For decades, the sale of feral deer meat for human consumption was banned in NSW and Victoria. However, changes to hunting and food regulations over the past few years means chefs are increasingly putting wild venison on the menu.
"I was really surprised it took off so well," says RJ Lines, executive chef at Summer Hill, Sydney, restaurant One Penny Red, which lists a starter of wild venison tartare with smoked tomato and salted egg yolk on the menu.
"I thought people may have been a little stand-offish at the idea of wild venison, but it's become one of our biggest small-plate sellers."
Since 2019, hunters in NSW and Victoria have been able to shoot deer, with landowner permission, on private land and send the carcasses to licensed abattoirs where venison is processed for restaurants and butchers.
While COVID-19 restaurant lockdowns slowed wild venison's fine-dining uptake, more and more chefs are championing the meat as a solution to the serious problem of feral deer in Australia, and a healthier, more sustainable alternative to intensively-farmed beef, lamb and pork.
"Wild game is nutrient-dense, organic protein that is going to waste," says Three Blue Ducks co-owner and chef Mark LaBrooy
As a result of the regulatory changes around eating feral deer, more wild game supply businesses are launching around the country too. One is Discovered Wildfoods, co-founded by Victorian High Country shooter Bill Staughton and NSW Northern Rivers-based Tara Medina.
Discovered Wildfoods supplies restaurants including Melbourne's Marquis of Lorne, Lume and Bar Liberty, plus Nomad and One Penny Red in Sydney.
"I've had some wild game meat sent to me in the past which kind of looked like it had been butchered in a backyard, but what's impressive about this venison is its consistency and the way it has been professionally trimmed," says Lines.
Hagen's Organics butcher shops and Vic's Meat also stock Discovered Wildfood's venison for retail sale in Melbourne and Sydney respectively.
"We set out to reposition how wild game was positioned in the eyes of eaters," says Medina, who also sells wild-shot pig and kangaroo.
"Traditionally, it has been seen as low grade, pet food. But this is the food of the future. If you're Australian and you're a carnivore, you should be eating wild game."
Medina points to the environmental damage wreaked upon the landscape by the increasing numbers of feral deer.
Peter Jacobs is the deer project officer with the Invasive Species Council, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for stronger laws to protect native plants and animals from feral invaders.
He estimates four million feral deer currently cavort across the nation, but that population is fertile and increasing by 11 per cent annually.
"For epicureans, commercial harvest is great, and does have an impact on deer numbers in the short term," says Jacobs.
"But if we were serious about reducing numbers we would need to be culling 20 per cent of the total population each year. We are not against it [harvest for food], but it does not provide a long-term solution to the feral deer issue."
Other methods of feral deer management include trapping, baiting and aerial culling.
Meanwhile, professional shooter Jamie Walker hunts near Omeo in Victoria's High Country and works several nights a week. Deer hunting is a game of surprise and, using a night vision scope and a high-powered rifle, Walker's objective is one clean headshot.
"Once they know you're there, they're off," he says. "If I take eight rounds with me, I expect to bring back eight deer."
Each deer can weigh up to 200 kilograms. They are hoisted onto a special frame on the back of a ute, immediately bled, and eviscerated in the field. Within two hours, the carcasses are in a mobile coolroom en route to an abattoir for processing.
"That clean headshot is essential to the quality of the eating," says Mark LaBrooy. "There is no stress at the time of death. There is a taste of fear in abattoir-killed meat that you don't get in this [venison]."
LaBrooy, a skilled marksman who hunts as a personal pastime, says this method of killing leads to meat that is tender, ages well and cooks better. On his hunts, the Three Blue Ducks chef mainly targets three of the seven feral deer species that roam NSW – red deer, fallow and sambar for his personal use.
For his restaurants, LaBrooy buys stock from Fair Game Wild Venison based in the NSW Northern Rivers. "The backstrap, rump cap and tenderloin are the prize cuts," he says. "We grill them over gidgee charcoal."
Because the meat is so lean, the secret to cooking good wild venison is resting, says Mark Briggs from Sardine restaurant in Paynesville, East Gippsland.
"Salt and pepper the fillets, sear each side in a hot pan then into the oven for a few minutes," he says. "But you need to rest it for 10 minutes." For Briggs, wild venison makes complete sense as it is, "ethical, sustainable and $20 less per kilogram than the same cut of beef".
Elijah Holland is the executive chef of South Melbourne restaurant Lume. He says that wild deer is softer in taste, flavour, and texture than farmed venison. "The wild lifestyle has a massive impact on its quality. But it is the way it is killed, one shot to the head, that affects the way it tastes and makes it an ethical way of slaughter."
Holland dry-ages venison T-bone in fat and butter mixed with native mint until it's very tender, brushes the meat with lemon aspen koji, and cooks it over charcoal with pine needles and moss to evoke the aromas of the forest.
Lume's tasting menu also begins with wild game charcuterie. "I use pest species such as feral deer, camel and pig," says Holland. "The more we eat, the better the balance of the environment."
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