Wild greylag goose: trials and tribulations of island life

Every time I open my freezer, something falls out and lands on my foot.  At the moment, the usual culprit is a pack of 2 goose breasts. Attempting to re-arrange the shelf results in a landslide of further goose cuts, precariously stacked behind the breasts on the ‘goose shelf’.  The signs are there.  I need to start using more of these greylag cuts before the shooting season comes round again.

Not that I am complaining, goose breasts are relatively benign compared with the (near) concussion that resulted from a large venison haunch joint falling from the top shelf and clouting me on the back of the head as I searched for something in a lower drawer.  Lesson learned. Large joints of meat to be consigned to the bottom of the freezer in future.

I was watching the greylags today on the croft behind our house, two adults and a brood of 4 well-grown goslings, all feeding on the grass.  It won’t be long before they turn their attention to crops grown by crofters, demanding time and energy to scare and / or shoot this resident bird that has an all too healthy, indeed burgeoning population.  I was involved in biannual goose counts for a number of years, covering my local township and the adjacent townships on and around the island of Baleshare.

Baleshare is always present along the horizon of any photos I have included of the view from the bay at the bottom of our garden and is joined by a short causeway to Clachan, North Uist. The island of Baleshare is a special place for us, and has been for many years, including those long before we eventually moved to North Uist.

We walk the dogs on the expansive Baleshare beach as well as try to catch seafish there, I enjoy running around the island’s single track roads and we fly fish at the Clachan lochs on the other side of the causeway for trout and sea trout.  The south end of the island almost encapsulates the small peninsula on which our house sits, acting as a barrier that protects us from the ravages of fierce Atlantic storms. Baleshare and Clachan are places that I identify with particular people and none more so than Ivan MacDonald.

Ivan MacDonald – One of North Uist’s finest

Ivan, who crofted the land on Baleshare and the surrounding townships, tragically died the weekend before last, being involved in a collision with a car while walking home after a dance at our village hall, less than a mile from our house and an even shorter distance from his own.

I know readers of this blog are scattered round the globe and that many of you will not have known Ivan.  However, my blog documents island living as much as food.  The repercussions of the loss of a young, popular and well-known person to such a small island community cannot be overstated. Testament to this was the amount of mourners who attended his funeral on Saturday. The church and hall were so full that we, along with many other mourners, stood outside to pay our respects during the service. It was an incredibly sad day for the community and beyond.

We had known Ivan pretty much since we moved to Uist over 6 years ago. At that time, we were playing a lot of traditional music and the first people we connected with were musician friends already living here.  We quickly met Ivan through our friends and would play with him often at parties or sessions, enjoying the craic.  He was a fine piper and whistle player and had a great tune repertoire from piping, his Gaelic culture and beyond.  I learned a lot of lovely tunes from him, and have a notebook with the names of tunes Ivan played that I jotted down, some I have learned, others I intend to one day.

Ivan was always fun to play music with because despite being a much better musician than I was, he was never elitist and would graciously play with whoever was at a session. He was a gentleman and simply loved playing and he loved the pipes. He was also the only person I knew here who, like I was a few years ago, was trying the challenge of learning to play Uilleann pipes and he would always want to know how I was progressing and sympathise with the associated challenges.

Ivan was well-known for being a talented Highland piper and I struggle to recall a wedding, dance, party, concert or dinner in Carinish Village Hall at which Ivan did not play his Highland pipes. I will always think of him when I visit the hall.

I associate Ivan as much with crofting as piping and Gaelic culture.  Any time I have been walking, running or fishing on and around Baleshare, I invariably saw Ivan at work in his tractor or tending his stock.  He chose to continue his crofting heritage as a career and was very successful. At 33, he was bucking the trend of an ageing demographic in crofting. I know I will have to check myself as I raise my hand to wave the next time a tractor passes me on Baleshare, a melancholy reminder of his absence.

Many people may have known Ivan a lot longer and better than me, and many will also have fond memories of him.  However, the loss of Ivan leaves a void for all of us that alters the cultural and crofting landscape of North Uist tangibly and irrevocably. As Eric said to me of his passing – he was one of the good guys.  Our thoughts are with Ivan’s family and those closest to him.

