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

venison 1

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.

venison 2

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.

venison 9

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

venison

  • 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

venison 3

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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Venison Volume I: In the Flesh, my deer

Warning:  This post contains content about the reality of eating animals (again) and describes butchery and contains images of same.

I am pleased to say that at last, the deer hind we took delivery of last week is finally completely prepped and in the freezers. I am even more delighted that we managed to use almost every piece of the animal, just as it should be, with only one small carrier bag of no more than a couple of kilos of waste.

We are no butchery experts, but are self-taught. We butchered our first whole deer carcass 3 years ago with the help of a couple of useful books, web searches and You Tube. It’s surprising how much we remember, given we only do this once a year and this year we were patting each other on the back for not reaching for any references. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, but the animal is prepared with care and respect to provide the cuts that we want. I hope this post will help or encourage others to try the same.

For me, venison is the finest of all red meat, and red deer the finest of all Cervidae. Better still, it is wild meat hence has much fewer welfare issues that are associated with domesticated stock such as cattle and sheep. Although, it is true that good wild deer welfare is dependent on good deer management practices. Wild deer populations require careful management for the benefit of the landscape and importantly, the fitness of the animals themselves.

There are a lot of deer on North Uist and culls at an appropriate level can take the  pressure off a fragile landscape, not to mention crofters crops and gardens like mine (we have just this minute scared some red deer our of our garden). The deer population also benefits from this management.  Maintaining the population at the correct level i.e. below the carrying capacity for any given habitat improves fitness by reducing the risk of starvation in lean times and helps the animals maintain good condition over the winter, improving reproductive success.

Food provenance is also not particularly a consideration with our Uist deer. When you pick up your animal from the local abattoir on the island on which is was shot a few days before, there are no ambiguities about its provenance.  It is also a lean red meat, is relatively healthy and extremely versatile. It is also reasonably rich and dense, so a little goes a long way. So, I see benefits all round.  This is meat that is good for your conscience as much as your health and palate.

I am always rather disappointed by beef these days.  To my palate, even the leanest cuts taste fatty compared with venison (because they are).  Some would argue fat brings flavour but a well hung piece of venison cooked to perfection will beat beef hands down – provided you understand how to cook it. Less is more. If you cook it to the Jesus sandal stage of leathery cremation, it is truly abhorrent.

Did I mention that I like venison?

If you want to avoid or have no interest in the following butchery section please see the recipe for Blackened venison chops with pak choi

Managing your own deer

The hind weighed 86 lb when we took delivery of it.  This is the dressed weight meaning it is skinned and with the head, feet and internal organs removed, about 55% of the live weight.  It is ready to butcher.  It had been shot 2 days before.  Ideally, we like the venison to hang for about a week to age and enhance the depth of flavour. We hung it up in our shipping container for a few more days. You should only do this if the temperature is low enough and you can guarantee the environment is fly free, otherwise, get on with butchery.

Suggestion: Before you start select some appropriate music.  You are going to need motivation for the duration.  Since it was a team effort for us, we came to a consensus that perhaps Bach or Sibelius would not serve us with the motivation required.  We selected the Planet Rock radio station.  A plethora of rock classics got us through to the forequarter.  Memorable chestnuts we had not heard for a long time spurred us on: Speed King by Deep Purple (The Hairy Scream at his best), early ZZ Top – La Grange and some distinctively cheesy 90’s power rock – Thunder’s ‘Love Walked In’.

Hind halves hanging to age the venison and enhance the flavour

Playlist in place, first thing to do before you even start is make sure you are equipped with VERY sharp knives, appropriate for the job.  A boning and a paring knife are essential, as is a butchers saw (or hacksaw). Fortunately, The Man Named Sous is an expert at sharpening knives.  Just as well because our knives, Chroma 301, made of Japanese steel, require to be sharpened on a wet stone.  It is tricky to get the sharpening angle correct and depends whether you are right or left-handed.  Fortunately we are both right handed. The room should be cool as the meat is easier to work with in cool conditions.  Finally, make sure surfaces and clean, disinfected with something like dilute Milton fluid. Once you get your deer ready to butcher, have a look over it, remove any hairs sticking to the carcass.  Look and see where it has been shot and the implications for how you butcher it.  This hind had a body shot which damaged part of the loin on one side, so we needed to take that into account.  In the past, we have had deer shot through the shoulder.

