aware of the fact that farmed venison is an alternative". The traditional suspicions of a food once held to be more Scottish than English is fading as Britons embrace healthier eating habits. Venison's fat content is 6.4 per cent against pork's 26 per cent. Its cholesterol content is about half that of beef.

Earlier this week, several hundred young deer barely six months old were sheltering inbarns at Brecon Court deer farm, which Mr McElney took over in 1988. Before that he worked for 27 years in business before taking early retirement as European finance director of a multinational engineering company. He and his wife, Barbara, now co-run the farming enterprise on the outskirts of the village of Llansoy, in Gwent.

Older animals roam the hillsides behind high fences. The head stockman, Neil Clark, said he was happy with this year's "rutting" - the breeding service performed by the farm's 21 stags. The rutting season, which lasts for two months, ended a few weeks ago. "The stags lose up to 20 per cent of their body weight during the rut. Come June we will have an increase of 200 in the deer population here," Mr Clark said.

Unlike sheep, deer do not require dipping and do not attract subsidies. "What the two animals do have in common is an ability to crop grass almost as closely as a lawn mower," Mr McElney said.

The economics of deer farming is uncomplicated by wrangles with the Ministry of Agriculture over cash handouts. Depending on the cut, the meat fetches between pounds 1 and pounds 6 per pound from hotels and restaurants which serve venison on the menu.

However, deer farming in Britain is still small-scale. About 40,000 head are reckoned to be farmed on fewer than 400 holdings, compared with 2 million "behind the wire" in New Zealand.

But the British palate is shedding its inhibition. Reviewing his seven years in farming, Mr McElney said: "There's much more interest in venison now. When I began I didn't know a thing about raising deer, but I learnt."

Venison with Port and Shallots

3lb (1.4kg) boned and tied joint

11/2oz (35g) butter

1tbs sunflower oil

1 bottle port

11/2lb (600g) shallots

1 large orange - strips of zest removed

2tbs plain flour

salt and freshly ground pepper

15g thyme (include stalks if fresh)

15g flat leaf parsley (fresh)

2 bay leaves

2tbs redcurrant jelly

Steep venison and bay leaves in port overnight. Remove meat from dish, retaining port and bay leaves, drain and pat dry. Peel the shallots leaving some of the root intact. Melt butter and oil in a heavy based pan and seal the meat all over. Remove and keep warm. Saute the shallots in the butter turning until light golden in colour. Remove and set aside with the meat.

Stir the flour into the hot butter mixture to make a roux and pour in the port, stirring all the time. Squeeze the orange and add juice to the sauce with the redcurrant jelly, thyme, seasoning and bay leaves. Return meat and shallots to pan and simmer for 1 hour 20 minutes. Half an hour before the end of cooking add fine strips of orange zest to the dish and half the flat leaf parsley. When cooked, cut into slices, pour the sauce over it and scatter the remaining parsley over the dish. Serve with mashed parsnip and potato.

t Recipe serves six people and is by Victoria Whitbread, of Victoria Whitbread Catering, London.