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Low in cholesterol and high in protein, venison is so healthy, hospitals are trying it out on menus.
It has less saturated fat than chicken and is a great source of zinc and selenium. In a ‘Which meat is healthiest’ league table compiled for The Times Weekend by nutritionist Ian Marber, venison came top. In the year to April 2022, the total annual spend within the venison market was £15.2m (Kantar), an increase of 20.3% compared with April 2019.
What’s behind the trend?
- The desire to eat ‘less, but better’ meat.
- The desire to eat sustainably. Wild deer eat the leaves, shoots and bark of trees and 100 adult fallow deer can munch their way through 500kg of vegetation a day.
- Deer have no natural predators and have to be culled, so why not eat them?
What’s the difference between farmed, wild and parkland venison?
Farmed venison is reared for the table to be tender and tasty and has no closed season. It is currently only a tiny percentage of UK-shot venison but this is changing. Major retailers, notably Marks & Spencer and Waitrose, have responded to customer pressure not to import venison, out of season, from New Zealand.
This may encourage more commercial deer farming in the UK and is controversial. Wild – and formerly wild parkland – venison is a by-product of population control. It is less consistent than farmed venison but some believe more complex in flavour. Standards of parkland venison have improved a great deal in recent years.
Is venison seasonal?
In theory, unless it is farmed. Many think the confusing game laws applying to wild venison – written before freezers were invented and rarely enforced – are overdue for review.
One insider told us, “So much marauding goes on in forestry plots that some game dealers handle more fresh wild game in season than out of it.” Deer stalker and charcuterie maker David Richards of Capreolus Fine Foods, Dorset, said, “There’s enough wild and park venison in the UK that people need never eat farmed deer.”
If venison’s so wonderful, why don’t we eat more? Too posh, too gamey, too pricey?
All of these. Cooking very lean meat takes skill. Unlike other red meats which are a standard species and age, wild venison can come from any one of about four different species (not breeds), which are different ages and different sizes.
Food writer and venison expert Nichola Fletcher told us, “Many packs simply say: steak, medallions or pave, all of which could come from different muscles. A consumer can have a great experience one time and a less good one the next. It shakes confidence.”
Venison’s easy to dry out unless you add fat, isn’t it?
Yes, and that may defeat your healthy-eating objectives. A meat thermometer is essential – internal meat temperature should not exceed 55°C.
There are challenges with labelling too, aren’t there?
Our experience of two ‘Parkland and Wild British’ steaks, processed in Yorkshire and bought at Sainsbury’s, was tasty but unsettling. We concluded from the pack disclaimer that they could have been farmed or wild, from anywhere in the UK, Europe or New Zealand.
Nichola warns, “Quite a bit of New Zealand farmed venison magically becomes ‘wild’ venison which gives wild venison an undeserved reputation for tenderness.”
How does this create an opportunity for indies?
A YouGov survey for Red Tractor found consumers have greater trust in specialist shops than supermarkets. So, if the story’s good, tell it.
Example: Devon-based Farm Wilder cull deer from Forestry England to protect vital hedge habitat for blackcaps, nightingales, dormice and rare butterflies. Capreolus Fine Foods’ venison chorizo is made sustainably from wild sika deer from the Isle of Purbeck.
How to make the most of the trend
- In-store promotions during British Game Week, 7th-13th November
- You can charge more for premium, venison ready meals than beef. How about ragu with pappardelle, meatloaf with roasted beets, or stew with prunes, chestnuts and juniper (Game, Kyle Books).
- Defrost frozen mince thoroughly and dry on kitchen paper before cooking or it will boil rather than fry.
- In summer, split open quality venison sausages and serve on buns with salad
- Research shows venison shoppers are older. To convert younger customers, offer familiar fare – chilli and burgers rather than gamekeeper’s pie
Whose products do you like?
Both Great Glen Charcuterie and Capreolus have garnered clusters of stars for their cured meats, including the coveted three-star Great Taste Award. The sporty and protein-obsessed will gobble up Ember Snacks Wild Venison bites – 97 calories per handy 37g pack.
Will the trend last?
We think it will. There are signs of a slight dip in sales of plant-based meats (Mintel) and growing numbers, including failed vegans, looking for a sustainable red meat they can justify eating now and then.
Farmed deer is controversial but there is also sufficient home-grown wild venison to eat it year-round. Whatever the source, most people would rather someone else did the prep, and that’s where you come in.