The perfect ingredient: venison
James Wellock travels to the Scottish Highlands with executive chef Lee Murdoch from Crafthouse in Leeds to take part in a deer stalk and find out why wild venison is a perfect ingredient.
High on Scottish moorland and close to the Cairngorms is a small estate with a thriving herd of red deer. Pine Forest Lodge is run by two estate managers who look after the environment and the herd and decide which deer are culled during the deer stalking season – and why.
Pine Forest Lodge estate manager Robert Matthews explains that culling is a vital part of maintaining the health of the herd and the land. Robert says: “The moor can only hold so many stags and so many hinds because of the amount of food here. And because all the bears and lynx have gone, we have to take over the role of keeping the herd numbers down. We study the weight of the deer. If the weight starts to go down on the beasts it means we have too many beasts on the hill, so we like to keep them at a steady weight. It’s all about trying to keep a healthy herd and ensuring there’s enough food and space to go around.”
Robert and his partner cull deer that are older, not ideal for breeding or deemed dangerous to other deer or to people because of their type of antlers. Culling takes place using legal calibre rifles following a stalk on foot and a belly crawl through heather for the last 200 metres – all to stay out of sight and downwind of the herd. The aim is to get within 100 metres to ensure a clean shot to the heart that immediately kills the animal.
To best preserve the meat and make sure it passes the health test before entering the food chain, the first stage of butchering the animal happens on the moor where the animal fell. Called ‘gralloching’, this is done as soon as possible after shooting. “When you’ve shot them like this, you generally check the eyes to make sure they’re nice and bright and clear before rigour sets in. Blood is the first thing to go off in a body and coagulate so we also bleed them first. Then I’ll cut through the sternum and remove the kidneys to check for disease. We make sure there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the deer before it goes into the food chain. That’s why deer off the hill is such a premium meat – you can’t get better,” Robert explains.
The deer’s intestines or ‘pluck’ are left behind for the wildlife to eat including the stomach which is cut to let gas escape. “It’s part of the ecology of the moor, and it will all be gone in the morning,” he adds.
The stalking tradition is to give the dead stag or hind a piece of heather to thank him and to blood the face of a novice making their first kill – in this case, Crafthouse’s executive chef Lee Murdoch. Lee says: “For me, this is breathtaking. Not just being out here in this beautiful scenery but the whole experience of finding the wild animal in its own habitat. You know this is where your food comes from and as a chef you want to get the greatest product at its best. It doesn’t get much better than this.”
At Pine Forest Lodge, the deer are totally wild living on the moor and eating grass all year round – although some additional feed may be provided in a harsh winter. This makes a difference to the taste and the quality of the meat.
Robert says: “Venison is one of the best meats you can eat. It is very low in fat and high in nutrients. On the hill they’re eating grass, sedge and heather – and you can’t get more natural than that.”
Wellocks’ supplier Pinnacle Game collects the deer and takes it back to North Yorkshire to be fully prepped – a job that includes hanging the meat for for two weeks.
Join us in mid-November when we visit the Crafthouse restaurant in Leeds to see what Lee will cook with our Scottish venison.