Our six species of deer produce lean, sustainable and delicious meat - but which has the best flavour? Sam Carlisle conducts a taste test with Nick Weston, author of Hunter Gather Cook: Adventures in Wild Food
Which is the most delicious venison?
We kicked off the tasting with the smallest species. After the first bite Nick and I were both wondering if we’d tried the best first — how could the others compete? Muntjac has the mildest flavour of all the species. Yet it is far from bland; the right amount of iron and meatiness is balanced by a slight sweetness. But where muntjac comes into its own is the texture. Given normal hanging, it is by far the most tender. It is the ideal meat to introduce someone to venison.
Chinese water deer
Chinese water deer have huge amounts of fat, more akin to domestic livestock than venison. As the fat layer is such a hallmark of the meat we decided to keep it on the fillet while we cooked it. This level of fat stops the meat drying out, making Chinese water deer one of the easiest venison to cook.
Nick and I were both delighted at how delicious the meat was. It was completely different from muntjac, full of flavour, but not gamey or strong. The grain of the meat was even larger than muntjac, which meant it was also very tender.
The lack of “deer” flavour made me think that this, above all, shows what a misnomer venison is.
Immediately we noted a much stronger and gamier taste. Roe is noticeably darker too. However, the texture was the biggest difference. Roe is much denser, with a very small grain to the meat. Cooking it rare enabled the full flavour to emerge but when I’ve overcooked it, I’ve noticed an unattractive grainy texture and a slight liver taste. Roe requires more care cooking than other deer.
First introduced by the Romans, fallow has been an important source of venison ever since. It is easy to see why. An ideal size for butchery, it also has an excellent flavour. It is still quite mild, with just the right gamey kick. Nick Weston, the Hunter Gather Cook author describes it as a cross between beef and lamb, and an ideal beginner’s venison.
Outstanding meat. It has an excellent texture like fallow, with a slightly stronger game taste. The game taste, though, is more toasted oats than offal and very appealing. It also has a high fat content, which adds to the flavour and keeps it tender.
Red deer is probably the most common venison eaten, available in supermarkets and from myriad habitats. A quick search revealed that I could have a next-day delivery of farmed red from New Zealand or England, from heather-clad hills or from lowland barley fields. How on earth could they all taste the same? The answer is, of course, they don’t.
Our red from a young Norfolk deer was full of flavour, but not strong or off-putting — a common complaint about reds. Its texture is excellent, with a very open grain, and it tasted delicious. Of the six, even in this animal, it had the strongest flavour.
We considered the wild meat we had eaten. We had different opinions but agreed that all the meat was superb, and much superior to most farmed meat. Venison remains one of the most ethical and healthy meats available, which adds an extra dimension to its exceptional flavour.
We also discussed how the age and diet of the deer and — especially in the case of the larger species — whether it is rutting would impact this test.
There is a further debate too about how long a deer should be hung. Some say little more than a day, others are advocates for multiple weeks.
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We both thought that our top three, in no particular order, were muntjac, Chinese water deer and sika.