Martin Hesp talks to a lord who’s bringing home the bacon – the venison variety, that is...
Journalists are supposed to be far more fascinated by fame and celebrity than they are, say, by the flavour of bacon – but I spent an afternoon recently proving this notion to be fragrantly wrong.
I neither knew nor cared that the man I was going to interview was a direct descendant of Catherine the Great and cousin to the Duke of Edinburgh – but I was utterly intrigued by the fact that he'd told me he was producing bacon from venison.
All that who's-related-to-whom stuff fails to make my heart go flutter – unlike the promise of toothsome meaty morsels, the likes of which can be found nowhere else in Britain.
Lord Ivar Alexander Michael Mountbatten produces such carnivorous treats on his organic Devon estate with the help of a clever butcher called Julian Hodge – together they run a new company called Touch of Hart which specialises not only in selling his lordship's parkland-raised venison, but in producing various unique items of charcuterie that help extend the range.
It's the only business in the UK making things like salami that are made totally of organic venison – there may be one or two similar products around but in those the lean deer meat will helped out by pork fat. The Touch of Hart charcuterie goes down the 100% venison route…
Why make such unique products? Well, it's a long story – but basically the superior bits of a venison carcass are not hard to sell, there's always a market for haunches, steaks and loin – but that leaves a deer farmer with the other less popular bits and bobs.
And as Lord Ivar says, his three daughters can only eat so many venison burgers and sausages…
That's the last time I shall refer to the younger son of the third Marquess of Milford Haven by his posh title – Ivar doesn't come across as a bloke who stands on ceremony, even if his big old pile at Bridwell, just outside Uffculme, looks a little on the Downton Abbey-ish side of the tracks. Here's what the one-time mining consultant told me about the story behind Touch of Hart as we sat in his large kitchen…
"I bought Bridwell in 1997 and was doing quite a lot of humming-and-haaing about what to do with the park. If you buy a house with a listed parkland you do wonder what to do with it – it's either sheep, but if you have a deer fence, well…
"The previous owner spent a lot of money putting in a security fence – and so we started with 35 fallow deer, in fawn, which we bought from Powderham Castle in 2000.What's great about deer is they're very low maintenance, you go and make sure they're OK. They fawn on their own – they do everything on their own – you just have to supplementary feed them in the winter. Unlike sheep. Also, they're very attractive to look at.
"We used to shoot a few and sell the carcasses to a business that's no longer around – and one day I was having a dinner party and I wanted to get some tenderloin back. I was staggered at the price he was charging me to have my own meat back – so I decided to go in to it myself. We had a grollocking room here – that's the word they use, it means evisceration, basically – and, anyway, I got a venison box-scheme going."
We were gazing down at the parkland which descends from the Blackdown Hills towards the M5 motorway while Ivar mused: "Park deer is a very good designation to have, because Defra consider them as being wild. All deer are considered as game, which means you can shoot them in situ – however, with parkland deer you can eviscerate on site. Farmed deer can be shot, but then you have to take them to an abattoir within an hour and a half. Not only do you have to take them, but you have to get an inspection by a vet. He has to visit and get his binoculars out and say: 'Which one are you going to shoot?'
"It's just an expensive bit of red tape that hits deer farmers. So having parkland is the way to go for a number of reasons. The park mirrors their natural habitat – they eat all the natural mast and acorns that comes off the trees. We do have organic certification here, but there's no mark-up for that because most people perceive deer to be organic anyway. However, that's a fallacy because you don't really know what a wild deer has been eating. One minute he could be eating Farmer Giles' turnips – the next Farmer Jones' fodder beet that's just been sprayed."
Getting back to the timeline of his story, Ivar told me: "The first 35 grew rapidly – now I probably cull 100-plus fallow deer a year. We have a maximum of 300, but that goes down when we cull to 150. This is on 120 acres.
"I decided to go into the red deer because they're twice the size as a fallow deer and effectively give twice the return. A red deer eats about 125% of what a fallow eats – so you get more bucks for your bang.
"So I bought some reds from the other side of Tiverton and the Old Boy from Longleat," he said, referring to the massive stag which now patrols the Bridwell parkland. "We don't have a real name for him – I just call him the Old Boy.
"Since I've been divorced," Ivar went on, referring to his marriage break-up a couple of years ago, "I've had to cook for the kids more often and found that I really enjoy cooking. And I've learned an awful lot. One thing about the venison has been that we were just selling the prime cuts – people wanted the loin and the steaks and I was being left with a lot of trimmings. There were only so many times I could feed my kids venison burgers or whatever.
"I was selling to Riverford Organics and the venison went into their organic meat boxes – but a couple of years ago I was chatting to Julian, who was head-butcher there, and I told him about all the stuff I was left with and asked him what I could do with it. I wanted to go in to making jerky or biltong – but Julian started thinking and said he could help.
"He joined me this summer and now we're just starting to get the venison charcuterie out there. Until we get more shops interested it is really sold through our website, but we did a lot of food fairs and the feedback was incredible.
"Consistency – that's what it's all about," Ivar goes on. "If you are a chef, or whatever, you want to know that the product you're buying has consistency – that it is going to taste the same, every time. The thing about parkland deer is you know what they're eating, you know how they were killed – it's always the same process. It's a head shot, so there's no stress. And it's all butchered here.
"I know this is going to take off – we are one of the only people doing venison salamis and so on – and this is going to be a one-stop shop for everything venison," says Ivar. "We even do venison bacon. Nobody's ever heard of that.
At this point Julian came in to join us and he told me that he'd been in the butchery trade for 30 years working in a great variety of different businesses.
"Charcuterie is basically air-dried meat – something that hasn't been cooked at over 130 degrees," he explained. "It has starter cultures that go in with the cure – and it's hung at around 24 degrees for 24 hours – so the starter cultures get all the bacteria working outside the sausage. But it is 'friendly' bacteria.
"The cultures begin to effect the enzymes and so on – and you get that white mould happening around the edges. You hang it then for two to three weeks until it's lost 30% of its weight.
"We've sent our products off to the laboratories for analysis and we've had our process passed – we don't have any nasties," he informed me, which was a relief as I was halfway through nibbling a huge piece of venison salami.
"It is a bit of a science," said Julian, summing up the art of charcuterie-making. "There's all sorts you have to analyse.
"We have a garlic salami and a chorizo one. With our bressola, it's soaked in red wine, rosemary and brine for a couple of weeks, then air dried.
"Britain doesn't really have a dry-curing tradition – but it is gaining popularity," he went on. "In this country we don't have the dry environment (as they do in places like Italy and Spain where dry-cured meat has always been popular) – you have to make it which is why we have dehumidifiers. It's about having control and cleanliness. That artistry begins after that. Even the water used to make the salami has to be distilled – if you used ordinary tap water, bacterias might diffuse the starter cultures.
"Looking in to the New Year we will continue to come up with products that are healthy," Julian concluded. "Because that is what venison is."