Game for a change: Why you should be eating venison
PUBLISHED: 14:37 31 October 2016
Sarah Lucy Brown 2016
Venison is healthy, free range, plentiful and easy to cook, so why don't we eat more of it? Linda Duffin gets up early to meet the Lavenham butchers on a mission to get it on our plates. Photography: Sarah Lucy Brown
Sunrise is just a thin red line on the horizon when I clamber out of Greg Strolenberg’s pick-up truck on farmland just outside Lavenham.
Greg and his business partner, Gareth Doherty, of Lavenham Butchers, have invited me and Suffolk Magazine photographer Sarah Lucy Brown to come deer stalking with them. They’ve split us up in the forlorn hope that we won’t frighten off the game. Sarah is with Gareth and I’m with Greg.
It is 4 am and I’m still sleep-walking, but I borrow a balaclava to cover my blonde hair and set off behind Greg, trying not to step on too many twigs, painfully aware in the pre-dawn silence of just how much my boots creak.
“Did you hear that?” says Greg. It’s a muntjac in the woods we’re skirting, but it sounds to me like someone’s pet dog barking. This ignorance and my utter lack of observational skills become something of a theme.
“Did you see that roebuck?” Greg whispers. “Nope.” Half an hour later: “Did you spot that muntjac near the trees?” “Er, no, sorry.” I’m forced to conclude that if I had to live off the land I’d be reduced to gnawing off my own arm.
We see plenty of evidence of deer – droppings, pathways through the grass, a bean field that’s been stripped by grazing – but no antlered herds sweeping majestically across the horizon. Dawn comes up quickly and I am mesmerised by the beauty of the rolling Suffolk countryside, walking through wildflower meadows, along wooded tracks and knee-deep in grassy fallow land. My romanticism is swiftly nipped in the bud by Greg, who tells me to check myself for ticks when I get home.
As a child I wept when Bambi’s mum was shot, but as an adult I am aware that deer numbers need to be managed. I hadn’t realised the scale of the devastation they can wreak, though. In addition to the damage to farmers’ crops, an out-of-control deer population can literally eat itself out of house and home, leading to a diseased herd and the destruction of its environment.
“The woodlands are ancient, they have lots of really rare species of flowers and insects, whose habitats are very fragile,” says Greg. “The muntjac and other deer will browse and destroy all the habitats. You’ll have invertebrate loss, then the rodents start to disappear because they haven’t got the insects and brambles and berries that they need to survive, so the knock-on effect goes right up the chain to things like owls that rely on good hunting grounds.
“Nightingales are ground-nesting birds and rely on thick cover. If the muntjac eat them out there’s nowhere for them to nest. If the insects are gone there’s not many bats about any more. I’ve been in woods where it’s sterile, there’s nothing but deer living in there. Everything else has just left.” Muntjac, an imported species, are a particular problem. There is no closed season on shooting them as they breed all year round.
“The population has really exploded because they’re always pregnant,” Greg tells me. “Every seven months a muntjac has another baby. That baby will reach maturity in seven months, it’s covered by a buck, it’s mother is covered again, seven months later they both give birth, so you can see how quickly a population can get out of control. There was one place where I used to shoot, they had an acre field full of rare orchids, and once the muntjac moved in they lost the whole field – they never saw another orchid. And that was typical of an alien species moving in. They’d had roe deer there and never had a problem, but the muntjac wiped the whole field out.
“In Africa you’d have wildebeest being taken by lions, there are plenty of predators to keep numbers healthy. But we don’t have that here. So our best method, at the moment, is to cull the deer.”
We meet up with Gareth and Sarah to discover they have spotted more deer than we have, but only at a distance. We have been out for around four hours and are returning to Lavenham empty-handed. I have enjoyed the walk and the lesson in conservancy, but for Gareth and Greg this is part of their business. Greg shrugs. “This probably happens one time in four,” he says philosophically.
As licensed deer stalkers they work in tandem with landowners to keep the local population of muntjac, roe and fallow deer under control. Even though they are both experienced shots and trained butchers, they had to pass stringent examinations to ensure they would hunt responsibly, and that the deer they cull are fit for human consumption. They use .243 calibre rifles for lighter game, plus the bigger calibre .308 on occasion, and Greg will often tailor his bullets by hand to ensure greater accuracy.
Although they sell all the usual farmed meats in their shop Greg and Gareth specialise in game, and offer classes where customers can learn how to skin and joint an animal. Greg also trained as a chef and enthuses about the quality of wild food.
“Venison is very healthy meat, full of omega 3, low in fat, low in cholesterol and about as free range as you’re going to get,” he says. “People worry that they don’t know how to cook it, but if you can fry a beef steak or cook a leg of lamb you can cook venison. A leg of muntjac costs between 10 and 15 quid and there’s enough to feed five or six people, it’s a lovely joint.”
They have both worked in the butchery business since they had Saturday jobs as schoolboys, but it’s only two years since they got together to open their Lavenham shop.
“Greg used to run a wholesalers and I managed Smith’s butchers in Needham Market,” says Gareth. “We used to buy from him and we got on, then one day he ‘phoned me up out of the blue and said ‘do you fancy having a go at our own shop?’ and I said ‘yeah, definitely’. Because there were things we wanted to do slightly differently – the butchery courses, a lot more game. So we thought we’d have a go ourselves and here we are today.”
They were finalists in the Best Newcomer category in this year’s EADT Food and Drink Awards, but the prize they scooped, unsurprisingly given the nature of their business, was Field to Fork.
“We were just honoured to get through to the finals so to actually win a category was amazing,” Gareth says. “It was unreal. We sat there at the awards ceremony with these people who’ve done amazing stuff, established businesses, and we’re fairly new. But it’s perfect for us, Field to Fork has been our ethos from the get-go.”
In addition to the game they supply themselves, they are scrupulous about buying higher-welfare, locally-sourced meat. Gareth says: “We go round the farms, we get to know the farmers, we inspect the cattle, the sheep. People want to know now where their food’s from, and we can say ‘well, if you go down the road a mile you’ll see them on the side of the road’. We don’t buy mass-produced beef, it’s all the traditional breeds like the Suffolk Red Poll, Galloways, British Whites, more the heritage breeds than the mainstream. Nothing imported. We find personally that looked after well, given the right hanging time, the eating quality and flavour is second to none.”
At a time when many local butchers’ shops are closing, they have just taken on their second premises, in Elmswell, where they hope to duplicate the success they have seen in Lavenham. None of it would be possible, they say, without the support of their wives and the team they have built up.
“There’s a shortage of butchers,” says Gareth over a cup of coffee and a hot sausage roll. “We’ve got an apprentice here in Lavenham because it’s good to bring youngsters into the business. We’re looking to take an apprentice on at the new shop as well. We’re trying to bring people into the business and keep it all going because at the moment there’s a real shortfall of skilled labour.”
And with that, they clean up, put on their butchers’ overalls and get behind the counter to begin a full day’s work in the shop. I went home for a nap.
High Street, Lavenham, CO10 9PX T: 01787 247226