This results in quite significant damage to the shoulder joint and a lot of meat can be lost as a result.

The Fillet

This is the first cut to be removed and it sits alongside the loin and continues back and into the pelvis.  This prime cut is very fragile, so you need to know where it is and what it looks like before you start, or you will invariably cut straight through the club-shaped end at the rear of the beast. Working from the anterior end, drop the fillet away from the body. It starts to taper thinly at the end just as you reach the clubbed end, which is embedded in another group of muscles associated with the pelvis.

Dropping the fillet, reaching the tricky point at the haunch.

 
  

Fillet removed, showing the double piece of muscle at the rump end.

Once you have worked out where the end sits, carefully remove it intact.  There is a thin muscle lying along the length of the fillet.  This can be trimmed off and I usually use it for stir fry.
The Loin
For this half, the loin was cut off using the saw just at the end of the ribs. The loin runs right along the top of the back from the shoulder to the rump.  We decided to cut here to remove the damaged section where the hind had been shot and also as we prep the loin in association with the ribs at the front.

Loin just before boning out showing the location of this prime cut

Boning out the loin is straightforward.  Care must be taken to remove all sinew and connective tissue around it to prevent distortion during cooking.  This applies to all cuts intended for quick cooking.  It can be time-consuming, but there is nothing worse than a nice medallion that is misshapen and chewy round the edge because sinew has been left on it.

Loin removed from the bone, still with fat and sinew attached

All fat and sinews removed, the loin can be sliced to form medallions (also called loin/sirloin steaks). In this case, we left it intact as we are planning to use it in a Venison Wellington.  Together with the fillet, loin is the best cut.

The loin fully prepared and ready to be used in a Venison Wellington.

To bring out the best in the loin, it should not be cooked more than medium rare. It contains very little fat and overcooking will dry it out. I prefer it either very rare (almost bleu) or rare. Undercooking, searing the outside to get a caramelised exterior and resting are the best treatment to guarantee succulence and a soft, almost melt-in-the-mouth texture. Resting is also very important to relax the meat and draws the juices back to the more cooked meat around the outside.   You know your medallion is well rested when all juices remain within the meat when it is served.

The Haunch

The back leg and rump. It is a big piece of meat.  In the past, we have kept the muscles together and boned out the joint but it weighed kilos and we simply didn’t want to hold a banquet to use it.  We now take the 4 muscle groups (rump, topside, silverside and thick flank) apart and cut them into sensible sized pieces.

The main haunch muscle groups minus the rump. Clockwise from the top: Hand is on the silverside, below is a small muscle, the salmon cut, topside at the bottom and the rounded thick flank on the left.

Silverside and salmon cut are good for steaks and roasts. Again, all sinew including the silver connective tissue that gives the cut its name should be removed.

Removing the silverside and salmon cut from the other muscles

Silverside and salmon cut. Silverside showing the silver tissue that identifies it. This was removed and it was cut into steaks. The salmon cut was left whole.

The thick flank is a rounded muscle group made up of 5 muscles.  It usually makes a good rolled roast, but if from an older animal, may be best as stew. The topside is great for steaks, the largest from the animal. It is also good for making bresaola, which I have done in the past. Although traditionally an Italian recipe for beef, it works well for venison. It is salt-cured with herbs and spices then air-dried for at least a month during which time it goes deep red, almost purple. Sliced thinly, it makes wonderfully distinctive antipasti.  I would recommend giving it a go.

Fully prepared thick flank (left) and topside (right).

