The British have finally embraced venison. Sales of the meat have risen by 50% in Sainsbury’s compared with last year, while Marks & Spencer sold three times as much in 2011 as it did in 2010. Total UK sales have more than doubled in the past five years, as British consumers have shown a preference for more unusual meats and more game.
As a meat, venison has a lot going for it. Its ferrous, gamey flavour is far more interesting than flabby pork or cheap chicken. Gram for gram, it contains less fat than a skinless chicken breast. It has the highest protein and the lowest cholesterol content of any major meat. It’s thoroughly sustainable and always free-range. Why, then, has it taken so long to become popular?
A clue lies in the name: the word “venison” comes from the Latin verb for hunting: venare. For centuries, venison was restricted to the wild meat that landowning families sourced on their estates. The Normans and the Plantagenets demarcated much of England into royal forests, preventing farming on those lands in order to promote the growth of deer, wild boar and specific birds they enjoyed hunting. It thus became almost impossible for ordinary Britons to eat any venison unless they poached it, and the penalties for that were severe.
This entrenched a perception that venison was intrinsically high-end or “posh”, the effects of which linger to this day. It isn’t helped by the fact that a deer – perhaps especially the majestic red deer of the Scottish Highlands – is an exceptionally handsome creature, in a Landseerish sort of way. When Country Life magazine launched a campaign in 2008 for the UK to eat more venison, it knew it would have to brook fierce opposition from a public inclined to sympathise with good-looking mammals.
Deer numbers have never been higher. The six free-roaming British species total well over 1 million animals, who thrive even though 350,000 are shot and tens of thousands are involved in car accidents every year. Wild venison is thus highly sustainable. The animals destroy large tracts of British farmland: a single deer can devour an entire bed of lettuce in about a minute. They strip the bark from trees and munch their way through flowerbeds and fields. At a time when many grain farmers are facing significant difficulties owing to pressure from the supermarkets, promoting the consumption of venison might offer them some help.
When I went on a deer stalk for the Guardian last December, I was struck by the stalker’s humanity and his absolute insistence on a clean kill. Wild deer are never shot in the head, even though that would furnish the most meat. At a deer farm I recently visited, I saw the most contented farm animals living in the most enjoyable farm conditions I remembered. The animals roamed and scarpered freely, in herds and families, across 400 acres of dipping Kentish countryside.
Venison prices compare favourably to those of beef and lamb. A little marinating or some barding in fat will help to keep this lean meat moist and flavoursome. Despite a hypothetical association with chronic wasting disease, venison is yet to suffer a major food scare. It is, in many ways, the perfect meat, and it’s a good thing that Britons seem finally to have realised that.
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