By Sarah Pridgeon
Hunting season being well underway, there are bound to be a few families planning venison dinners right now. And while Britain is not exactly known for its exotic animal population and I can’t help you out with new ideas for your elk, we do know how to make good use of a cut of venison.
We call our version of the sport “deer stalking”, which tickles me, and one would not seek a guide to pursue an animal in unfamiliar terrain. Instead, one would hire a stalker, which I suspect causes a few red flags for our intelligence agencies whenever the email confirmations go out.
Apparently, there are deer in more parts of the UK right now than there have been in centuries, including four species that aren’t even native to the island, so goodness knows how they feel about the drizzle. Sika, Muntjac and Chinese Water Deer are about as un-indigenous as it’s possible to get, all of them hailing from Asia but now enjoying cups of tea and sponge cake in the woodlands of Britain.
Those three species are said to have come from ornamental collections and deer farms. Some people really need to go check their fences more often.
Roe and red deer were always meant to be living in the UK and someone introduced the fallow deer all the way back in the first century AD, so they’ve been around long enough to be snorting in an appropriate accent. All these species, though, have been spreading willy nilly to new habitats.
This is probably because we killed off their natural predators, which is also why we tackle deer hunts in a similar way to Wyoming: a certain number of licenses are available to cull a certain number of animals after a population census has been taken. The income is then used for population management.
Unlike in Wyoming, however, venison is less a hearty meat for home cooking and more a posh meat you’d treat yourself to at a restaurant. It’s on the bit of the menu generally reserved for expensive cuts of steak, because for many centuries it could only be obtained by ordinary folk through poaching, which naturally gave it a reputation for being a meat reserved for the rich.
Venison paired with red wine and wild mushrooms is a classic I’ve seen on many a restaurant menu. Combine 20 fl oz of red wine with a third of a cup each of Madeira (or dry sherry) and balsamic vinegar and add six finely sliced shallots, a bay leaf and a sprig of thyme. Set aside for a couple of hours, then bring to the boil in a saucepan along with 2 cups of beef stock.
Simmer until the liquid reduces by three quarters and set aside. Meanwhile, place 0.3 oz of dried mushrooms (chanterelle or porcini) in a bowl and soak in boiling water for ten minutes. Season 2.2 lbs of venison and sear in a frying pan on all sides.
Place on a baking tray and roast for 10 minutes for medium rare. Rest, covered in foil, for ten minutes.
Drain the mushrooms, reserving the liquid, and fry them for a couple of minutes in butter. Add a tablespoon of flour and cook while stirring for another minute, then slowly add the red wine sauce and reserved mushroom liquid and simmer for 5 minutes to reduce.
Drizzle over the venison and serve with redcurrant jelly and your choice of side.
For an eye-catching entrée, try a game pie. This recipe comes from Paul Hollywood, best known as the blue-eyed judge on everyone’s favorite comfort show, the Great British Bake Off.
Preheat your oven to 360 degrees and grease an 8-inch cake tin that’s around 2.75 inches deep. In a bowl, mix two finely chopped shallots with two crushed garlic cloves.
Add 1 lb 9 oz of diced venison (or mix this up with other game, such as rabbit and pheasant), 7 oz each of ground pork belly and diced back bacon with the rind removed, two tablespoons of Madeira, a quarter teaspoon each of ground mace and mixed spice, two tablespoons each of chopped parsley and thyme and seasoning. Mix thoroughly with your hands.
Make the pastry by combining 1 lb of plain flour and 3.5 oz white bread flour with 2.5 oz unsalted butter. Rub the butter into the pastry with your fingertips.
Heat 7 fl oz of water with a quarter teaspoon of salt and 3.5 oz of lard in a saucepan until just boiling, then pour it over the flour and mix in with a spoon. Allow it to cool slightly, then knead it into a dough.
Use two thirds of the pastry to line the tin, leaving any excess hanging over the side. Ol’ blue-eyes recommends working quickly at this point because the pastry will start crumbling as it cools.
Spoon the filling inside and press it down, then brush the pastry edge with beaten egg yolk and place the rest of the pastry on top. Crimp the edges to seal, trim the excess, brush the top with yolk and make a hole in the center for steam.
Bake the pie stood on a baking tray for 30 minutes, then turn the oven down to 320 and cook for a further hour and three quarters. Cool completely and serve sliced at room temperature.
A personal favorite: venison sausages, wonderful with a spot of mashed potato. Finely grind 3.3 lbs of pork belly and 4.5 lbs of venison, combine in a bowl and add 1.5 cups chopped speck (a slow-smoked Italian cured meat), a tablespoon each of ground coriander and mixed spice, three cloves of garlic, three tablespoons of salt, two tablespoons of black pepper and 10 fl oz of red wine.
Marinate for three hours while soaking the sausage casings as the instructions specify, then use the stuffing funnel on your meat grinder to pipe the mixture into the casings. Twist and knot every six inches to form sausage links.
It’s funny how a cut of meat can have a completely different reputation depending which side of the Atlantic you’re standing on. On the plus side, it does make recipe sharing a beneficial exercise – after years of being treated to delicious elk stew, I figured it was time to give back.