Below these cuts is the shank, a piece of meat that requires very slow cooking, either on the bone, or sliced and including the marrowbone, called ossobuco, an ingredient  in many classic recipes.

Musical interlude

By this point, the process was getting pretty intense and we needed another musical boost.  Planet rock was wearing thin with an increasing amount of ‘Cradle Rock’ such as Foo Fighters (stick to Them Crooked Vultures,  Grohl) and the final nail in the coffin was Bon Jovi’s ‘Bad Medicine’ an appalling track.  Bad Medicine, no Jon, just bad songwriting. This is not rock! Hang the DJ, as the great Mozza said…

Time for our own musical back catalogue and a motivational smack between the eyes – Lamb of God’s Sacrament  followed by Machine Head’s The Blackening.  Whoaaah!! Having then had enough Mofos for one day, time for something epic and loud, that’s right, it’s Epicloud, Devin Townsend’s captivating new album. The only Canadian more prolific and consistently brilliant as Neil Young. However, typical of Hevy Devy, this album is so complex I was unable to concentrate on both the butchery and the music. Time to try Porcupine Tree’s The Incident…..

The Forequarter

The front end of the hind including the neck, shoulder, ribs/loin and flank. We prefer to bone out the shoulder and dice it to use as stew.  Parts of it are also used for mince and sausages, as is the flank.  Boning out the shoulder is time-consuming, but there is a lot of meat and it is worth removing as much sinew as possible, even if though it will be used in stew/sausages. The shoulder can also be rolled.

Removing the shoulder in preparation for boning out.

The bottom of the ribs were retained for stock. We kept the tops attached to the loin and sliced these into chops. Immense on the barbeque (on the few days a year we can have one here).

Venison chops

The neck contains good meat for stew and the bone is excellent for stock making.  All bones from this hind were retained to make stock (recipe to be featured in Venison Volume II).

So, give it a try!

Although, as will have been deduced from this butchery description, it is a protracted process but it is worth remembering how satisfying it is to butcher your own deer to produce the cuts you want.  Also worth giving it a go, even if you are a beginner.  We were too.  Mistakes will happen, but it’s not the end of the world. Stick to separating muscle groups and you can’t go far wrong.  Think about where the meat sits on the deer, how these muscles will have been used and how this affects how you will use them. It is a steep learning curve the first time but ultimately rewarding to know you have treated the deer with respect and you will be proud to honour it in your recipes over the months to follow.

After all that butchery, a simple dinner is required.  For the simplest possible dish, why not try venison chops?  I found this recipe in Nichola Fletcher’s book ‘Ultimate Venison Cookery’, a mandatory purchase and reference for the venison lover. It is derived from the recipe ‘Blackened rack of venison with a gratin of fennel’.  I just use the marinade and mix and match with whatever fresh veg I have to hand from the garden. In this case, it was my super-abundant and bolting pak choi crop at the end of August.

Blackened venison chops

Ingredients:

1 tblsp balsamic vinegar

2 tblsp soy sauce (I used dark)

2 tblsp clear honey (also have made with cloudy, doesn’t make much difference)

Method:

That’s it! Mix, rub into the chops  (or steaks, whatever quick cook cut you choose) with a bit of pepper. Marinade for a few hours, grill or stick on the barbie.

Stir fried pak choi with chilli and spring onions

Served with the chops last time I made them.  Very simple and tasty.

Ingredients:

A few handfuls of pak choi

sesame oil, a small glug

a handful of spring onions

1 fresh red or green chilli

sesame seeds

Method;

Heat a small amount of sesame oil in a wok, on a high heat.  Add the chilli and stir fry for a couple of minutes.  Fling in the sesame seeds and stir until golden and popping, about 1 minute.  Throw in the pak choi and stir fry until the leaves wilt down a little.  Add the spring onions, turn them through the pak choi and then serve.