Melancholy sunset towards Baleshare and Clachan

Melancholy sunset towards Baleshare and Clachan

Making the best of a (goose) problem

It would be fitting to include a recipe featuring the fine wethers that Ivan supplied us with, his sheep reared on the wild heather-clad east side of the island for a proportion of their lives – hardy beasts with a rich gamey flavour and essentially wild and organic. Sheep that good, however, do not last long and unfortunately, ours is finished.  I turn therefore to complete a suite of recipes featuring the crofter’s nemesis – the wild greylag goose.

I have already featured a recipe for greylag goose and apple sausages, pan-fried breast with balsamic vinegar and confit of goose legs.  All of these turned out to work pretty well and I had hoped to further demonstrate the versatility of the much maligned greylag.  However, recent experiments would suggest that perhaps I have pushed the boundaries of taste literally a bit too far.

As I have warned before, eating a goose you have been unable to reliably age can be like roulette and the chance is one day you will get a tough old bird. This recently happened to us.  I had planned to serve the pan-fried breasts with a Madeira and oyster mushroom cream sauce.  No amount of resting would help recover the Pirelli-textured breasts, and I must admit the sauce really was not one of my best.  I hate food waste but the only option was consignment to the bin.

Cured wild greylag breast ‘prosciutto’

The biggest faux pas, however, was my decision to dry cure two goose breasts.  The process was relatively simple and I know that it can work for duck, so why not goose? Olfaction alone should have warned me not to go there.  Raw greylag has a distinctive smell, one that is in no way lost through curing, I discovered.   It was very pungent, slightly fishy and I wasn’t at all convinced by it.  I reproduce the recipe is case anyone is very keen to prove me wrong about dry curing of greylag, after all, it may have been the bird we used, not cured goose per se, or perhaps the process or choice of cure ingredients. one breast was cured as described below, the second had the bay replaced with tarragon.

Ingredients

  • 2 goose breasts, skin on
  • 80g salt
  • 25g sugar
  • 1 tbsp. crushed dried bay leaf
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp. grated nutmeg
  • 1 tbsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp. ground fennel seed
  • 1 tbsp. ground black pepper

Method

Curing rates are very dependent on temperature and humidity.  There is also a risk of mould in prolonged hanging, so best gain a bit of experience before going for the more intense flavour prolonged curing gives, and check the breasts regularly.  I gave these 3 weeks in a cold outbuilding, wrapped in muslin, checking once a week for ‘flex’ and mould. White or green mould should be wiped off whenever seen.  If you find black mould, do not eat the meat. It should not hang so long that it becomes stiff and rubbery and should retain some moisture. Texturally, these appeared to be perfect, but the flavour was too powerful for my taste.

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Cured - looks good, smells less so.

Cured – looks good, smells less so.

  • Mix the cure ingredients together, crushing the bay leaf with a mortar and pestle.
  • Coat the goose breasts in the mixture and massage it into the meat, and make sure every bit of it has cure on it. Put the breasts in a plastic container in the fridge for 2 days, turning over half way to coat in any cure mix on the bottom of the container.
  • Rinse and dry the meat thoroughly, pat dry then sit on a rack for a couple of hours.
  • Wrap each breast in muslin and tie with butcher’s string and hang in a cool place with moderate humidity for 2 weeks to 2 months. Prevent each breast touching the other as they hang to allow good air circulation.

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I am certain the cure time and salt content were just about right, the meat was yielding and evenly moist without being rubbery.  I have kept the breasts in the fridge and have the occasional nibble as they continue to dry out.  I am hoping the meat will be an acquired taste and also plan to dice it up and throw it in a casserole.

Bouncing back – Barbecued chipotle greylag goose breast

After the slight disappointment of the prosciutto, I was pretty confident that my most recent goose excursion would be delightful.  Of course, the odds were in my favour as you can’t go far wrong with barbecuing and we were not disappointed. The powerful flavour of the goose stood up well to the fiery smoky chipotle marinade which did not overpower the gamey goose flavour.

Chipotle marinade ingredients

  • 2 dried chipotle chillis, rehydrated
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • squeeze of lime juice
  • salt and pepper
  • some groundnut oil

The marinade ingredients were pulverised in a small blender before being rubbed onto the goose breast that were then left to sit for 3-4 hours. The goose redeemed itself entirely on the barbecue and was one of the highlights of our local meat-fest barbecue – to be featured at a later date.

