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Root and Branch

Venison haunch, blackberry and pine needle syrup sauce, crispy Jews Ear fungus, pickled ceps, potato, chive and rye flour cakes
Written by Kieran Creevy | Photography by Claire Burge

Cooking Wild - Venison

Cities don’t have a season. Sure, the weather has an effect on the life in a city but the landscape doesn’t change. In the outdoors it’s very different, ephemeral moments like a specific ice climb forming overnight, being in perfect condition for a few days then disappearing almost as swiftly could be the highlight of an entire winter season, or when you’ve hunkered through a mountain storm for a week with dwindling food supplies, a sudden break in the weather pattern can be the difference between success and failure.

These swift changes in the landscape around us also applies to wild edibles when there are tangible changes week to week and even one day can sometimes significantly alter the wild food larder.

Foraging restaurants have become more popular over the last number of years, with some establishments changing their menu day to day to work with the raw ingredients that have been found that morning.Eating wild food in a good restaurant is an amazing experience and one that inspires me to try out new dishes, but I firmly believe that eating similar food in the setting where it lives or grows wild can have a much more profound effect on us.

For example, do you recall your last surf – the iodine and salt smell of the sea, sound of waves as you get close to the break, the feel of wriggling into slightly damp neoprene, taste and feel of salt on your lips and skin post session? I bet you also remember the fish chowder, warm bread and cold beer you had sitting outside a cafe with your wetsuit slowly drying? Or maybe you imagine a bluebird powder day off-piste last winter – the weightless feeling under your board, wind and sun chapped lips, the smell of hot wax in the morning, sound of bindings ratcheting tight, the sensation of speed, the glitter of snow crystals, then after, the taste of tartiflette, salad savoyarde and vin chaud.

For me moments like these, and many more, link the land and the food from that land together, and I appreciate both all the more because of that connection. A good friend described the taste of particular dish from a restaurant in Copenhagen as ‘like eating Bambi in the forest’. With apologies to any vegetarians reading this, when I heard those words I could immediately imagine the smells and tastes of an autumnal forest and it was that phrase that inspired me to try and create something similar.

Ingredients (serves 4-6)

500g reindeer, elk or venison haunch
8 small or 4 large floury potatoes
Large bunch fresh chives
3 heaped tbsp rye flour
200g wild blackberries
4 tbsp pine needle syrup (see recipe)
2 hand size of Jews Ear fungus
Double handful ceps or other edible forest mushrooms
2 tbsp apple or cider vinegar
Rapeseeed oil
Salt and pepper


Advance prep: Potato cakes

Chop the potatoes in half and bake in a hot oven (180c) until cooked through. Remove and allow to cool then scrape the insides of the potatoes into a bowl, leaving the skins intact.

Season the skins with sea salt and pepper and return to a hot (200c) oven for five minutes
Munch on the crispy skins while you make the cakes

Finely chop the chives, mix with the potatoes and 2 tbsp of rye flour, season. Add a little rapeseed oil to create a slightly sticky dough and shape into 8 -12 balls. Roll in the remainder of the rye flour then store in a food grade box/bag

In Camp – Open Fires

For the full autumnal experience, try to cook this dish over an open fire or on a barbecue.
Obviously, if you’re making an open fire in the outdoors you need to follow a few very important rules.

  1. You need permission to have an open fire.
  2. You only really need a fist sized fire to cook food for four people, any larger and you’re just using extra fuel for no immediate gain and you may exhaust usable wood in that area.
  3. If you’re cooking meat over an open fire make sure the wood you’re using isn’t going to impart an unpleasant taste to your dish. For preference therefore I’d recommend Apple, Ash, Beech, Birch, Crabapple, Chestnut and Oak.

If you’re cooking over an open fire, moderate the heat imparted to the meat or pan by height – the higher you are above the fire the lower the heat. This might sound obvious, but you’d be amazed at how many people stick skewered sausages directly into a flame, blackening the skin yet undercooking the insides.One simple device for keeping pots, pans and meat for grilling off the flames is the Grilliput. We’ll be covering more rustic cooking methods in a separate article, which will feature shortly.


Method

Roughly slice the mushrooms, place into a large bowl, pour over the apple vinegar, mix well and leave to pickle while you prepare the other ingredients.
Season the venison with salt and pepper all over, cover and leave to rest for five minutes.
In another bowl mix the blackberries and pine needle syrup together, and leave to one side.
Pour a thin film of rapeseed oil into a pan and heat directly on the fire until smoking.
Sear the haunch for two minutes each side then remove from the heat.
Place the haunch on a grill above the fire (making sure the flames don’t touch the meat)
Turn frequently, adding wood to the fire as needed so the heat stays constant.
Cook for approximately fifteen minutes (depending on the height above the fire)
Remove to a dish, cover and leave to rest for five minutes.
While the venison is resting, return the pan with a little oil to the fire.
Finely slice the fungus, season well and cook on the hot pan for two to three minutes until crispy and then remove to a bowl.
Cook the potato cakes in the hot oil for two minutes each side.
Divide the cakes between the plates, top with the pickled mushrooms.
Slice the venison, plate, spoon over the blackberry and pine needle syrup and top with the crispy fungus.
Enjoy the smells and tastes of an autumnal forest.

How to test for level of cooking (rare, medium-rare, medium, overcooked) on meats such as beef, lamb, venison, wild boar, duck etc. without cutting into the meat:

Lightly touch the tip of your forefinger to your thumb.
Press your other forefinger into the fatty pad below your thumb, feel the level of resistance?
This is what, for example, a fillet of beef feels like when cooked rare.
Now repeat with your middle finger touching your thumb, feel the difference? This is medium rare.
Ring finger to thumb equals medium
Little finger to thumb, overdone.

Pine Needle Syrup

100g pine or spruce needles (NB. never use needles from a Cedar tree)
500ml water
30g citric acid (often available from Indian or Middle Eastern food stores)
600g white sugar (yes it’s a lot but the resinous oil from pine needles is incredibly astringent)

Bring a pot of water to the boil and blanch the pine needles briefly.
Drain and finely chop the needles.
Add to a large bowl and sprinkle over the citric acid, leave for twenty minutes.
Bring 500ml of water to the boil and add to the needle/acid mix.
Cover with cling film and leave for twenty four to forty eight hours.
Transfer the mix to a large pot, bring to the boil, reduce to a simmer and slowly add the sugar stirring all the time until dissolved.
Simmer for a further thirty minutes, remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Strain through a sieve lined with muslin and decant to a sterilised bottle.

Brilliant as a glaze for venison, pheasant, wild boar, wood pigeon or for drizzling over ice cream

Thanks to Colm for the off the cuff phrase that inspired this recipe and to my friends Robbie and Lynn from Malmö for showing me the wild food potential in Skåne.



In addition to fifteen years work as an international mountain leader and trekking guide on five continents, Kieran has nearly two decades experience of catering for some of the most demanding customers – fellow instructors who want nutritious food with a bit flair, lots of it, now and don’t care that it’s minus 10c and snowing!
Twitter @kierancreevy

Claire has been described as part chaos, part rocket fuel. When she is isn’t racing down mountains on her bicycle, you will find her behind a lens and licking the wooden spoon.
Twitter @claireburge

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