In the first of a series exploring the meat available at Borough Market, Louise Gray, aka The Ethical Carnivore, talks about the virtues of venison and why we should be eating more of it
Image: John Holdship
Venison is the food of kings. The right to hunt deer was preserved from Norman times for kings and queens—hence the establishment of royal forests like the New Forest. Stalking red deer in Scotland was a favourite hobby of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; even the meaning of the word comes from the Latin word venari, to hunt or pursue. Deer has become a symbol of nobility, and its meat remains a luxury item.
But should it be this way? The deer population in the UK is almost one million, the highest number since the Ice Age. While we all love to see deer bouncing over the fields, it can be a nuisance. The most serious problem is road accidents. Deer are involved in 74,000 accidents every year and cause many human fatalities, not to mention the painful injuries and death of the deer. Around the UK, local councils, the Forestry Commission and other official bodies dispatch 350,000 deer a year to try and manage the problem.
Where do all these deer go? You would think they’d be going into the food chain—unfortunately not. Half the venison produced in the UK is exported abroad, because the British don’t like the idea of eating Bambi, or dislike its gamey flavour.
Quickly and humanely
I find this frustrating. Surely a free-range animal dispatched quickly and humanely is preferable to a factory-farmed pig? Deer eat young trees, so the animals are being controlled anyway to allow forests to grow back. So why not eat them? For my first book, The Ethical Carnivore, I spent a year only eating animals I killed myself, to try to ensure all the meat I ate was from an ethical source. The red stag I shot with a rifle in the Highlands of Scotland was probably my most ethical kill of all. It was also delicious.
I accept that for many people getting your head around eating a beautiful deer is difficult, and it still has the aura of an expensive, inaccessible meat. But at Furness Fish and Game and Shellseekers Fish and Game in Borough Market, you can buy affordable venison and you will know exactly where it comes from. Darren Brown, owner of Shellseekers, shoots around 200 deer every year and he can tell you precisely when and where the animal was shot. This not only gives you reassurance of the provenance of what you are eating, but can help make sure you have the best meat for the kind of dish you are preparing.
Venison can have a strong flavour if it is an older stag, or it can be surprisingly tender if it is a younger animal. Most of Darren’s venison is sika, a non-native breed that has more fat on it than most deer, so can be used to make pure venison burgers and sausages—an easy option for those wanting to try the meat for the first time. For a more gamey flavour try roebuck (in season until October) or, for possibly the most tender meat, try fallow or muntjac.
One of my favourite recipes is Jamie Oliver’s Navajo stew, or I like to make venison or ‘stalker’s’ pie with a bottle of local ale—it’ll make you feel like a king.