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Gloucester Old Spot pork scaloppine with nettle pappardelle

With most of the vegetables in the garden yet to surface, it seems wholly appropriate to utilise our currently most successful garden edible, nettles, and combine these in a meal with some of our local Old Spot pork.

Nettles (Urtica dioica) really is a great plant species, and not just for eating. Don’t be put off by online diatribes about nettles being ‘unpalatable, disgusting or only survival food’, or statements such as ‘nettle recipes exist for the sake of eating an ingredient because you can’, etc, etc. The secret is in understanding when to pick them (young, early season tips only) and how to prepare them to really get the best from them.

Also, I don’t buy the argument that they are a hassle to prepare.  They are most certainly less hassle to clean and prepare than some other veg we grow and prize e.g. globe artichokes. OK, an extreme example perhaps, but comparable with spinach, for sure.

Yes, nettles can be invasive in a garden, but if you have space for a patch they grow (too?) unabated, demand no attention and offer up a welcome lush green and nutritious crop during the hungry gap (our’s at least – it is longer than most). Later on, they are fabulous refuges and food for insects (and corncrake refuges here too), make superb nitrogen-rich liquid plant food and can help activate your compost heap. For all these reasons, I love my garden nettle patches. Of course, you don’t need to have them in the garden, there’s plenty to forage from urban wasteland, woods and meadows.

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You might think that living where I do that a crop of pristine unpolluted nettles should be easy to forage.  Well, it is true that we have significant nettle patches in the garden but nightly visits from deer, the dogs cheerfully marking their territory (including the nettles) and most recently, a wily sheep in occupation, make most of our nettles effectively unpalatable.

Even if I wanted to run the ‘urine gauntlet’, I’m reluctant to take an early crop of young nettle tops from our biggest patches. On occasional years, corncrakes arriving from their long migration take a welcome break in this early cover in our garden, especially if the irises have yet to get going, as is the case this year.

The rasping call of the males resonates for a few nights before they move on to more productive machair areas to establish breeding territories. I was optimistic that a corncrake may visit and benefit from our nettles as cover, but our very late i.e. non-existent spring means there was no cover to attract the first arrivals this year.  They must have felt very exposed on arrival.

I shouldn’t exaggerate about our non-existent spring.  It did occur on Sunday past after all, which was glorious and confusing all at the same time.  I was fly fishing on Saturday wearing 3 layers of fleece, couldn’t feel my fingers and abandoned the outing.  On Sunday, we were bewildered by the novelty of stunning sunshine, but not just that – warmth and managed  t-shirts all day and a swim (for the dogs anyway, I’m not quite that hardy). Monday, same old, same old northerly wind, rain and low cloud.  Where art though spring?  Or please can we cut to the chase of summer?

Spring wildlife spectacular

Despite the less than ideal conditions, the wildlife is undeterred and the breeding season is in full swing.  Lapwings and redshanks show their irritation as I pass by their breeding territories on my local run.  I know exactly when and where to expect the next irate protective parent to rise from the vegetation to give me an earful as I pass by.

I watch the oystercatchers nesting round the bay having their frequent and noisy altercations with a pair of local ravens.  Gregarious eiders also nest around the bay, the gentle and soothing call of displaying males resonates on (rare) still nights.  Females will soon form crèches with their broods to help protect the vulnerable ducklings from predation.

The spring migration is ongoing and we currently have reasonable numbers of whimbrels on passage north, stopping at the bay at the bottom of the garden on their way to breeding grounds from Greenland across to Central Siberia. Male cuckoos make their presence heard and wheatears dart around the garden, a flash of white on the rump making them stand out against the grassy backdrop.

We have had spectacular views of a pair of hen harriers and short-eared owls hunting daily across the garden, often flying within a couple of metres of my office window.  This is very distracting while I am working!  Many parts of our garden have remained largely ungrazed for years and the sward is longer than the surrounding common grazing vegetation, so we have a genuine vole hotspot that is proving very fruitful for the local short-eared owls.

I have seen them hunt successfully on a number of occasions, once taking a short-tailed field vole literally from under the kitchen window.  I never tire of watching their graceful billowing flight.  One owl has regularly taken to saving energy by scanning the grass in the garden while perching on a favoured fence post.

