The taste of something new – venison is appreciated as a healthy meat
PUBLISHED: 07:33 17 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:11 20 February 2013
Venison has lost its elitist image as its taste and value as a healthy meat has become more widely appreciated. Our food and drink consultant Annie Stirk reports
One of the food success stories of the last few years has been the rise
in popularity of venison. It has finally shrugged its elite image and become hugely popular as a healthy, low-fat meat.
There is a handful of key Yorkshire producers who lead the field. Among them are Richard and Jenny Elmhirst at Round Green Farm in Worsbrough near Barnsley.
The farm began with a breeding programme of just 10 animals and now supplies supermarket chain Waitrose as well as many of the UKs top restaurants. The farm shop opens seven days a week and the couple have a regular presence at many of Yorkshires lively farmers markets.
The Elmhirsts started out in Wharfedale, living in a 17th century house near Otley and farming Irish cattle. Richard studied at the Royal Agricultural College and went on to work as a land agent, running three estates in North Yorkshire. He inherited the dairy and arable Round Green Farm at the age of 21. The couples interest in venison farming began when Richard was asked by his neighbour Paul Fletcher to help him find a field where he could put some deer. Richard offered land at Round Green Farm and the men decided to go into partnership.
The fledgling business was helped by Paul Fletchers brother John, a vet who had carried out research into deer production and who had already established his own deer farm in Fife. He helped them find a herd of nine hinds and one stag from the Isle of Rum to start off their venture, ensuring that the Round Green deer were of true Scottish provenance.
The Elmhirsts moved into Round Green Farm full-time and established their original deer herd there in 1979.
It was the start of what was to be a great adventure. They were very exciting days, said Jenny. There was only one other venison farm in England, down south. It was the start of something completely new for us, a new industry, and we felt like frontiersmen. Round Green Farm, which had been on the site since the 1300s, was now moving in a completely different direction. Initially deer farming was just a sideline to their dairy business of 300 cows. As times became increasingly difficult in the dairy market the Elmhirsts decided to focus on venison and have never looked back. We just knew we were on to something special, said Jenny.
As Richard gradually built up the venison herd he needed some sort of handling system. His brother was duly despatched to New Zealand on a fact-finding mission, and, after buying more animals, the Elmhirsts were soon exporting breeding stock throughout Europe. By the mid-1980s venison was increasing in popularity and the Elmhirsts started selling venison meat rather than just breeding stock. We just put a sign on the farm gate Venison For Sale and people pulled into the farm yard and bought it straight from our freezer, said Richard. Today the diary unit is now a 1.5m state-of-the-art abattoir and butchery.
Round Green has always been a busy place and we have always had a busy life, said Jenny. I was never really a country girl but Ive always loved cooking. I seemed to be constantly in demand by people asking me to cater for them anything from business lunches to the first ever AGM of the British Deer Farmers Association. Jenny also persuaded local restaurants to use venison, the first of which was The Weavers Shed at Golcar, Huddersfield. Venison is a special meat, said Jenny. It is very different to beef and lamb, and in the early days it was very much an education process. The chefs werent that familiar with how to cook it. Nowadays they cant get enough of it.
The Round Green herd now numbers 180 deer and demand for venison outstrips supply so additional supplies of venison are bought in from other Quality Assured farms working to the Elmhirsts stringent standards. The farm employs five highly-skilled butchers who are all licensed to slaughter and works closely with the RSPCA to ensure that the process is as stress-free as possible with exacting checks carried out with animal welfare paramount. The farm was voted Yorkshire Lifes Food Producer of the Year in 2005 and top chefs Gordon Ramsay and Brian Turner have filmed there, as has the cult TV programme Come Dine With Me.
More Yorkshire venison farms
Nigel Sampson spent two years deer farming on the Island of Jura on the West Coast of Scotland before launching Holme Farmed Venison in Sherburn in Elmet, North Yorkshire. He produces award-winning prime venison from a herd of 2,000 grass-fed native red deer, plus stock from a number of associated farms. Nigel has also created a full range of deerskin clothes and accessories.
Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, a World Heritage Site, near Ripon, North Yorkshire, has two deer parks spread over 300 acres where 600 head of wild deer roam freely on the estate. The deer are a mix of red, fallow and sika deer and the venison from this herd is sold through the estate shop and is on the menu in the estates visitor centre restaurant. Michael Risdale, one of the managers, said: We are seeing is a real uptake in the sales of venison as people become more aware of what they are eating venison is such a healthy meat and is really delicious.
Fountains Abbey & Studley Royal Water Garden, Ripon, Nr Harrogate, North Yorkshire, HG4 3DY. 01765 608888. www.fountainsabbey.org.uk.