Sitting in the front of a Land Rover at 7 in the morning with Simon Wilkins of Cornish Game is not dissimilar to inhaling an encyclopedia from a sitting position. I whip my pen out only to watch it struggle against the barrage of words, all of them gold to someone like me.
This article merely sketches the outline of a man who has been a professional golfer, navigated across the Atlantic using celestial navigation, sailed around the world on a 2-year gastronomy expedition and who now (as far as I’m concerned) is the highest authority on venison and deer stalking in Cornwall. Oh and he has a lovely wife, two daughters, two dogs, runs a pop-up wild food restaurant for which he now employs a chef and his knowledge of surviving off the land and out of the sea makes the 3 Hungry Boys look like cartoon characters.
Cornish Game, based on Bodmin Moor, supply game to some of the country’s top chefs and establishments and also offer courses on stalking, butchery, game cookery and firearm handling. Recently, in collaboration with three chefs, Simon has established one of Cornwall’s quirkiest pop-ups at his farm– the Wildfire Banquet. Owing to popular demand, the restaurant is a now a bi-monthly event that showcases top quality produce alongside some exceptional culinary skills. I would be hard pushed to recommend anywhere better to eat in Cornwall for taste, atmosphere, setting and provenance.
I first met Simon on the phone doing some venison research. Some of what he told me then has had a profound effect on my idea of the meat and whether its rise in popularity here in the UK is actually as positive as it sounds. Total sales have apparently more than doubled in the past five years; Sainsbury’s have seen a 50% rise in sales and M&S sold three times more venison in 2011 than it did in 2010. It’s a low-fat, high protein meat that has lived happily in the wild, surely it can’t get much better than that? Theoretically no, but as Simon explains: “80% of game enters the food chain illegally”.
The reality is that cowboys are killing deer and with little skill. This affects not only the deer’s wellbeing in not being dispatched cleanly but also the management or rather mismanagement of deer herds and the quality of the meat itself which can be spoiled by an inexperienced shot. “I won’t even consider taking anyone out stalking who hasn’t proved they have the right gun skills”, says Simon. Even the best marksman however, can lose it in front of these mythical creatures who blend in and out of the brush in seconds, offering just the tiniest window to aim and position a bullet.
As we reached the open moor and strode downhill, the mist was barely perceptible across the valley and the wind in our favour. Simon’s co-stalker Andy had been up in the trees in his ‘high chair’ on the look-out since 5 o’clock. Nothing. He was on his way back up to us. My instructions for the day had consisted of: Wellies on, darkish clothing that is quiet (not plastic), gloves and hat to stop glare and disrupt body shape. And that’s when I understood tweed: there is no modern coat (wool excepted) warm enough that doesn’t make a ‘noise’ when you move.
We paused on top of a ridge, Tarka the pointer leaning into me to keep warm, scanning the fields for any movement: “It’s a bit like sailing”, Simon describes, “while they may be there, you can’t go straight at them”. We spotted Andy moving towards us in full camouflage gear: “There’s shit everywhere and it’s still warm”, was his observation and while big ‘slots’ or deer prints revealed that several large stags had already passed ahead of us this morning and may have already moved on, one or two may have stayed back.
Hitting the base of the valley, we crept along, under, over, stopping at some muddy wallows described by Andy and Simon as the equivalent of eau de toilette for stags looking ‘to dance with a lady’. Andy explained that the males would roll in the mud, revving themselves up for an encounter and ram themselves up against nearby branches in sheer frustration and excitement. Suddenly Andy flung himself on the ground and we froze in expectation of a sighting. He lined himself up with the gun and motioned for us to go around a wide hedge.
We crept forward and then Simon gave the signal, I looked hard, deep into the foliage, but saw nothing and then it emerged, the delicate head of a female roe. She froze at the sight of us, looking back over her shoulder in our direction; the camera clicked and she was gone, taking her young kid with her. As the females were not in season yet, we couldn’t take a shot, but it had been enough just to see one.
Arriving back at the farm, Simon demonstrated his butchery skills, dismantling a whole carcass of a previously shot roe that had been hanging for just under a week. He skinned, chopped and sawed while barbecues and fires were lit, tables prepped and dishes of venison carpaccio handed out to appease hungry guests who had begun to arrive. We dined like royalty on three different types of venison and a rib of beef from nearby Warrens. For Simon, the point of it all is simple: “It’s about education and spreading the message.”
Venison is big and getting bigger and it’s up to us to find out about the sourcing and the suppliers and take a responsibility for the animals themselves and the quality of the meat. Done properly, it is guilt-free meat eating, even for the semi-veggie. The light gamey, steak-like taste of a piece of fallow saddle with a pouring of blackberry gravy, crisp roast potatoes and Keveral Farm veg and tomatoes is an experience not easily forgotten.