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Autumn in Edinburgh is like the best Sunday after a particularly raucous party. After August’s renowned arts festivals, the city exhales as the crowds leave, and settles into a more relaxed pace. It’s a time for long afternoon walks in the park, cozy evenings in the pub sampling single malt whiskies, and a turn to the cold-weather foods Scots look forward to all year.
The change in season appears on Edinburgh’s plates, too. Stonefruit and berries gives way to apples and pears, and hardy root vegetables take over from tender greens. But Scotland also has another unique autumn offering: game.
Simply put, "game" refers to mammals and birds that are hunted for food. You might think of game (such as mallard, partridge, grouse, and woodcock) as something only the wealthy eat, or popular particularly among families that hunt—and historically in Scotland, the wealthy were often hunters. But in Edinburgh today, game—and venison especially—is everywhere, from Michelin-starred restaurants to casual restaurants to supermarkets.
With a flavor similar to grass-fed beef, and reflecting the deer’s diet of wild plants, venison has a rich, earthy taste. Because of its often strong flavor, venison takes well to sweetness and spice; in her book Lady Macdonald's Scotland: The Best of Scottish Food and Drink, Lady Claire Macdonald gives recipes for venison haunch marinated with red wine, orange peel, and juniper, and stewed with prunes and pickled walnuts. Chef Tom Kitchin serves roasted venison at his eponymous, Michelin-starred restaurant with mashed root vegetables and an apple-red wine sauce. At the less fancy end, burger-and-beer specialists The Holyrood 9A serve The Black Deer, a burger made of ground venison and black pudding, topped with a spicy beet relish.
Though venison is commonplace today, it used to be the prerogative of the wealthy. Scotland has always had a native deer population, and medieval nobility would eat venison as part of great feasts, usually roasted and served with bread sauce laced with spices. And in the 18th and 19th centuries aristocratic landowners brought new deer species to Scotland to stock their game parks: private hunting grounds limited sport hunting to the elites.
As anyone who has lived near deer will know, they're likely to reproduce quite quickly...and as the deer’s natural predator, the grey wolf, was extinct long before the new deer species arrived, deer overpopulation eventually threatened to ruin the surrounding ecosystem. The decline of the aristocracy, coupled with the need to manage the deer population in the interest of preserving the wider environment, has today made venison more available to everyone.
Including you! The venison burger recipe below is from Seriously Good Venison, who raise free-range deer on farms in Fife and sell their meat at the Edinburgh Farmer’s Market. In the U.S., you can find venison in the freezer at some supermarkets, and you can order it online from companies including D’Artagnan and Fossil Farms. So when the nights are drawing in, do as the Scots do: pour some whisky, put on some music (I am partial to Edinburgh locals Broken Records), and cook up some game.
For the spice mix
- 3 dried Kashmiri chilies
- 1/2 tablespoon coriander seeds
- 1/2 tablespoon cumin seeds
- 2 cardamom pods
- 1/2 star anise
For the burgers
- 250 grams ground venison
- 2 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1 1/2 tablespoons spice mix (above)
- 2 tablespoons beaten egg
Have you ever cooked venison? How do you like to prepare it? Let us know in the comments!
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