BRITISH IN PARTICULAR
We look at the delicious ingredients farmed, fished, made and grown in the UK. This month: venison
To highlight the delicious, quintessential ingredients that are farmed, fished and grown up and down the country, we meet some of the remarkable producers who help bring them to our table
It’s very windy, very wet and very cold at Bob and Jane Prentice’s small hilltop farm near Cupar in Fife on this October morning. The husband-and-wife team are out on their rounds feeding their livestock, which includes a 300-strong herd of beautiful red deer. Having grazed on 15 acres of clover-rich pasture all summer, the animals
now overwintering in two barns, large and airy enough for them to run about in. Jane forks some silage into a ring feeder for an eager crowd of around 40. “They’re still wild-ish, very alert and stick in a group,” she says of the creatures that have been farmed in Britain for less than 50 years. “They can kick with all four legs at the same time and jump from standing, hence our eight-foot-high fences” – not to mention the occasional use of a riot shield – “but they also quieten down quickly under cover and get into the routine.”
Traditionally, venison came from stalking only, which takes place in autumn and winter, hence its reputation as a limitededition, seasonal food. It wasn’t until 1973, when the UK’S first deer farm was established nearby by John and Nichola Fletcher – and others followed suit – that the meat became available all year round. With what many describe as a less gamey, milder and sweeter taste, this cultivated version became popular. While Bob and Jane run the farm, the business side of the venture is looked after by Vikki Banks. Vikki first came across the venison raised by the Fletchers when she sold it through her mail-order artisan food company. As a big fan of the enterprise, when the chance came to work for them in 2009, she jumped at it, on the proviso that she first spend a year gathering knowledge and experience working on a chicken farm. It was definitely the right career move: such was her passion that after three years working for the company, she bought it.
In order to modernise the business and broaden the meat’s appeal, Vikki rebranded it, changing the name from Fletchers of Auchtermuchty to Seriously Good Venison. With Bob and Jane raising the herd, she, with the help of general manager Jenny Law, oversees the butchery (which also provides services for other small producers), sales and marketing from a base on the outskirts of Perth, which overlooks the River Tay. From here, she and Jenny work hard, not just for Seriously Good Venison but also to change the image of deer meat for the whole industry. Among the key messages Vikki aims to convey is that venison’s high price tag is just a perception, not a reality, and quotes a joke that she hears time and again: ‘Venison’s dear, isn’t it?’ “It’s a very filling meat because it is finely grained and dense, and lean so it doesn’t shrink when cooked. You need less of it per person, so 450g in a casserole – which costs £10 – along with your veg, will feed four or five.” Being young, female and down-to-earth, she and Jenny are quite the opposite of the hunting-shooting-fishing, middle-aged men in tweed many would expect to run a business like this. As part of their efforts to introduce venison to a wider customer base, they spend many of their Saturdays and Sundays serving it in the form of street food (such as burgers, sausage rolls and kofta wraps) at farmers’ markets, festivals and weddings, as well as corporate and sporting events, from Bella, a converted 1980s fire service truck. In fact, such is Vikki’s dedication, there have been only three weekends in eight years that she hasn’t worked.
Alongside promoting venison’s versatility, Vikki is keen to spread the word about the benefits of what she calls a ‘super-meat’ and ‘wonder food’ – it’s low in fat, very high in protein and a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, iron and vitamins B6 and B12. In fact, she goes so far as to call one of the company’s bestselling products a ‘diet pie’: “Yes, it is made with pastry,” she says, with a smile, “but aren’t all good pies? They’re the healthiest pies you’ll ever eat because inside is the best kind of meat.” It’s obviously fairly convincing – as many as 2,000 can be sold over the course of a single event.
The high content of fatty acids in Seriously Good Venison products owes much to the deer’s grass diet, which is only supplemented with potatoes – and a little wheat for the young ones – in winter. Through spring and summer, when they need it to put on weight, the sward grows quickly and the view of the herd free-ranging over the green hills is a scene worthy of a fairytale. The animals lead what must be among the best possible lives for livestock. Bob and Jane don’t use pesticides, fungicides or herbicides on their
land and they allow the deer to semi-hibernate in winter, resulting in different growth rates, while some other farmers put on lights to encourage them to eat when their appetite naturally drops during the shorter days. Buying in weaned calves that were born at the end of May and early June, during the annual autumn rut, from farms in the Aberdeen and Aviemore areas, they raise them for over a year on their land and handle them regularly. On Tuesdays, following a veterinary inspection the previous day, a quick dispatch by stunning and shooting in the field is fundamental in ensuring the herd experiences as little stress as possible and, therefore, provides meat of superior flavour and texture. In the wild, a kill isn’t always clean and can take two or more shots, potentially causing suffering, which could affect the quality of the resulting product. “With farmed, you know its provenance, the age of the beast, the quality of its feed and the way it was dispatched,” Vikki says in her office, which illustrates her passion for venison, from the deer-decorated clock and the antlers on display to the photograph in which a white stag is running with a group of hinds.
Despite the year-round availability, sales at Seriously Good Venison still peak between November and January, when Vikki does 70 per cent of her total annual business. “The phone rings and rings,” says Jenny, who packs and mails out every order, for which the meat is first hung for up to 14 days, liaising with Bob and Jane on a weekly basis to keep up with demand. “The last two weeks before Christmas are insane.” Jenny and Vikki exchange a knowing look as they glance at the calendar and begin the countdown to their busiest time of year, then raise their eyebrows and burst into nervous laughter. With a team like this not only producing top-quality venison but championing new ways to eat it and its health benefits, we can be confident that there’ll be an appetite for the traditional meat for years to come. Read on for some delicious recipes with venison.
The deer have a mainly grass-based diet. The rich soil and northerly aspect of the farm mean that the grass is in plentiful supply when the herd needs it most. John (above) established the first deer farm in 1973. Vikki Banks (opposite) owns Seriously Good Venison