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Another rare and spectacular wildlife watching experience happened this week.  For the first time since we have lived in this house, we had a visit from an otter in the bay at the bottom of the garden.  It is not at all rare to spot otters here and we have had many very close encounters, but our bay is unlikely to form the core part of an otter territory due to the large component of the day when the tide is some distance out of the bay.

However, this young otter appeared to be exploring the area with a view to establishing a territory.  It ran up and down the grassy slopes at the bottom of the garden, methodically exploring overhanging rocks some distance from the shore, before returning periodically to play and feed in the seaweed on the rising tide. It was delightful and a privilege to have such prolonged views of this secretive mammal from our window.

Nettles: weeding and feeding

My pristine young nettle tops were picked from my raspberry beds where no marauding beasts have access.  This served to let the new rasp shoots have more space and light to grow. I find this to be the only downside to applying old manure (pig in our case) to permanent beds – weed seeds proliferate.  The nettles are small beer though – I’ve got my hands full with the chickweed later in the season.

I have a pretty extreme reaction to nettle stings, so I harvest using heavy-duty rubber gloves – gardening gloves are not robust enough and I learned my lesson the hard way when I was stung through them.

Although sensitivity to stinging nettles does vary between individuals, my sensitivity has very much increased as I have got older.  I remember, like most children, running through nettle patches and coming out with the familiar white blotches and associated red rash, but it never really hurt as much as just irritated slightly. I would just grab a dock leaf (Rumex spp.), rub it vigorously over the affected area, usually my knees, until my skin turned green from the dock and then continue on my merry way.

Now, even the slightest brush against the youngest stem covered in the small silky irritant hairs, which contain histamine, serotonin and formic acid among other things, is to be avoided. These hairs generate the familiar rash but this is coupled with considerable pain.  Although the rash looks the same, the pain stays and I can feel the effects for up to 2 weeks after being stung and the area of skin remains tingly and sensitive, which is a bit disconcerting. I wonder how common increased sensitivity is with age and expect it isn’t unusual, just unpleasant!

Preparing your nettles

I wanted to incorporate the nettles into pasta.  The best way to deal with them for this is to blanch the young tips, plunge them into boiling water for 3 – 4 minutes, then refresh in ice cold water to retain the vibrant colour.  The stings are now gone and the nettles can be handled.

All stems should be removed and the leaves squeezed lightly before blitzing in a food processor to a fine texture.  The nettles then need to be squeezed hard to remove as much moisture as possible as this will impact on the texture of the pasta.

Nettle pappardelle

I wanted to make a rustic hearty pasta to accompany the pork and thought pappardelle would be a fitting choice for the nettle and to complement the gutsy flavour of the pork scaloppine. I have used the same pasta recipe for about 20 years as it has never let me down.  It is from Nick Nairn’s first book ‘Wild Harvest’. The standard recipe calls for 150g of flour (plain, but I use ’00’).  For this recipe I used 180g to offset the additional moisture the nettle brings to the mix.  I got away with it.  Just.

Ingredients

180g flour, ’00’ or plain

1 whole egg, medium

1 egg yolk, medium

80g of fresh young nettle tips, rinsed, blanched and refreshed, trimmed and blitzed

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Method

  • Combine the flour, eggs, blitzed and squeezed nettles together in a food processor for 2 – 3 minutes. The mix should resemble fine breadcrumbs, not be gooey.  Add a bit more flour if it is.
  • Tip out the dough and knead briskly for 1 minute.  Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge to rest for an hour.
  • Cut the dough into 2 pieces, flatten each with a rolling pin to 5 mm thick then roll and refold the dough 7 times until you have rectangles about 8 x 18 cm.  This is important to work the gluten to get a shiny dough and gives the correct al dente texture after cooking.
  • Using a pasta machine, set the rollers at the widest setting, pass through the dough and repeat, reducing the roller setting with each pass until the penultimate setting.  Pass through at this setting again and hang up to dry for at least 5 minutes.
  • Lay the pasta sheet out on a lightly floured surface and roll before slicing about 2 cm wide to produce rustic pappardelle ribbons. Hang them up again until you are ready to use them.
  • To cook, place in salted boiling water, bring back to the boil and cook for 2 – 3 minutes.  Check the texture as you cook.

