“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 marinate the meat before cooking, to add plenty of animal fats to impart flavour, to use a good bone broth (veal, beef, chicken or even game stock) 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.
The most common meat used for stews is the neck, sometimes called chuck. Venison is no exception. Neck is a tough piece of meat. On top of that that, unlike veal shanks, or rib of lamb – venison is a low-fat, dry piece of meat. The good news is that venison is full of gamey flavour and wonderful, beneficial nutrients. It is up to the good cook to figure out how to ensure taste and nutrition is not compromised whilst at the same time injecting enough savouriness and tenderness to the stew. The trick: do as our ancestors did!
The addition of dried prunes adds a touch of sweetness to the stew, it helps give an added depth of colour to the dish and the dissolved prunes help to thicken the gravy – perfect for mixing in with mashed potatoes, dumplings, spätzle or some fresh bread.
Stewing venison (neck) (250gr. per adult portion)
For the marinade
Red wine vinegar (or any vinegar you happen to have in your cupboard)
1 tsp. crushed red peppers
1 tsp. crushed juniper berries
1 tsp. ground cloves
1 tsp. ground cumin
2-3 star anise
A sprig of thyme
Salt & Pepper
For the stew
300 gr. prunes
1 large onion finely chopped
1 carrot finely chopped
1 celery stick finely chopped
1 lt. chicken, veal or beef stock
2-3 tbs. lard
Begin by washing the meat and patting dry with some kitchen paper. Put it in a bowl and sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Add all the spices, vinegar and olive oil. Mix the spices, vinegar and oil into the meat by hand making sure all of the meat is evenly covered in the marinade. Cover the bowl and leave to rest for a minimum of two hours preferably 24 hours.
When the meat has marinated long enough, fry the onion, carrots and celery in a generous amount of lard in a deep casserole pot. Remember this is the only fat being used so the lard is needed to inject some moisture and flavour to the final dish. Next add the marinated meat making sure it browns all over. Add the chopped prunes and mix into the whole. When the meat has browned sufficiently add the stock. Place the casserole pot in the oven. Cook for 1 hour on 180 degrees centigrade. After one hour turn the heat down to 150 degrees and cook for a further 1-2 hours. Take out of the oven and leave to rest for five to ten minutes and add some sour cream before serving.