For more than one hundred years herd numbers have waxed and waned, but in that time deer have provided sport and sustenance for many, as well as good incomes. They have also been the catalyst for some iconic Kiwi characters – deer culler, the late Barry Crump, springs instantly to mind.
Be it the whitetail of Stewart Island, the wapiti of Fiordland, the widespread reds and fallows, or the sika of the Central Plateau and its surrounding mountains, deer have become the stuff legends – and hundreds of books – are made from.
Deer meat – venison – is a rich, lean red meat with great flavour. The most favoured wild species among chefs are fallow and sika deer. The flesh of these two is ‘less gamey’ in flavour and milder in texture. Red deer meat is bolder on the palate and has a ‘tangy’ smell and taste. As with a cattle beast, some cuts are better than others. The eye fillet and the back strap are the premium cuts – great for cooking whole on the hooded barbecue or in the oven.
The haunch is great for roasting whole when you have a big team to feed, otherwise it can be broken down into the rump, silverside or the knuckle, or sirloin.
Moving forward you have the topside – great for schnitzel and barbecuing; the front shoulder – perfect for roasting and smaller than the haunch; the shin, shanks and neck – useful for stews and casseroling. Venison has a bold flavour so it goes well with onions, garlic and paprika, and marinades based on red wine, sherry or port.
Similarly, fruits such as figs, feijoas, prunes and kiwifruit mix well; their natural juices helping to break down the meat, tenderizing it. Fruits that go well with game, not just venison, include juniper, red and black currants, raisins and cranberries.
When casseroling, cook venison more slowly than you would for other meats such as beef. If the venison has been frozen, defrost it slowly and completely before cooking. Always allow it to rest well at room temperature before carving, slicing across the grain as you should for all meats.