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Pork scaloppine with prosciutto, capers and balsamic vinegar – a fitting accompaniment

Ever since I got a hold of our local Old Spot pork, one particular recipe has been pouting at me and I knew it would work very well with this nettle pasta.  I saw this recipe on the The Garum Factory blog pages.  The pork is sumptuously blanketed in prosciutto with pungent sage delicately folded within which also shines enticingly through the prosciutto. The sauce is perfect with the pork – and the nettle pappardelle.

Jody and Ken are not just accomplished chefs, but Ken is also a superb photographer.  His images capture the essence of this recipe and my photos would simply not hold up to their exquisite gallery of images that accompany the recipe. I do not reproduce the recipe, but it can be found here.  Thank you Jody and Ken.  It was really delicious!

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

My pork scaloppine and nettle pappardelle

An alternative meat and two veg

For those readers fond of the double entendre, I should first say that by this I am referring to the meaning pertaining to food, i.e. the British stereotypical standard, run-of-the-mill, unremarkable dinner, with a meat and two kinds of vegetable.  It is still a bland dinnertime trap that it is easy to fall into in the UK, especially at home, but also when eating out.

Last Sunday was Mother’s Day and unusually, I was visiting my parents that weekend.  I don’t often see my mum on the day, as we live so far away, so I thought as a gift I would prepare dinner.  Considering all the stupendous meals my mum has cooked for family and friends over the years it’s the least I could do.

The problem with eating out on Mother’s Day, much like Valentine’s Day or Christmas is that it is not always advisable to visit any but the finest restaurants in my experience. Somewhat understandably, menus are more designed for mass catering on such days, restaurants are invariably busy and noisy and staff overstretched. Often generic  ‘Mother’s Day set menus’ are on offer that are not necessarily representative of what an establishment usually serves.

My alternative meat and two veg was delivered for main course consisting of sirloin steak, beetroot and sweet potatoes.  In a final attempt to purge Ottolenghi recipes from my brain (actually this is a lie, I will not be able to resist, but temporarily, at least), I chose to adapt  these from his column in The Guardian as I considered these to be as far from the bland meat and two veg image as a dinner could achieve – without actually removing the components that exemplify the concept.

Harissa marinated beef sirloin with preserved lemon sauce

I found this complement of ingredients irresistibly attractive. I bought local Aberdeen Angus sirloin steaks from a very good local butchers.The slices of steak were not too thick and were given no more than a flash fry and rested.  The flavour of this quality beef was exceptional. Although the sauce was described as preserved lemon, and this was the hook that drew me towards it, in actual fact, it predominated of tomatoes a bit too much for my palate.  That said, the addition of sweet roasted yellow peppers and some Hungarian sweet paprika as well as chilli flakes enhanced the depth of flavour and the preserved lemon gave a distinctive tang which accompanied the marinated steak well without overwhelming its flavour.

Ingredients

1½ tbsp harissa
4 beef sirloin steaks, trimmed (about 750g total)
Salt and black pepper
2 large yellow peppers
2 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and crushed
400g tin chopped Italian tomatoes
½ tsp flaked chilli
¼ tsp Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tbsp preserved lemon skin, thinly sliced
2 tbsp chopped parsley

Method

For the sauce:

  • Rub the harissa into the sirloin steaks, season with a quarter teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, and leave to marinade for at least an hour (or in the fridge overnight).
  • To make the sauce, roast the peppers in the oven for at 200C for 45 minutes until charred all over. Place in a bowl, cover with clingfilm until cool, then peel them and cut into long, thin strips. Discard the skin and seeds (my mum kindly did this bit while we were walking the dogs).
  • Heat the oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Fry the garlic for 30 seconds on medium heat, add the tomatoes, chilli, paprika, a quarter teaspoon of salt and some black pepper, bring to a simmer and cook for seven minutes.
  • Add the pepper strips, preserved lemon skin and parsley, and cook for seven minutes, until the sauce thickens but is still easy to pour. Set aside and allow to come to room temperature.

