The word ‘venison’ used to refer to all wild, non-feathered meats (venatio being the Latin for ‘hunt’) and would have included animals such as wild boar and goat. But it’s now used almost exclusively to refer to deer meat. In days gone by, as a result of its aristocratic connections, deer was very much a rich man’s food. Only the offal was affordable to commoners (the ‘pluck’ or offal of the animal was also called the ‘umble’, the origin of ‘humble pie’). These days, however, venison is widely available and inexpensive. With six species of deer in Britain (Chinese water, fallow, muntjac, red, roe and sika) and different seasons for stags or bucks (males) and hinds or does (females), there isn’t a month of the year when you won’t find venison of some kind available from your local butcher. Even better, while, from an ethical perspective, wild venison ticks all the boxes, deer aren’t reared intensively in Britain so you can also eat farmed or park (from an enclosed estate) meat with a clean conscience. Hinds, especially of the smaller species, tend to have a slightly less gamey flavour than bigger stags, and November is the month when the females of our three most commonly eaten species (the red, fallow and roe) are in season. It means a plentiful supply of good value meat. In addition, venison partners particularly well with a number of other ingredients, savoury and sweet, that are in season this month (think rosemary, cobnuts, juniper and pears). So, while there’s no ‘bad’ month for venison, from November through to February is most certainly a very good time of year for this lean, iron-rich and well-flavoured meat.
Venison, celeriac and mushroom suet pudding
Baking suet pastry gives a very different feel to this pudding than steaming would. I like them either way but the crisp texture of baked suet pastry contrasts so nicely with the soft meat and tender celeriac in this dish. serves 4 hungry people or would make 6 puddings at a push!
For the filling
500g diced venison, 1½–2cm pieces
200ml red wine
2 rashers smoked, streaky bacon, cut into lardons
1 onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, sliced
100g chestnut mushrooms, trimmed and quartered
350ml beef or venison stock
muslin bouquet garni of 2 bay leaves, 6 sprigs of thyme and 6 juniper berries
1 small celeriac, peeled and cut into 1cm cubes (250g)
1 tsp cornflour, slaked in 1 tbsp cold water Maldon sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the suet pastry
250g plain flour
1½ tsp Maldon sea salt, finely ground
cold water to mix (approximately 180ml)
1. Preheat the oven to 140˚C.
2. Season the venison with salt and pepper. Heat some oil in a heavy-based frying pan and seal the venison over a high heat, caramelizing well. Do this in a couple of batches. Tip the venison into a casserole dish and deglaze the pan with a little of the wine. Add this liquid to the venison. Wipe out the pan, add a little more oil and cook the lardons until the fat starts to render, then add the onion and garlic. Cook for around 10 minutes, stirring often, until the onion is soft. Add the mushrooms, raise the heat and cook until the mushrooms start to colour. Add this mix to the venison.
3. Pour the remaining wine into the pan and reduce to a syrup, then add the stock and bring to a simmer. Pour over the venison, mix well, add the bouquet garni and cover. Cook in the oven for 1 hour. Add the celeriac and cook for a further 20 minutes. Check that the meat and celeriac are tender.
4. Drain the majority of the cooking liquid into a clean saucepan and reduce to approximately 150ml. Thicken with the cornflour, adding gradually, to give a thick double-cream consistency. Remove the bouquet garni from the venison, squeezing out any liquid. Add the sauce and adjust the seasoning. Allow to cool.
5. For the pastry, sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the suet. Gradually add cold water, mixing with a blunt knife until a soft dough is formed. Flour the work surface and knead the dough quickly into a ball. Cut threequarters of the dough and roll out to around 4mm thick. Cut out rough circles, 20cm in diameter. Roll the remaining pastry with the trim and cut out 12cm circles for the lids.
6. To assemble, butter four 10cm aluminium pudding basins and line with the larger pastry circles. Trim the excess, leaving around 1cm overhang. Fill the basins with the venison mix. Brush the lids with water and place over the filling. Squeeze the two layers of pastry together and trim off the excess. Brush around the rim of the pudding with water and roll the sealed edge inwards to create a double seal around the rim.
7. Turn the oven up to 180°C. Place the puddings on a heavy baking tray and bake for 20-30 minutes. The pastry should be crisp and golden and the filling hot right through. The puddings should tip out easily but may need the point of a knife run between the pastry and the basin.
8. Serve with seasonal greens, roasted carrots and mash.