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(not so) Dear Deer 

 by Stoker


"Miss, is this where our lunch comes from?"

Those of us who are just a touch old fashioned (and Stoker slightly ruefully so admits) had a strange frisson when scanning the various British newspapers and weekly political magazines last week.


Passing rapidly from the decay of the Tory Party via the uncertainties of Starmer’s Labour, on through the bizarre spectacle of a US Presidential candidate who seems to be facing charges in almost every court in the land and a serving President mumbling and stumbling his way through another day, and ignoring M. Macron’s Napoleonic graciousness in his state visit to Sweden (the King looking modest and slightly apprehensive), we reach the domestic sanctity of the inner pages.  But even here, things seem a little weird.  


Nurseries to Serve Venison to Toddlers” says a headline in the Daily Mail, and whilst that in itself does not make anything true, Wales Online and The Spectator both confirm that this is indeed a verifiable, fact-checked story.  Now, it must be admitted before we go any further, that the lucky tots are those in thirty-two private nurseries in Dorset and Hampshire, run by Tops Day Nurseries (should you wish to bung your little one in for a gourmet experience).  Tops Day sources this new meat supply via Eat Wild, a group backed by various wildlife conservationist groups, which is procuring venison from two large local estates.  Note low green mileage - highly commendable.

Venison - game as it is generally known in countryside circles - like most wild meats is highly nutritious.  Such meats are low in fat - when did you last see a stag thoughtfully chewing a Twix bar or a pheasant having a third pint of bitter – with high concentrations of trace elements good for human health, such as iron and Omega 3, and are generally free of additives and the pills and potions often given to farmed livestock to promote rapid growth.  Given the choice, most animals might prefer a free life and gentle old age, but as a second strategy, a free life and sudden death by bullet must be greatly preferable to living in crowded stockyards before being herded into trucks and held in long queues at the abattoir.


Before you envisage rooms full of infants sitting down to a spit-roasted stag or waving partridge legs at each other, à la Henry VIII, Eat Wild have considered how best to give their product fork-appeal. Burgers and mince are the infant’s choice wherever possible, and that is how this game food is served, venison lasagne being a particular favourite apparently.  Pheasant is a good and toothsome substitution for chicken, as is rabbit.  Squirrel too tastes like chicken though this is not yet on the school menu (it may be soon; my local butcher now can provide squirrel saddles.)  In an era when what does not taste like chicken tends to be mass-reared chicken, this can only be a good thing.  Better still is pigeon, incidentally.


Farmed meat is increasingly expensive to produce. When not organic it increasingly has additive issues; and where it is organic it is even more expensive.  Game though is comparatively cheap.  There is a huge over-supply of pheasants and partridge, and although stories of shot birds having to be buried in mass pits are apparently untrue, game dealers are almost at the point of requiring rural estates to pay them to take and process birds after the great shooting battues of the rural autumn season.  The days when the estates were getting £2 a bird are long over; 50p seems to be the maximum now.  Consumption has gone up dramatically; our Editor notes prepared venison in his local Waitrose, but he will also see pheasant dishes in the poultry or game section, even in Tesco and Morrison, amongst others, should he so venture.  The shooting industry is very concerned that not having strong markets and proper outlets for game is both very wasteful of perfectly good meat, but also creating a potential major image problem for shooting, already under fierce scrutiny from the anti-shooters and countryside regulators.


There is also another rural over-supply problem to which all this is the perfect answer. That is the massive growth in the population of wild deer, of red, roe, and fallow, the common ones, but also of Chinese water deer, sika, and muntjac, the latter being the biggest nuisance, as any forester or gardener knows, but also very good eating (so it should be after having consumed so many vegetables and flowers).  The deer population is estimated at over two million and growing rapidly in almost every county in the United Kingdom; the experts think that in overcrowded, intensively farmed Britain the maximum sustainable population of all types of deer is about one million.  Deer are eating trees, destroying fences, occupying habitat of others such as the rare capercaillie and ptarmigan, and causing lots of road accidents. The stalker is suddenly back in favour (deer stalker we mean, and not the hat type), nowhere more so than in Scotland.  The Scottish government is not known for its warm regard for rural hunters but even it has recently removed the closed season for stag hunting, so that they can be shot throughout the year.  There are rumours that in especially deer-plagued areas special licences may also be introduced for killing hinds (females) without offspring, such is the scale of the problem.  So, let’s eat the deer; create yummy dishes and normalise the appearance of wild meats on the nation’s plates.  And where better to start than at one end in Waitrose and at the other in the nursery lunch?  

Game meat is not just for posh babes in the rural Home Counties.  Many educational authorities caught between the rock of ever-increasing budgetary restraints and the hard place of public concern about health, see non-farmed meat as the answer.  It’s healthy and it’s cheap, but to work for mass caterers it does need to reflect how we eat now.  And in Britain that is, as we noted earlier, not as roast birds or venison haunches, but in the form of quick easy food, for flash cooking or the microwave. Lasagne or moussaka, pasties or pizza, shepherds pies or sausages, that is what the time-pressed modern eater and cook both want.  Such dishes have also the benefit that they disguise what the sensitive modern gourmet is actually getting on the plate.  A roast woodcock with its bill piercing its own breast may reflect the cook’s artistic urges (and be delightful eating) but would empty the school dining hall pretty quickly.  My friend who made venison soup for his young family and when asked what it was said “Bambi Soup” learned food presentational skills the hard way.  But a game pasty or venison sausage seems harmless enough to a hungry audience.  


So it seems likely that the meat option on school lunch menus or being trolleyed round the hospital wards will increasingly have its meat option as something wild.


But, you exclaim, aren’t we all vegan now?  You are not keeping up with eating trends.  The same week as Eat Wild announced its schools contracts, the hip sandwich bar chain Pret A Manger announced the closure of its remaining vegetarian-only branches.  Vegetarianism and veganism are in decline, as restaurants and supermarkets both confirm from their sales figures, and the cause of some of that fading seems to be an increasing public consciousness of the health benefits and provenance of what we eat.  Meat is back, but best of all, healthy meat which has had a jolly life in the wild before meeting its fate and our pleasure.



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