For the steak:

  • Preheat the oven to 100C. Place a ridged griddle pan on a high heat and, when smoking hot, add the steaks and cook for a minute a side.
  • Transfer to a baking tray and rest for 4 minutes, for rare, 6 if you prefer medium. Serve with the sauce.

harissa steak

Roast beetroot salad with yoghurt and preserved lemon

I have always enjoyed the pairing of beetroot with roasted cumin and the extra dimensions of the fresh dill and chicory delight and amuse the palate with contrasting and complementary  layers of flavour.

Ingredients

600g beetroot
2 tbsp olive oil
1½ tsp cumin seeds
1 small red onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
20g preserved lemon skin, roughly chopped
2 tbsp lemon juice
30g dill, roughly shredded
Salt and black pepper
3 tsp tahini paste
200g Greek yoghurt
1 chicory, cut widthways into 0.5cm slices

Method

  • Heat the oven to 220C. Wrap the beetroots individually in tin foil, place on a baking tray and roast for 30-60 minutes, depending on size and quality – check that they’re done by inserting a knife: it should go in smoothly. When cool enough to handle, peel, cut into 0.5cm-thick slices and transfer to a mixing bowl to cool down.
  • Heat the oil in a small frying pan and add the cumin seeds. Cook for a few minutes, until they start to pop, then pour the seeds and oil over the beetroot. Add the onion, preserved lemon, lemon juice, half the dill, a teaspoon of salt and a grind of black pepper. Mix well.
  • Transfer to a serving bowl. Stir the tahini into the yoghurt and add to the salad, along with the chicory. Give it a minimal stir, so the yoghurt and chicory mix in only slightly and there is still some clear distinction between the red and the white, with some pink ripple. Sprinkle over the remaining dill and serve.

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Roast sweet potato with red onion, tahini and za’atar

I have saved the best ’till last. I have made this roast sweet potato dish before and it is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the best vegetable side dishes I have ever eaten.  The colours of the dish are intense and appealing but as much as it looks delectable, the flavours combined are truly mind-blowing.  The first time I made this I served it with chicken, hazelnuts and rosewater. The fact that most of this side dish was demolished before we got round to eating the chicken is testament to its deliciousness .  It served yet again to remind me that vegetarian food can be more delicious than so many meat-based dishes.

Although the recipe can be found in ‘Jerusalem’ using butternut squash, I prefer sweet potato so substituted accordingly.

Preheat oven to 200C

Ingredients

700g of sweet potatoes, cut into large chunks
1 large red onion, cut into wide slices
3 tbsp olive oil
1 1/4 tsp Maldon salt
a few twists of black pepper
3 tbsp tahini paste
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1 garlic clove, pounded into a paste
3 tbsp pine nuts
1 tbsp za’atar
handful coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Flaky sea salt

Method

  • In a bowl mix the sweet potatoes and onion with the olive oil, a teaspoon of Maldon salt and a few twists of black pepper.
  • Spread the vegetables on a baking sheet and roast in the oven 30 minutes, or until the vegetables have taken on some color and are cooked through and charred a little. You may need to pick out the onion earlier, lest it burn. 
  • While the vegetables are roasting, make the sauce. Place the tahini in a small bowl along with 2 tablespoons of water, lemon juice, garlic and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt. Whisk until the sauce is the consistency of honey. You might need to add more water or tahini, depending on consistency.
  • Toast the pine nuts in  a frying pan until golden brown. Remove from the heat and transfer the nuts to a small bowl.
  • Spread the vegetables out on a large plate or a serving platter and drizzle over the tahini. Sprinkle the pine nuts, followed by za’atar and the parsley. Add a few flakes of the Maldon salt and serve.

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Venison Volume II: Skinning up – sausages and stock

This is a post part of which has been sitting in my drafts for some time and for some reason, I only now get round to publication.  This is not least with encouragement of Phil at Food, Frankly and my promise to do so last week. Being a person of my word (most of the time), here is the second volume of the rather graphic venison butchery episode.  Be assured that this is somewhat more gentle than Volume 1: In the Flesh and covers making the most of the animal and preparing fine game stock and venison sausages.

Part of the reason I have not posted this so far is that I am not really a very good step-by-step recipe blogger, especially with images as I lack patience and photographic skills for this, and the processes involved very much need this approach.  However, if going off on random digressions are your thing, especially musical ones, I am adept at that. I will curb my enthusiasm in this respect and restrict myself only to the briefest mention of a musical soundtrack.  Venison butchery, stock and sausage making are culinary marathons that demand a soundtrack to provide the stamina and to drive one to the end (she said in a thinly veiled justification).