Blackened venison chops with pak choi

Dog days long gone

This weekend, as the rain pelted against the windows and the garden looked decidedly water-logged, there was no doubt that the typical Uist winter weather had arrived and my memories of the unseasonably long and dry summer are fading. The Romans associated Sirius, the Dog Star, brightest star of the Canis Major constellation with hot weather of summer (Dog Days). Whether we ever really have Dog Days in Uist is, however, a moot point. Hot and balmy? I don’t think so.

So, back to the present, any hope of our plan to dig in deer fence strainers was dashed by the weather. It can be hard to tackle outdoor jobs once the clocks change as work is restricted to weekends, with good weather. Slim pickings. Perhaps just as well it was pouring since we had just taken delivery of a red deer hind to butcher, an annual job which usually takes the best part of a weekend.

On dreich weekend days, no matter how occupied you are, cabin fever has the potential to set in. With the dogs going stir crazy, I had to abandon my attempt to hear GQT on Radio 4. Exasperated by the crazy dog shannanegans, it was time for a break from butchery and some fresh air. Even in foul weather dogs need their walks. People too.

It was an unexpectedly marvellous moorland walk – dry, still and with a rainbow over Eaval. It is one of the special qualities of these islands that you can experience the most sublime weather windows on any day of the year. The quality of light in the winter gloaming appears to me to be unique to this archipelago.

Darwin looking for Eaval’s pot of gold. Everyday is a Dog Day…

In the stillness I could hear the resonating roars and bellows of a red deer stag. Ahead, on the crest of another hill, Ben na Coile, I could see the silhouette of the stag and those of his surrounding harem on the horizon. I assume it is the same magnificent beast I have seen corralling a large group of +15 hinds on the west-facing slopes of the hill over the last few days. How much more spectacular these beasts looked in the natural moorland setting than my garden!

The racket he was making was not bluster. Combined with the large size of his harem, his stature and sheer bulk all indicated that he wouldn’t be a likely candidate to get as far as the parallel walk with another stag. I doubt if there would be many stags prepared to have a square go with him. If I was a mature stag round there, I would find a big boulder and hide behind it until he passed.

The hind in our kitchen was also by this time looking very good and will taste even better. The intensity of the venison butchery over the weekend meant I had no inclination for intricate food preparation. Comfort food being the order of the day, we were rewarded with a simple bake of sweet potatoes, smoked mackerel and spinach  for our hard work. With the venison mission almost accomplished (all but stock and sausages), time to put the feet up with a well deserved glass of elderflower gin.

Sweet potato, smoked mackerel and spinach bake

Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of sweet ingredients as the base for savoury dishes. I suspect it comes from years of vegetarianism which resulted in over indulgence in butternut squash and sweet potatoes. However, the use of the salty, smoky fish cuts through the sweetness of the potatoes and tones them down enough to balance the dish.

Set oven for 180oC

Ingredients

2 medium sweet potatoes
Fresh or frozen spinach, enough for 2 layers in the bake
2 smoked mackerel fillets
Sprig of rosemary, stripped and leaves chopped
Bay leaf
Onion, a half
150ml double cream
150ml milk
1tblsp homemade vegetable boullion or 1 tsp veg boullion powder
Parmesan or other cheese of your choice to grate on top
Salt and pepper

Method

Infuse the bay leaf, rosemary, milk, double cream, half onion and boullion together in a pan until almost boiling, take off the heat and sit to one side.

Cook the spinach for a few minutes until wilted (or defrosted if frozen). Let it cool a bit and then squeeze to remove excess water out of it.

Spread layer of sweet potato slices on the bottom of a buttered gratin dish. Sprinkle over a layer of spinach. Break up the mackerel fillets roughly with your hands and place them in a layer over the top of the spinach. Season with salt and pepper and repeat, starting with another sweet potato layer.

Finish with a layer of potatoes on the top and pour over the infused liquid, minus the bay leaf and onion.

Sprinkle liberally with parmesan or the cheese of your choice and bake for about 1 hour.