Learn how to be a butcher
PUBLISHED: 12:58 24 April 2017 | UPDATED: 12:58 24 April 2017
A true foodie should know exactly how her fodder gets to the table, including the venison she enjoys so much. So Linda Duffin enrolled on Lavenham Butchers' one-day course in butchering a muntjac carcass
I was roundly abused by all my hunting, shooting, fishing friends recently when a muntjac got caught in our garden fence and I let it go, rather than killing it and eating it. It calmed down when I soothed it as my husband cut it free, convincing me I was Suffolk’s answer to Dr Doolittle. I felt less charitable when it kicked over and smashed my freshly-collected eggs as it tore off across the lawn, but it was too late by then.
Less soft-hearted friends often turn up at the door with a brace of something furred or feathered, and I’ve certainly skinned and plucked and jointed plenty of rabbits and game birds in my time. But never a deer – until now.
Greg Strolenberg and Gareth Doherty run Lavenham and Elmswell Butchers. In addition to their butchery skills they are also licensed deer stalkers and work with landowners to manage the local deer population. It is a necessary task. Muntjac, in particular, can be a problem and not just in my garden. An imported species, they breed all year round. Over-population puts a huge strain on the environment, as they eat everything in sight, and can also lead to a diseased herd. Lacking natural predators, their numbers need to be managed. Ask any farmer whose fields have been stripped of crops.
And they taste delicious. Not too gamey, and a good introduction to venison for anyone who isn’t already a convert. Greg and Gareth sell the meat in their shops and they also run muntjac and small game butchery courses. I joined four other people for the most recent at their Lavenham headquarters. There was Ron Bennett and Abhay Prabhan from Suffolk, and father-and-son duo Simon and Tom Turner, who’d trekked all the way from Cheshire and London respectively.
“Tom bought me this as a birthday present,” says Simon. “We like to challenge each other to do something interesting for our birthdays and Tom sourced this course. He’s really come up trumps!”
Greg used to supply muntjac for a game course in London, so when he and Gareth opened Lavenham Butchers two years ago it was, he says, “a no-brainer” to do the same thing in Suffolk.
They charge £100 for the day, including instruction, lunch and the meat from an entire muntjac to take home.
The knives are out
Our task – to skin and joint a muntjac apiece. It’s a small deer, not too daunting for an amateur butcher, although there are a few intakes of breath when the group is introduced to the animals hanging upside down on hooks. But we all eat meat and now we’re going to put our money where our mouths are. Ron, from Clare, believes there is a degree of hypocrisy about the provenance of our food.
“It doesn’t come in packets and if I’m not prepared to skin an animal then I probably shouldn’t be eating it, which is an extreme way of looking at it I suppose, because you have to feed people. But I like the idea of animals living in the wild and I like eating them, and I thought well, I ought to know quite how they get onto the table.”
Greg demonstrates how to remove the head and hooves and then neatly unzips the beast from top to bottom. He shows us the safest way to use some extremely sharp knives and soon the carcass is stripped of its hide. Clearly, he could do the job in a fraction of the time, but he takes it slowly, explaining each step, calm instruction for us to work steadily at our own pace. Greg and Gareth are on hand, watching, advising, encouraging, lending help where needed.
“It all kind of falls to pieces if you nick the right bits,” says Tom. “I’m not squeamish – I did a job years ago before Christmas in a turkey farm – it’s easier than that and a much neater process.” Abhay, from Ovington, is a retired physician who’s done a bit of surgery in his time. I watch as he meticulously skins his deer. He jokes that his work involved “putting people back together” rather than taking animals apart. “Gareth and Greg are very good guides to put you through what you’re learning here, I’m impressed, the whole set up is very good.”
After a coffee break, it’s on to the butchery. Gareth hefts a carcass onto a butcher’s block and breaks it down into joints, again explaining patiently where to cut to get the most out of the animal. Before long, we’ve each got neatly cut haunches, shoulders, steaks and trimmings in front of us. Gareth and Greg gather up the usable scraps for sausages, showing us amid some hilarity how to use the stuffer, a high-powered machine that in the hands of the unwary can squirt sausage meat a considerable distance at top velocity.
Scrubbed up and clean, we relax and chat over more coffee and fat, juicy venison burgers cooked up by Greg’s wife, Jen. “Muntjac,” Greg muses, “might be a pest to some people. But I think we’re blessed to have such a pest. What great fun it is to stalk and what a fantastic animal it is to eat.” He’ll get no argument from me.
Venison Goulash with Herb Dumplings (serves 4)
Good with ribbon noodles, rice or just creamy mashed potato.
Ingredients for the dumplings:
100 g plain flour
2 level tspn baking powder
28 g butter
1/2 tspn salt
A handful of finely chopped parsley
Ingredients for the goulash:
700g of casserole venison
An equal weight of onions, peeled and finely sliced
140g streaky bacon, cut into lardons
2 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
3-4 juniper berries
1 tspn caraway seeds
1 level tbsp sweet paprika
2 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper
125 ml sour cream
To make the dumplings, mix the flour, salt and baking powder in a bowl. Cut the butter into small pieces and rub it into the flour, then mix in the egg and parsley to make a stiff dough. Knead briefly to amalgamate, form into a ball, wrap in cling film and set aside in the fridge.
Heat a tablespoon of oil in a deep frying pan or casserole. Fry the bacon until transparent, remove with a slotted spoon then add the venison and brown it in batches. Remove and set aside with the bacon.
Add a little more oil to the pan if necessary and cook the onions until golden. Add the garlic and cook for a minute.
Put the meat back in the pan. Stir in the paprika and salt and cook for one minute. Stir in the herbs and seasonings (except the parsley) plus a wine glass of water and clamp on a tight-fitting lid. Simmer on top of the stove until the meat is tender, about 1/12 to 2 hours. Add a little more water if it’s drying out.
Just before you want to eat, check and adjust the seasoning, then stir in the sour cream and chopped parsley.
Pinch off pea-sized pieces of the dumpling dough, roll them into spheres and drop them into the simmering goulash. Replace the lid. The dumplings will be done in six to eight minutes by which time they should be light and fluffy.