Part I: the context
It started with a message from my pal Sophie around midday:
“We are bringing venison to the bothy. Would you like to help cook it?”
I squealed with delight, in the same way that someone might respond to finding out that they’re going to barbados on a surprise holiday, or have won £10k on a scratchcard. I felt honoured. I thus returned:
“Omgggggg. That’d be awesome. What bit of venison do you have?”
Sophie then wrote absolutely nothing back, because she’d gone out of 4g coverage. Undeterred, Lewis and I packed our things (tent, booze, running shoes, Lorne sausage) to drive northwards to Kintail for our annual mountaineering club bothy meet. I snuck away the leftover sage and thyme from a huge Christmas Dinner I’d cooked the night before into the outer pocket of my rucksack – just in case. When we arrived at the bothy and found Soph, I asked about the venison. She told me roughly the following events, which I’ve reimagined as the opening scene of a terrible Scottish crime drama, so have subsequently put into a script format for your convenience:
Written by, and starring, former Edinburgh University Mountaineering Club members
[scene one] Ariel shot of a car driving along the a tiny road in the Scottish highlands in low winter light. Cut to a close-up shot of a dead deer lying on the roadside, with the car approaching in the background. The car comes into focus and the wheels pass close to the deer.
Cut to INT 3 people inside the car; ALI is driving, JAMES is in the passenger seat and SOPHIE is in the middle of the back seats, surrounded by rucksacs.
JAMES [pointing backwards]: Was that a deer just there?
JAMES: Do you think there’s any meat on it?
JAMES: Shall we pull over and get some?
Cut to EXT shot of car pulling over into a lay-by. Mid-level shot of the three walking over to inspect the deer. All stop and crowd around it.
SOPHIE [concerned]: Do you think it’s safe to eat?
ALI [inspecting it closely]: Aye
Cut to a mid-level shot of ALI pulling his hunting knife off his belt, crouching down and expertly separating the front left leg from the carcass. He then opens up the deer’s underbelly and removes the loin, situated near the back of the spine.
JAMES: Crikey, there’s not much fat on it, is there?
Cut to a closeup shot of ALI peeling the deer leg, its skin coming off in one clean sweep of the knife.
SOPHIE: Ali, have you done this before?
SOPHIE: It’s very impressive
ALI holds up the cleaned deer leg in one hand, and the loin in the other. A passing minibus honks at them.
JAMES: Have we got anything to put it in?
SOPHIE [rooting around in her jacket pocket]: I’ve got a carrier bag here but I don’t think it’s big enough.
JAMES: I’ve actually got a large drybag in the car – that’ll work, won’t it?
SOPHIE: Perfect. I’ll text Fliss.
Cut to shot of drybag with hoof sticking out of the top of it, bouncing around in the boot of the car.
PART II: THE PREP
After she told me all that that, I excitedly asked Soph to show me the goods. Sure enough, she went outside and returned with the large dry-bag containing 6-7kg of deer leg, plus at least 600g of loin. At this point, it was around 6pm, and we were surrounded by increasingly rowdy EUMC members, so we decided to put the idea of making stew aside for that evening, and instead attempt it all in the morning. That way there would be daylight rather than torch-light, and no one would fall over and give themselves third degree burns on a vat of venison casserole bubbling away into the small hours.
So, slightly hungover the next day, James, Sophie and I set to work dismantling the deer leg so we could stew it in time for lunch. The loin is always best used for steaks, so that was easy enough to prepare, but we dithered for a while about whether to leave the leg whole and slow-cook it, or take off the meat and dice it, removing as much of the sinew and tendons as possible. We opted for the latter, seeing as a) our pot was too small for the former, and b) we probably wouldn’t have had enough time to cook the whole thing through before it got dark and everyone needed to be back to Edinburgh for lectures on Monday.
Have a short video of us stripping the meat from the bones and tendons to get as close as possible to stewing dice:
It was relatively tricky, with strict vegetarian James doing the grunt work of slicing, then pulling the meat off the bones while Sophie and I separated the deep, gamey flesh from the tight, stringy tendons. This took us about an hour and a half all together, and we ended up being so cold we moved our workstation inside, waking several people up by carrying a black bin liner of meat over their sleeping bodies, to prepare on the window sill. As an aside – and probably sweet relief for the half-asleep people – I was surprised at how little the meat smelled. Whenever you get pork, chicken or beef out of a supermarket packet, you’re hit with a relatively unpleasant aroma straight away, but with Bambi here, there was nothing to speak of except the lightest of gamey notes if you got your snoot right up to it and inhaled deeply. Which would be weird.
While we chopped and chatted, I considered the small matter of what to braise it in. I had wrongly assumed that someone would have some sort of wine going spare, but I should have known better – there was nothing except a few dregs of convenience store spirits leftover. I then moved on to the next challenge and asked whether anyone had any onions. Luckily, Robbie had three big juicy ones in his van, along with some flour, all of which I was welcome to pilfer in exchange for first dibs on the stew. Happily, the bothy also comes equipped with a gas stove and basic seasonings including all manner of dried herbs, stock cubes and black pepper, so really, all we were missing was the wine I was so confident we could scrounge off someone. I spent the next few minutes sniffing half-empty bottles of spirits and then decided that Glen’s Vodka and Famous Grouse were not suitable to accompany such a mighty and delicious hunk of venison. Then I remembered my herbs in my rucksack, and upon fetching those, came to acknowledge that despite a lack of wine or vegetables, we still had the making of a great feast before us.
Part III: THE COOKAGE
Soph and I began assembling the stew in the kitchen; me seasoning, flouring, then browning the meat in some oil, while she chopped the onions and stripped the fresh thyme from its stems. Soon, there were several hungry people loitering about in the kitchen like expectant train station pigeons outside Pret, making polite conversation and cooing about how nice it all smelt. At this point, Ali fried off the loin steaks in a little butter, salt and black pepper, and gave all the pigeons a wee piece, which was oh-so tender and rich.
Over in stew-land, the onions went in with the tougher cut of venison and we let them cook through together for around 15-20 minutes, before adding water (straight from the spring outside) plus the herbs, stock, and a little more salt to taste. I then popped the lid on, brought everything to a violent boil, adding the huge bones back in for flavour – the scapula, femur and lower-leg bone. Sophie then had a slight mishap with the peppercorn grinder, during which around 600,000 whole peppercorns fell into the stew, but we fished as many out as we could, then turned everything down to a simmer. To my surprise, it only needed around an hour for the meat to be completely tender – I was expecting to be there for at least 3-4 hours, stirring occasionally, but no. It must have been a relatively young deer, or we both did a good job of de-tendoning the meat because it you could have cut it with a mars bar. We then did a bit of figuring out how to serve it, because we didn’t want to have to wash up 30 plates again. We ended up plonking this huge stew in the middle of the table, and inviting everyone to use spare tortilla wraps to eat it off. And lo, we fed around 20 people some very delicious venison stew, and it was extraordinarily wholesome and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.