I think it’s a good sign how well someone knows you when they throw caution (or convention?) to the wind, and give you a frozen haunch of venison as a wedding present.
It was a Monday morning many months ago, and Katie (of elderflower-collecting fame), was coming over for an early morning swim. When she turned up, her swimming bag looked weightier than normal though. The funny thing is I wasn’t remotely surprised when she pulled out a frozen haunch of venison, which had accompanied her on the central line during rush hour. (Those of you who know Katie will attest that this isn’t entirely out-of-character).
And so, the beautiful haunch from Katie and her parents Clare and Johnie has been nestled in a draw in my freezer, waiting for a special occasion. And what better occasion than Book Club Burn’s Night?
My book club is now in its fifth year, and although the book is obviously an important aspect (WhatsApp has been lit up by I Am Pilgrim for the past few weeks), it’s just as much about the sheer, hysterical excitement of being together. Put bluntly, it’s a pretty big deal. Not only that, but with two members (myself included), marrying Scots, plus one Scottish-based engagement, there was a lot to celebrate (there always is). Burns Night 2015 was going to be big, and the haunch of venison needed to, literally, step-up to the plate.
I started defrosting it on Wednesday for the Friday night supper – conscious that Bethnal Green in January wasn’t going to be the speediest climate for thawing meat. It definitely needed the time. Unlike a turkey, which has a more angular, hollowed carcass, a haunch of venison on the bone freezes like a block of ice. Even after a couple of hours, when I turned on the tap to run water over the outside of the meat, it still turned to ice droplets, because of the freezing core temperature.
As the venison slowly melted back into flesh, my mind turned to cooking though. My strategy was twofold. Firstly, not to be intimidated by the hulk of meat, show it who’s boss. And secondly, to seek expert advice. Cue Johnie – a venison veteran.
“The simple aim is not to overcook it” he began. “It never takes as long as you think.” It’s true, it weighed in at 5kg – as much as 30 snooker balls, 13 cans of soup or a Dachshund. The temptation with something so big is to put it in the oven for days. Clearly, success was going to be down to holding my nerve.
“From memory, the haunch was a yield young hind [meaning she hadn’t had a calf], and was aged about four” Johnie continued. “She was hung for two weeks, so she will be tender.” I should probably add, at this point, that I was lucky in that I think my wedding coincided with a freezer clear-out as Johnie and Clare moved from extremely rural Scotland to fairly rural Devon. This should offer something of an explanation – if you’re not within easy driving distance of a supermarket, then you do end up almost knowing your meat on a first name basis, and certainly addressing it as ‘he’ and ‘she’, as well as often knowing something of its family situation – fond memories of the deer’s great aunt, well-being of its nephew etc.
“What I would do, is wind the AGA to hot” Johnie said, kindly adding that if I am in a pre-AGA-apocalypse (I am), then an electric oven needs to be ramped up to as high as it’ll go, giving it about 20 minutes to come to temperature.
“It is vital that you baste it hot fat to start with. Then baste it four or five times in the first 20 minutes.” At this point, electric ovens should be turned down to 180C, or the haunch should be moved to the bottom of the top oven. “No need for foil. No need for further basting.”
Wonderfully, Tom had given me a meat thermometer for Christmas, so it took the guess work out of things. I left it to its own devices for around 40 minutes, and then periodically probed it with said thermometer, until the core reached 55°C. At that point, I took it out of the oven, and covered the venison in foil, while it rested.
I find that trying to serve a hot meal in such a little space, with such a small oven, for so many people is tricky. Often the vegetables, or the meat, or the plates are cold by the time that everyone’s plate is loaded. So I’d decided not to even attempt to fight the losing battle, and instead served it with warm pesto potatoes, a beetroot, carrot and tahini coleslaw, and goats cheese and lentil salad. Those who had eaten venison before gave it the thumbs up, and those who had never eaten venison cleared their plates. A total success.