Get in the Game
Chef Mike Robinson hunts the venison for his Stratford-upon-Avon restaurant himself, will benefit customers, farmers and nature itself
By Mike Robinson
September 23 2019
Autumn is finally here; the leaves have turned but the blasted nettles are still fighting valiantly. I know this, having just crawled through a patch to reach my vantage point at the edge of an Oxfordshire field. In the late evening light, 30 fallow deer are creeping out of the woods, just 200 yards in front of me. The light breeze is gusting across my face, so they can’t pick up my scent. I set up the rifle, an ugly piece made of plastic and steel, but superbly accurate and designed for the job at hand.
Typical for a herd of fallow, there are 20 or so does and fawns, with a few young males – or prickets – and older bucks. The farmer tells me they have been on this crop for some days and need moving on. Actually, he was less polite than that, but you get the idea. I will try to harvest a pricket or two. I always want to leave a good spread of male deer across the generations as part of our management programme.
A dark-coloured pricket ambles towards the wood I am in. The light is quite low now, but the scope has no problems. As he won’t stop moving, I whistle loudly to make him stop. He raises his head to see what’s up and drops neatly with a shot high in the neck. The others make for the horizon.
This moment is always strange. The world becomes eerily quiet, as though the other animals know something has happened. I suffer a mix of emotions: I’m happy I’ve done the job well and the deer never even heard the shot, but I’m sad because the scene was so calm before I shattered it. But it is a job that has to be done. The deer population has never been higher – ever. Fallow deer are ferocious breeders and when unchecked do huge damage to crops and trees. I also tell myself that the deer suffered the perfect end – no prior knowledge, no stress, and out like a light. Surely this is better than an abattoir? People buying the meat of animals that have hard, short lives and bad ends often turn a blind eye to the realities of how the meat we eat comes to our table. This is why I love the honesty of harvesting game and wild meat and truly believe in its ethics.
I grew up a mere 20 minutes from where I stand over the deer I have shot.
My parents did not shoot, but my grandfather did. Sadly I never met him, but something in my DNA made me seek this out at an early age. Perhaps the million years of hunter gathering that humans did before farming came into play was strong in me, or maybe a sense of adventure, but hunting for food was something I’ve wanted to do since I was 12. It was hunting that got me into cooking as a child – rabbit korma was a teenage favourite. A very kind, retired Army Brigadier in the village took pity on me and taught me how to shoot, and nothing was ever the same again.
Professionally, I have always cooked game. All the venison for my restaurants and those of several friends’ now comes from my own FSA-accredited deer larder in the Cotswolds. At Owl Barn Larder we manage deer on land for farmers and estate owners in Southern Britain who have problems with their growing deer numbers. Other game is used as much as possible. Right now at The Woodsman – my newest venture in Stratford upon Avon – we have grouse, pigeon, rabbit, hare, and fallow and muntjac deer on the menu, which my customers are very happy about! You might think that getting people to eat wild food would be hard, but when presented in the right way, not too strong or overhung, and served with a good choice of veg, it sells. At the Woodsman and the Harwood Arms (our pub in Fulham, London), 40 per cent of the meat sold is venison, yet it makes up just 20 per cent of the menu!
For a restaurateur, one of the great things about game is its justifiability to the public. Most people like the idea of eating something that has lived a wild and free life – I know I do.
Also, deer is a perfect size: You can buy a whole carcass and use all of it, making this source of protein much better value as long as you are creative and flexible with your menus.
Indeed, we have a steady stream of customers who are ethically vegetarian but relish eating wild harvested meat. And let’s not forget the health benefits: negligible fat, easy to digest, and high in protein and essential nutrients. Walking over to my fallow pricket in the darkening light, I muse over what I have done. Four hours of work have resulted in 60 portions of perfect meat for the restaurant. Millie and Sorrel, my dogs and companions in the wild, are excited over the tidbits to come, while I plan my menu: grilled T-bones of wild fallow with bone marrow and green sauce…