Food provenance – there are no surprises

As outlined in Volume 1, knowing the provenance of the meat and fish I eat is the essence of why I decided to do so again after a decade of strict vegetarianism. This is especially pertinent given the unfolding ‘My Lidl Pony’ horse meat scandal. It is becoming increasingly clear that a long, convoluted and global supply chain makes it almost impossible to be reassured about the identity, provenance and possibly even the safety of processed meat products for sale in the UK.

In fact, this comes as no surprise to me as it should not be to most consumers.  Our insatiable demand and expectation for cheap meat, coupled with and exacerbated by the dominance of supermarkets reacting to the markets on a gargantuan global scale brings with it this vicious circle of inevitability.  Meat is a luxury and should not be cheap and we have all but lost sight of the global environmental and welfare implications of eating meat. It should be a component of our diet, not the central focus, which it so often is. The middle classes have the luxury to fret about the food miles associated with eating the likes of asparagus out of season flown in from Peru (mea culpa).  The issue for unfortunates who do eat processed ‘beef’ is one of food miles squared – with bells on.

While I am not ready to revert to vegetarianism, I do my utmost not to feel smug or sanctimonious about my eating habits or those choices of others. The options I have are fairly luxurious and there are many people who are not fortunate enough to be in a position to source quality local meat and, more fundamentally, that can afford the meat choices I can readily make.

While that is true, I also have a finite budget and would rather forego the luxury of a new pair of shoes, or even curb my CD buying urges to make sure I eat the best quality produce that I can.   In truth, I don’t have a problem with eating horse meat per se, I no doubt did when I lived in Portugal (maybe even donkey too). The real issue is that with processed meat you can have no confidence in what you are eating and must have your eyes wide open to that reality.

The making of venison sausages

Sausages are a case in point and I am guilty of contradictions in this respect.  I turn my nose up at processed meat of supermarket breakfast sausages, but happily eat artisan cured salamis.  Let’s face it, I don’t really know what’s in these salamis and donkey is likely in some traditional Spanish variants. Similarly, how much do I know about the provenance of the smoked pork belly I use in this recipe? So, going back to my ethos, I do what I can.

Out of respect for the deer, we use over 95% of the carcass we collected to produce prime cuts, stock and sausages. Sausage making is a great use for all the bits from the belly, ribs, parts of the shoulder and neck that ends up piled up at the end of butchery of the prime muscle cuts.  That said, we remove all sinews, tendons and viscera, keeping only the prime meat for the sausages. Equally, it could be simply minced and frozen to make a fine low fat venison based lasagne.  This year we had a whopping 5 kg of potential sausage meat from our deer.

To make sausages, it is best to be prepared in advance.  That means getting breadcrumbs or rusk, skin, pork fat and seasoning ready for construction. To do this, we call upon the services of the indispensable Weschenfelder, specialists in butchery and charcuterie equipment, all with the benefits of an online shop. Their website is mesmerising, offering a cornucopia of delights for the professional and home sausage-maker alike.

Sausage making soundtrack: Julian Cope – Peggy Suicide; Lamb of God – Sacrament; Kate Bush – Hounds of Love and The White Stripes – Elephant

Ingredients

5 kg venison

2 kg Pork fat or belly (smoked in this case)

1.5 kg Pinhead Rusk

1.5 litres cold water

227g seasoning mix – 1 pack of Weschenfelder Royal Venison Seasoning

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Over the past few years we have used many different sausage recipes, largely of our own creations.  Some have been very successful, others, in trying to cut down the fat content, have been altogether too meaty and a bit strangely flavourless.  This year we opted to play it safe and turned to a Weschenfelder seasoning recipe – Royal Venison Seasoning and incorporated their rusk into the recipe too.

Choice of casing

We always buy casings (skins) from the online shop too.  We favour natural casings: hog casings and sheep casings (more info courtesy of Weschenfelder) and have also used collagen. Each has a plus and minus.  Collagen is synthetic and is what most supermarket sausages are encased in. It is easy and forgiving to use but gives quite an unnatural shape and texture.

