“Too fluffy and cute”, or otherwise, “just too darned intimidating to cook,” were the excuses you’d hear for not eating Bambi a decade ago. Like Thumper, Britons had an ingrained reluctance to buy him and fry him. Yet all that’s changing for 2016.
Despite our rather tame meat-eating habits (of thousands of species, most Brits only eat chicken, beef, lamb and pork), venison is hitting the high street like never before with retail sales soaring by 400 per cent in a year. So large is the increase, Scotland needs 400 more deer farms to supply the burgeoning market within the next decade, according to thescottishfarmer.co.uk.
Why the new love for venison? Because it’s healthier than other meats - a hothouse of iron, vitamin B2, it’s low in carbs compared to beef, pork and chicken - it’s local, and it’s not as tricky to cook as we assumed.
Recognising this, Sainsbury’s are doubling their range for 2016; they’re launching street-food offerings like deer burger, sausages, steak and meatballs among others.
Master butcher at Sainsbury’s, Julien Pursglove, who adores the meat, explains why: “Venison is naturally low in fat, high in protein and really rich in minerals. It offers a good alternative to other red meats, while also being packed with flavour so is a popular choice for a leaner protein option.”
He believes the restaurants are responsible for the ruminant’s rise. “Venison is appearing a lot more on restaurant menus across the country and trends like this normally filter through to home consumption. Customers are more adventurous and looking for something healthy so new products, particularly proteins, tend to be popular.”
Indeed, from top gastropubs to Michelin starred places, it's everywhere - and in all guises. Down in Berkshire’s The Pot Kiln run by Mike Robinson, who manages the wild Fallow, Muntjac and Roe deer on 20,000 acres of land nearby, one of the signatures is a wild venison scotch egg with pickles and remoulade. Another foodie destination is Wiltshire’s Red Lion Freehouse where a delicately seasoned haunch of Wiltshire venison is plated with glazed chicory.
On a street-food level, the Cornish Venison Co has been tinkering with a bubble and squeak venison and game cider sausage stuffing mash up, while even the Queen served it to the Chinese president when he recently visited.
One key influencer is Highlander Andy Waugh, who recently opened Mac & Wild in central London's Great Titchfield Street. Bringing sumptuous Highland game to the English is Waugh's raison d'etre. "In the Highlands, I grew up on venison. My mum would make pies and stews," he reflects.
Now at the restaurant, he and his team serve up everything from wild deer burgers, "that’s our most famous," to tartares: "It can be with beetroot and celery, it changes monthly so soon it'll be with pickled turnip, walnuts and pear. It's all very popular."
It hasn't always been. When Waugh, who also runs the Wild Game Co, first introduced his Dad’s Scotch venison in 2010, selling it as street-food in Hackney, "people had this misconception that it was gamey and hard to cook. We realised we had to cook it up for people. It's great people's attitude towards it has changed.”
Another thing that's progressed is how it's prepared. "It doesn't have to be too traditional. You can eat it as steak with chips, in burgers, with curry, in pies, whatever," according to Waugh. And the berry and venison flavour match, "is a bit of a fallacy. In the olden days, people would leave the deer in sheds to hang so it would putrefy and go very gamey. The sweetness of berries like juniper and rowanberries would cut through the strong tasting meat." He concludes, "That's not needed any more, venison is delicate. It’s delicious."