Venison is back on the menu at Farmison & Co
To mark the occasion, we are offering a first in the United Kingdom – you can order online by breed of deer, all sourced direct from the National Trust Estate of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal.
We went to see how these parkland deer are managed on this estate, and how the meat is prepared in the company of ranger Chris and professional deer stalker Ben.
Studley Royal Deer Park is a grand place, dotted with follies and ancient trees. A high stone gate leads to an avenue flanked by giant lime trees. At the top of the avenue is a Victorian church, which commands the landscape and offers a clear view to Ripon Cathedral some miles away, and beyond that, the North York Moors.
The deer park is part of the UNESCO World Heritage site, of which the ruins Fountains Abbey is also part. This was once one of the most powerful monasteries in England before Henry VIII ordered it to be pillaged. Deer have been kept here since medieval times and roam the grounds in tight herds.
Today there are around 300 to 350 deer from three different breeds: fallow, red, and sika. Red are the indigenous species – fallow deer arrived around the Norman conquest, and sika were introduced in the nineteenth century.
The National Trust manage the numbers through culling, the most humane method to ensure a healthy herd size, especially without any natural apex predators – such as wolves – left in this country. Deer numbers would rapidly exceed the capacity of the park if numbers weren’t controlled, and the National Trust look to maintain a ratio of males and females, so that it doesn’t lead to unnatural levels of fighting.
We set off at dawn with bright sun light rising over the trees. In the distance, Chris spots a pair of sika stags, and the pair deliberate through binoculars. This is a careful process, and Chris and Ben carefully assess which deer to take, deliberating how it will affect the health of the herd and whether the upcoming rutting season might in fact be too much for the individual stag. Any weakness, such as damaged antlers, can mean a painful death for a stag during rutting. Finally, Ben and Chris nod, and we move off.
Shooting deer in parkland is difficult. Footpaths criss-cross the park, and therefore Chris and Ben scout ahead, taking their time to scan their surroundings very carefully with specialised equipment such as a thermal imaging scope. It is, of course, of paramount importance that they make sure any firing line is safe and poses no danger whatsoever — whilst at the same time being conscious of lines of sight to the animal being culled. We circle the deer until they are happy it is the right time and place to do it, and we hang back.
The rifle shot rings out over the landscape and the chosen deer drops instantly. Ben and Chris make their way to the animal to carry out their initial checks and after getting the signal from Ben, we make our way over. Ben remarks about the condition of the animal; a key part of his job as a hunter is to assess the deer for diseases, but it is a fine specimen..
They drive back the deer to be prepared, hanging the carcass, and carefully making incisions to remove the innards. This is a delicate process, one that Ben does quickly and professionally. He explains the different qualities of different breeds. Venison fat has a higher melting point than other meats, while the breeds have their own specific qualities. Sika, for instance, has a very fine grain texture, and is palatable indeed.
One of the merits of Farmison & Co being able to sell by breed from a specific locale and hunter, is that we can point home cooks to specific recipes to suit the meat. Often, the supply chains selling venison are just as opaque as those selling farmed meat, with consumers none the wiser as to where their food comes from or how the animal lived. Ben explains this information is a boon to home cooks – an old stag being sold into this supply chain can be absolutely delicious, if its used in the right way. One particular breed or hunted deer might be superb for steaks, another might be better suited to casseroles.
Each of these three breeds at Studley Royal have won prestigious National Trust Farm Produce Awards – great tasting food produced in accordance with tradition. Being able to order this meat represents a UK first as you can try the differences between the different breeds.
Britain’s largest wild land mammal
Red deer have roamed – and been hunted – on these islands since Mesolithic times. Red deer typically prefer woodland and forests, though the deer can adapt to moorlands, and the image of stags roaming the glens of Scotland is iconic. The rutting of red stags is one of the natural wonders of these Isles. Our red deer are sourced wild from Scotland or are ‘wild enclosed’ from British parklands, such as at Studley Royal. As with all venison, this meat is low in fat and supremely high in protein. Unlike farmed venison, the wild grazing translates to flavours and distinctive finish.
Ornamental escapees from the Far East
Similar to the fallow deer in their colouring, sika were introduced to Britain in 1860, and now have ranges across the five countries of the British Isles. Their success is especially marked because it is thought that the vast majority of these animals descend from one stag and three hinds introduced to Viscount Powerscourt’s deer park at Enniskerry, Eire. Interbreeding with red deer is just one issue that the breed poses, as the deer population in the UK has exploded in recent years. Expect a finer grained finish with plenty of flavour.
Introduced by Norman conquerors with distinctive antlers
Often mistaken for sika deer, Britain’s contemporary population of fallow deer were brought to these islands following the Norman conquest as ornamental deer, but they soon became a favourite for hunting and aristocratic tables. Today, they are increasingly regarded as a menace due to their rising numbers and for the damage to crops and trees they can cause. Fallow deer are central to European traditions of preparing venison, well matched to cooking with robust wines and juniper berries.