Hog are good, robust and offers quite big diameter sausages – good for Cumberland or similar.  Sheep casings are much narrower and more delicate to work but make a really fine, elegant (if you can call a sausage elegant) breakfast sausage.  We used sheep this year, choosing traditional hanks but the delicate nature of the casings meant they frequently broke/burst when shirring onto the nozzle of the mincer.  This made the process even more time-consuming. I suspect we would benefit from a smaller nozzle for sheep casings, shown below soaking in water.

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Method

  • First, the meat and fat is minced.  We have a dedicated mincer with a sausage-making nozzle attachment.  If you have a KitchenAid, a sausage-making attachment can be purchased for it, but it is expensive.

Mincing the pork Bosek

Mincing the pork belly

Venison is minced - note the vibrant colour

Venison is minced – note the vibrant colour

We used smoked pork belly, because we simply couldn’t get a hold of pork fat here.  This made the sausages a bit more meaty and ‘bacony’ than they would be if fat alone had been added, but they were not dry.

  • The minced venison and pork are then mixed with the seasoning mixture then briefly with half of the cold water.
  • The remaining cold water is added to form a sticky, moist mixture before adding the rusk and mixing well.

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  • The whole batch of mixture is then minced again in readiness for being fed into casings. Casings are rinsed and soaked in water beforehand.

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  • The mincer attachment was changed for the nozzle and the wet sheep casings were carefully threaded onto it.
  • The mixture was fed back through the mincer, slowly feeding the mix through so as to not burst the casings or have sausages being produced at a high rate of knots that can’t be managed.

venison 7The reward is a huge pile of delicious venison sausages.  This batch provided 200 sausages and 40 chipolatas.  Most of the chipolatas were served with Christmas dinner.  Some of the mixture was also kept back and used to stuff our free-range bronze turkey. Any left over casings can be stored in salt in the fridge and re-hydrated for use.

Having done a back-of-an envelope calculation, I estimated the average cost of each sausage to be 20p. Although there is a lot of work in the butchery preparations and making the sausages, this is still a bargain for a premium quality sausage of good provenance.  The benefit for us is also the skills in butchery and food preparation we have developed which will stand us in good stead when we move on to make salamis, something we certainly plan to do in the future.

Stock making – post butchery therapy

The other essential component of the day that maximizes the value for money of a whole red deer carcass is to make stock with the bones.  Freezing the bones to do this another time takes up a ridiculous amount of freezer space and so I make stock and store it in 500 ml containers in the freezer for use throughout the year.  I call it game stock as I use it interchangeably as a stock for wildfowl as well as venison recipes. I take great care over making this stock as this will be the foundation of many game dishes over the winter and I find stock making very satisfying, even therapeutic.

The recipe I use is the classic Michel Roux game stock recipe. The recipe calls for veal stock, which is a bit of an ask out here.  This can be replaced with chicken or beef stock. I used chicken, which does lighten the stock a bit. I bring more intensity of flavour by reducing the strained stock at the end of the process. I made 2 batches over 2 days.

Preheat the oven to 220C (fan)

Ingredients

3 tbsp. groundnut oil

2kg game trimmings: venison bones in our case

150g carrots, sliced into rounds

150g onions, coarsely chopped

1/2 a garlic bulb, unpeeled and cut in half widthways

500ml Cotes du Rhone (preferably, other red wine is fine)

500ml veal stock (or beef/chicken)

8 juniper berries, crushed

8 coriander seeds, crushed

1 bouquet garni, including 2 sage leaves and a celery stalk

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Method

  • Put the oil in a large roasting tray together with the bones and trimmings and brown in a hot oven for 30 minutes, turning occasionally.
  • Add the carrots, onions and garlic and return to the oven for another 5 minutes.

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  • Transfer all the meat and veg to a large stock pan, pour off any fat from the roasting tray and deglaze with the red wine.
  • Reduce the wine by half then add to the stock pan.
  • Add 2 litres of water to the pan and bring to the boil on a high heat.  Just as it boils, turn down the heat until the liquid barely simmers.
  • Skim for 10 minutes then leave it barely simmering for 2 hours.
  • Strain through a chinois / sieve. At tis stage it can be reduced by a third to intensify the flavour.
  • Cool and pour into containers to freeze.  Done!

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