"The meat of any kind of deer. In French, however... also the meat of any large game animal (including wild boar)"
I was surprised to discover that venaison can mean anything that is hunted. After all, boar and deer are very different animals, and equally different in the kitchen. But it turns out that French menus typically specify the species of deer used in a dish. In fact, the favoured species in France, roe deer, has a whole entry to itself in Larousse.
Over here of course, us being a bit less sophisticated, it's all called venison - despite the huge differences between species (just picture a moose, 2m tall at the shoulder, standing next to that garden pest, the muntjac).
Different deer also lead very different lives - fallow deer might live quietly in a park in Richmond, while roebucks across the Channel live wild, and are hunted with dogs.
All this makes venison much more variable in taste and texture than other red meat. Off tastes can result from the animal being stressed when it is killed, which leaves a buildup of lactic acid in the muscles, from improper hanging - even from being shot slightly off target, if it prevents the carcass from bleeding out properly.
This might explain why venison is so often doused in heavy, or acidic marinades, or hidden in stews and pies, rather than treated as a meat to enjoy in its own right, the way beef is. Today's recipe - the first I've actually taken from Larousse, if we don't count the terrine, lets the meat take precedence.
First, catch your deer. I went to McKanna Meats on Theobald's road, just round the corner from the office.
McKanna's is a great, traditional butchers. They used to supply our free range ham and chicken to the cafe, which was always excellent, but don't assume everything there is free range. It's not the Ginger Pig - nor is it Ginger Pig prices.
I picked up 4 medallions for £6, which seems pretty reasonable to me. Medallions are the same cut that would be called sirloin in beef: the two tender, lean muscles running either side of the spine.
Bear in mind that venison is more filling and more strongly flavoured than beef, so you probably won’t need as much as you would for beef. My 4 medallions weighed just over 200g in total, and that was plenty for two of us.
The medallions are simply fried over a high heat, just as you would a beef steak, until caramelised and brown on the outside, but still pink in the middle. Venison cooks more quickly than beef and will continue to cook while resting, so err on the side of underdone. As with steak, the best way to tell when it's done is by feel.
They're served on top of dainty (depending on your knifework) fans of pear, lightly caramelised in butter.
The sauce is a simple wine reduction, thickened with carrot puree, and loaded with butter. It tastes somewhat raw and bittersharp by itself, and I considered trying to tone it down, perhaps with some cream - but, together with the sweetness of the caramelised pears, it offsets the rich, iron taste of the venison beautifully. I've never been more glad to have resisted the temptation to mess with a recipe than I did when I left this sauce alone.
I served it with Potatoes Parmentier - little cubes of crispy potato fried then roasted in butter, and loaded with rosemary and garlic. Most recipes I've found parboil the potato instead of frying it, or skip this step altogether, but I think this is more traditional.
If you're going for a Michelin star, you should cut your potato into exact 1cm cubes. We just cut them into large dice.
This might look like a lot for two people. You'll realise it isn't nearly enough when you taste them.
Pan-fried venison with pears(Adapted from Larousse Gastronomique)
Ingredients (serves 2)
4 medallions of venison, or two steaks
2 firm pears
250ml red wine
1tbs finely chopped onion (about ¼ of an onion, or ½ a shallot)
1 small carrot, peeled and roughly sliced
50g butter, plus extra for frying
Oil for frying (not olive oil)
Boil the carrot until very soft. Push through a fine sieve to make a puree.
Meanwhile in a small pan, bring the red wine to the boil. Add the chopped onion and simmer until the wine is reduced to a quarter of its original volume. Remove from the heat, stir in the pureed carrot, and set aside.
Season the venison well on both sides with salt and pepper, then set aside.
Cut the pears into quarters, then top and tail and cut out the core from each quarter. Cut each quarter into a fan by slicing along the length of the pear, beginning just below the top so the slices stay joined together.
Immediately place the pear fans into a frying pan with a knob of butter, and fry over a moderate heat, turning once, until the pears are just beginning to brown at the edges. If there’s room, fan the pears out slightly in the pan, so that each slice gets caramelised. Remove to a plate and keep warm.
Heat a little oil in a non-stick frying pan over a high heat. When the oil starts to shimmer, fry the medallions until browned on the outside but still juicy and pink inside, around 2 minutes each side. Remove to a plate, cover with a sheet of foil, and set aside to rest.
Reheat the wine mixture and whisk in the butter to make a glossy sauce. Deglaze the frying pan with a little water and add to the sauce. Season well.
Coat plates in the sauce, and arrange the pear fans and venison on top.
Potatoes ParmentierIngredients (serves 2)
500g floury potatoes, peeled and cut into 1cm dice
The leaves from a sprig of rosemary, finely chopped
A clove of garlic, finely sliced
Preheat the oven to 220°C.
Melt the butter over a low heat, and skim the foam and milk solids off the top to clarify.
Pour most of the clarified butter into a roasting dish, leaving enough in the pan for frying. Place the roasting dish in the oven to heat.
Fry the diced potatoes over a moderate heat until they start to brown. Tip into the roasting dish and toss in the hot butter with the rosemary and plenty of salt. Return to the oven and roast, stirring occasionally, for about 15 minutes, until the potatoes are crisp and starting to brown.
Toss the sliced garlic in with the potatoes and return to the oven for a further five minutes. Drain off any excess fat and keep hot until ready to serve.
I found Nichola Fletcher's Ultimate Venison Cookery very helpful in putting this post together. It has lots of information about history, cuts, provenance, and cooking, as well as some very interesting looking recipes (antler jelly, anyone?) and I can't recommend it enough. My favourite part? "People in Sweden used to ride elks, but the practice was banned in the 17th century, because robbers kept escaping from the police whose horses couldn't keep up with these long-legged giants."