Many people hesitate about cooking venison, thinking it too rich, too fancy or just too tricksy to bother with. It’s such a shame. Venison is lean and full of goodness, but more to the point just plain delicious and versatile. Farmed venison is excellent and available all year round, but I’m lucky to have abundant supplies of wild stuff where I live in Dorset.
I was really pleased to discover that the Wild Purbeck partnership (one of 12 around the UK set up to help restore and manage precious natural environments) hopes to develop a Wild Purbeck venison brand to encourage more locals to tuck in. It’s widely agreed that populations of Sika and Roe deer on the Purbecks need careful management and culling to maintain healthy herds (they have no natural predators) and prevent damage to woodlands, trees, crops, gardens, habitats and other wildlife. To dovetail with this project, the first Dorset Venison Festival is being held in April to highlight the meat’s many virtues.
Venison’s gameyness is often overstated; for me, it’s just like lean, well-hung beef. Because it’s very low in fat, the main cooking challenge is to preserve venison’s rich flavour without drying it out. The most tender cuts, loin and haunch, are perfect for roasting, frying or grilling and are best served pink. The tougher cuts like shoulder, neck and flank benefit from a long slow braise to make rich stews and ragus.
This recipe is a version of the classic French dish known as farci. Traditionally, cabbage leaves are stuffed with breadcrumbs, vegetables and/or meat and then formed into a ball to echo the original cabbage shape. The delicious package is then wrapped in muslin and poached in stock. Here, I have taken a leaf out of Mimi Thorisson‘s beautiful cook book A Kitchen In France and arranged mine in a tin, which is then baked (she has filled hers with lovely spiced sausage and pork mixture). Here, the venison sings beautifully together with the cabbage, celeriac and dried berries. The result is beautiful and very delicious.
Prep: 20 minutes
Cooking: 1 hour
- 1 Savoy cabbage
- 1 tbsp juniper berries
- sea salt flakes
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small leek, white part only, finely sliced
- 1 large carrot, diced small
- 150g celeriac, diced small
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 600g venison mince (or venison shoulder or neck, very finely chopped)
- 30g dried cranberries
- Leaves from 3 thyme sprigs, chopped
- 400ml passata
- 1 egg
Separate the cabbage leaves by cutting them away at the base. Cook in boiling salted water for 5 minutes. Drain, rinse in cold water so the leaves retain their fab green colour and spread out on a tea towel to cool and dry.
Place the juniper berries and a generous pinch of salt in a dry frying pan and cook over a medium-high heat, shaking the pan constantly, until the berries smell gorgeous. Transfer to a mortar and pound to a powder – or crush with a rolling pin.
Heat the oil in the same frying pan and gently cook the leek, carrot and celeriac with a pinch of salt and pepper, stirring often, until soft but not coloured, about 8 minutes.
Add the venison, breaking up any chunks with the side of a spoon. Add the cranberries, thyme and the crushed juniper, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring now and then, until the meat is browned, about 5 minutes.
Add the passata and simmer, stirring often, until the liquid has almost cooked away. Set aside to cool.
Butter a 20cm cake tin and preheat the oven to 180°C/Gas 4. Line the base and sides of the tin with the largest cabbage leaves, letting them overhang the sides a little.
Stir the egg into the venison mixture. Place half this mixture in the cabbage-lined tin and then place a layer of cabbage leaves on top. Add the remaining meat and finish with a layer of cabbage leaves, tucking them into the sides.
Bake for 30 minutes but take a peek now and then, and loosely cover with foil if the top is browning too quickly.
When cooked, place a large plate on top and wearing oven gloves, carefully turn over and lift off the tin. Ta-dah! Serve immediately, cut into slices.