Venison back on British menu
Venison was once the preserve of the wealthy. But this supposedly 'gamey' meat is undergoing a popular revival.
Venison was once considered a bit "rich". Rich in taste, having a strong gamey flavour that was off-putting to many, and rich in substance, in that you had to be rich to eat it.
As chef Valentine Warner puts it: "The perception is that venison is only for those who can afford it, and that stalking in Scotland is only for the very rich."
But venison is making a populist comeback of sorts. In recent seasons, demand for venison is beginning to outstrip supply.
So why is the meat from deer starting to vie with that from cow, pig and lamb as a favoured meal?
Back in the day, venison was hard to come by and took a long time to process.
Make the meat work for you
"Whenever we had venison sent from Scotland it was always green, and for a while I thought all venison was green," says Richard Elmhirst, a deer farmer for 32 years in south Yorkshire, who has one of the few specialist deer abattoirs in the UK.
He fell in love with deer farming in the 1970s.
"What attracted me in the early days was the health aspect - it has a third of the fat of chicken, higher iron content than any other red meat, and on the issues of carbon footprints, it is one of the best."
He says the "better restaurants have always been our customer base". But nowadays his business is also producing meat for supermarket chain Waitrose, as the meat is becoming popular with home cooks.
Around £43m is spent each year on deer meat.
Every year sales are increasing by 25%, and now there's no letting up, says Nigel Sampson, the director of the British Deer Farms and Parks Association (BDFPA).
"Venison is a special occasion product, and that brings more people to it," he says.
During the Jubilee and Olympics sales increased by 400-500%, with special events in general boosting sales by 100%, and it is now at the point, Mr Sampson says, that "there's just no way we can supply them".
"A couple of summers ago, it was a loss-making venture. Now we are selling more in the summer than in the winter."
Venison is available all year round, says Valentine Warner. But people can be unsure how to cook it or what to cook it with.
There's a "fear of not knowing what to do, and a squeamishness around wild food", he says.
T-bones have become popular, but there are a lot of other options too.
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"There's lots that can be minced, strip joints. You want stews, venison burgers, venison curries, I make a salad with roe deer fillet, pea tops and radishes and delicious things," he explains.
But according to Valentine, "venison" is a frustrating term. For while there are six different types of deer available in the UK, only two are mainly eaten - red and fallow.
"The labelling is terrible," he says. "It can be whatever deer you want it to be.
"If you bought red deer and liked it, and then bought fallow deer, it would taste different and you could be confused."
Deer meat that makes it to the table comes from three different areas; parks, the wild, and farms.
Park keepers selectively cull 50-60 prime deer, and once slaughtered in an abattoir each animal is given a huntsman certificate - which approves it as fit for human consumption. Then it is inspected and is given a stamp or farm handling certificate.
All animals, whether from the wild, a park or that are farmed enter the food chain this way.
Track your venison:
Venison eaten in the UK tends to come from five of these species, the exception being Chinese Water deer.
Red deer and fallow deer are the main species to be farmed commercially.
Most farmed deer meat comes from red deer, which is the largest of the UK's species and is native to the country.
Valentine Warner says the meat can be bought from a butcher, but "the best thing to do is contact a local game dealer", which can be found through the Forestry Commission.
Prices can vary greatly, but by doing your homework, you can source it for good prices.
"You're looking at burgers that cost less than £3, diced meat £3.50 to £4.50, steaks £4-7.50, loin is £30-£40 a kilo," Nigel Sampson says.
Farmed venison started as wild venison, which was "an unreliable product", but wild meat "has now greatly improved and is faster to get to the table", says Mr Sampson.
"We now have a venison product because we are processing meat far quicker and it is no longer as 'gamey' tasting. It doesn't dry out as quick," he says.
"We process from a group of farmers called First Venison - and we can't produce enough, we're trying to recruit more members. We are specifically red deer and they are a finite resource," explains Richard Elmhirst.
Nigel Sampson is also keen to see the industry expand.
He says at the moment up to 10,000 animals a year are processed in north and south England and Scotland, but thinks if the association attracted all the UK parks to its ranks, it could triple that.
"The farming industry is very small and hasn't grown at the same pace (as the sales). It won't catch up within the next 10 years," he says.
The association is putting in effort to target young people to become farmers, and Richard Elmhirst is running a one-day course for would-be enthusiasts.
Yet they find it hard to attract new farmers, as "it doesn't appeal to the masses, as you need specialist fencing and to have an interest in the animal", explains Mr Sampson.
"The deer in the parks and wild are limited but farms can expand," he says.
"Deer are a very low requirement of labour and can fetch a higher price per kilo in terms of meat produced per hectare."
Richard Elmhirst thinks it's one of Britain's great local foods that could help the economy.
"If we are going to make the best of our land producing food, venison is a good way. It's a great part of farming - and by far the easiest. You just lean on the gate."