From deer to here
‘No, I didn’t lose my little finger in a butchery related incident.’ says Chris chef and also butcher at The Pig & Butcher, Islington catching the direction of my gaze and pausing his heavy cleaver in mid-air. ‘I fell down the stairs a few years ago. A stupid accident.’ It’s reassuring to hear because as Will repeatedly thumps down the cleaver small bits of Bambi go flying, some towards me, and I don’t want a stray digit spoiling my day.
He’s busy butchering a Sika, or spotted deer, on site at his meat suppliers, Chart Farm in Sevenoaks. Here the deer are bred for the table and when their time comes, humanely shot. ‘It’s quick,’ says Chris,’ they’re shot in the fields where they live and they don’t know what hit them.’ Indeed as the soft-nosed bullets are supersonic, the shot deer wouldn’t hear the bang, even if the rifles didn’t already use noise suppressors.
Deer of course is venison. We in the UK don’t eat as much as we should of this local free-range meat, but most of what we do eat is the product of the culls of wild deer. The Sika deer are different; originally from East Asia and Japan, they are notoriously hard to shoot in the wild being more cunning than our own deer and acting unsporting by hiding and remaining still when they sense danger.
At Chart Farm they live as free a life as possible, roaming over the large Kentish fields with a pleasant view of the distant motorway to Dover, but always contained from wandering off and munching on farmers’ crops. Not to say that Sikas haven’t occasionally escaped since their introduction to the UK in 1860 and their wild numbers are now growing. In fact wild deer in general are becoming a serious problem as they have no animal predators, often turning up in country dwellers’ gardens and cheerfully consuming their floral borders.
As Chris chops he also chats. He’s keen that chefs should all do their own butchery of all meats, not simply get their produce in a bag. Apart from allowing them to create perfect cuts, it’s also a lot cheaper. Too many chefs don’t appreciate the need to control costs when they’re in the grip of a diva like devotion to creating culinary art.
The deer he’s working on has been hung for about three weeks to develop the flavour, its fur removed and generally tidied up. It’s not as gruesome a sight as you might expect, quite sterile really, although the sawing of bones is a bit off-putting. As it happens Chris isn’t a fan of the saw ‘the friction creates heat which cooks the meat near to the saw’ he says, and is happiest using cleaver, knife and hands to dismantle the deer into its components.
As with most animals, there are specific names for the cuts and Chris explains them to me, jauntily slapping the bits for identification and emphasis. Saddle -rack and loin, haunch, flank, shoulder and shank. Each is good for different types of cooking he points out, ‘The flank is best used as chunks for casseroles, stews and for braising, the haunch roasts well and the rack is the most expensive bit and I cook it on our superhot Robata grill to sear the exterior and get a lovely rare centre.
With all that cooking talk making us rather hungry, we pile back into the car to drive north to the Pig & Butcher where Chris shoots into his tiny kitchen clutching a bag of the meat he recently cut up.
The pub looks good, bare wood tables, blackboards of menus featuring venison and other game, as well as more traditional meats, much of it also from Chart Farm. It’s been around as a pub since the 1800s and cattle often stopped here while the herders took a breather before heading on to the meat market in Smithfield’s. Chris normally takes delivery of his meat from Chart Farm at the pub, butchering it upstairs whether its venison, lamb or of course, pig. Being Islington his diners are Labour voting, well heeled and well groomed and can easily afford the £17.50 tonight’s venison main will cost.
The meat is cooked quickly over the coals of the Robata and to it Chris adds perfect red cabbage, its sour sweet flavour ideal with the venison, as well as magnificently creamy mash that he plates alongside it. A serving of spinach and a scatter of hazelnuts make it all complete. A bottle of Darkstar Sunburst, West Sussex, from a brilliant list of craft beers washes it down wonderfully.
The Pig & Butcher is a pub with a proper chef at the helm, one who doesn’t mouth off about seasonal and local and then quietly gets his food pre packed, but one who gets on with the whole job from field to plate. The meat is gorgeous, prepared with skill and then cooked in the simplest way, one that respects what it has to naturally offer. Forget American Casual Dining, Street Food and other imports, this is the kind of food that made Britain great so support it all the way.
Photos by Al Stuart
Pig & Butcher, 80 Liverpool Rd, Islington London N1 0QD