Unless you are used to stalking deer, the calendar that governs the shooting season is almost as confusing as that of the Vatican. The UK is home to six breeds of deer, four of which are not supposed to be here having either been introduced by the Romans (fallow) or escaped from Whipsnade zoo (muntjac, Chinese water). For the peculiar-looking, half-deer-half-hyena thing that is the Reeve’s muntjac, there is no closed season – presumable because it is so damn ugly. But all the others are all subject to a bewildering array of sex- and location-based restrictions. In all honesty, the season on sitka deer ought to be opened up as they are rated among the most environmentally destructive and invasive mammals on the planet. Certainly. there is no shame in eating Bambi.
When it comes to cooking deer, the watchwords are low and slow. Good, lean venison steaks will fry like any other, but the rest of the animal benefits from seasoning and time. This is the basis of the ghillies’ stew.
Ghillies themselves are the estate gamekeepers who look after the wild deer and birds and run the shoots in the season. When a dish includes the word ‘ghillie,’ it is usually a very simple affair with minimal ingredients that could, at a push, be cooked in a shed. This is in a similar vein to the Italian notion of ‘cacciatore‘ and the French ‘chasseur.’
This recipe comes from the 1978 edition of the Marks and Spencer-marketed British Cooking book by Caroline Conran and is a regular favourite at winter dinner parties hosted by my parents in Aberdeenshire
Ghillies' venison stew
- 1kg diced venison
- 25g plain flour
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 onions, roughly chopped
- 2 rashers of bacon, chopped or a handful of lardons
- Squeeze of lemon juice
- 1 glass port
- 275ml beef stock
- 4 juniper berries, crushed
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season the flour and use it to coat the venison pieces.
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven and fry the onions and bacon until soft and gilded. Add the venison and fry until coloured.
Add the lemon juice, port, stock, juniper and any left-over flour. Season, cover and simmer for 1.5 hours until tender (see notes).
Serve with baked potatoes and redcurrant or rowan jelly. Common additions of my mother are mushrooms and cooked chestnuts. For the simmer, if your pot is oven-proof, you can sling it in the oven at 150˚C for the same length of time; or put it in a slow cooker for 8 hours.