“True wild game has the appeal of rich, variable flavour, thanks to its mature age, free exercise and mixed diet.” McGee on Food and Cooking
Late autumn has always been associated with wild game hunting. The cooler days and evening frosts prevent the carcass from putrefying as it is left to hang, mature and tenderise. Harold McGee notes “Wild animals are especially prized in the autumn, when they fatten themselves for the coming winter.” Laura Ingall Wilder’s childhood memories confirm this.
“Winter was coming. The days were shorter and frost crawled up the window panes at night. In the bitter cold weather Pa could not be sure of finding any wild game to shoot for meat…Even if he could get a deer, it would be poor and thin, not fat and plump as deer are in the fall.” Little House in the Big Woods.
We are incredibly fortunate to have a family run butchers operating close-by who has good contacts in the southern, forested, French-speaking part of Belgium. From early autumn right through to Christmas they offer a good supply of quality, wild game freshly hunted in the Ardennes.
Wild venison has a much lower fat content than any domesticated, reared animal. A reflection of the fact that the animal spent its life roaming the forests and feeding on local flora and fauna rather than being penned into a confined environment and spoon-fed on a diet of grain. Not so long ago hunters would leave their meat to hang for up to two weeks allowing the inner muscles to develop more flavour and tenderness whilst removing the rotting out layer. As days progress into weeks the enzymes actively tenderise the meat which will have a huge impact on the final taste. The nineteenth century French chef Antonin Carême recommended leaving the meat “to mortify” for as long as possible.
With a low fat content and sinewy muscles from outdoor roaming it is important to marinade the meat before cooking, to add plenty of animal fats to impart flavour and texture and to cook the stew on a low heat. Precisely because wild game has not been industrialised it should be eaten sparingly and enjoyed with relish whenever one is fortunate enough to obtain some. This is precisely what we did this past Sunday.
Allow for approx. 200 gr of stewing venison per adult and approx. 100- 150 gr for children.
For the marinade
A good glug of apple cider vinegar.
A good glug of olive oil.
Some thyme leaves.
1 tsp. of honey or maple syrup or dark sugar.
1 tsp. of red pepper.
1 tsp. of cloves.
1 tsp. of ground cumin.
1 tsp. of crushed juniper berries.
Salt & Pepper.
For the dumplings
200 gr of sweet chestnuts.
300 gr of dry bread (with the crusts trimmed).
100 ml of milk.
1 tsp. of cumin.
Parsley or chives.
For the marinade
Begin by rinsing the meat under water in a colander and patting dry with some kitchen paper. Place the meat in a bowl and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Rub the salt into the meat. Add enough vinegar to ensure that all of the meat is coated. Add the red pepper, cloves, cumin, juniper berries and thyme leaves. Pour some olive oil over the top and mix the ingredients together. Leave to marinade for as long as possible. One day maximum – one hour minimum. (Joseph Donon in “The Classic French Cuisine” recommends a three day marinade.) The longer the soak the more tender the meat and the more flavour will be imparted.
For the stew
When you are satisfied that the meat has marinated long enough fry some onion in a fair amount of lard, beef drippings or goose fat. Frying up some belly bacon with plenty of fat will impart a delicious flavour to the otherwise lean meat. When the onions have turned translucent scoop the meat out of the marinade and brown the meat all over. When the meat has browned pour the rest of the marinade into the pot. If you have some stock you can use this to cover the meat. Water works equally well. There is plenty of flavour from the animal fats, bacon and marinade. Bring the stew to a boil on the hob. As soon as it begins to bubble cover the pot and place it in a pre-heated oven at 120 degrees centigrade. Leave to cook for 2-3 hours. Before serving (and after the dumplings have been added) thicken with some flour or arrow root.
For the dumplings
Roast the chestnuts in the oven for 30-40 minutes. When they have cooled peel them making sure to remove all layers. Chop the onion small and fry in some ghee or butter in a frying pan. Chop the sweet chestnuts as small as possible on a cutting board. Cut the trimmed bread into cubes. When the onions are translucent add the chives or parsley, the chopped bread and sweet chestnuts the cumin seeds and fry for three- four minutes. Add more fat if needed.
Take the frying pan off the heat. Add the beaten egg and milk to the bread and allow the bread to absorb the liquid. Add some of the flour you have to hand. I use anywhere from 100 – 150 gr of flour. Knead the flour and bread into round balls.
Add them to the stew and cook them for 15-20 minutes. Leave the stew to stand out of the oven for 10-15 minutes. Before serving add some soured cream or yoghurt.
Serve with some fried green beans or red cabbage. To help with the digestion of this cooked meal add some fermented sauerkraut, brined gherkins or sauerrüben. The later will be brimming with natural enzymes and beneficial microorganisms.