Are you game?
What if you could eat a high-quality wild, organic meat that was better for you and the environment? Welcome to venison, the future of sustainable meat.
Mark LaBrooy is dressed head-to-toe in camouflage, a pair of binoculars dangle from his neck, a rifle rests against his back in the still morning air. He taps a pair of stag antlers together like a drummer counting in the band, hoping their woody clack will lure a dominant male and his harem of does from the thick maze of gums. He winds through the silent patch of woodland on a 15,000 acre farm in northern NSW, halting when a handsome white-spotted fallow deer – one of six introduced species of which five are now widespread throughout southeastern Australia – comes into view. A couple of hours later, after carrying the animal on his shoulders to a clearing, the Three Blue Ducks chef is dressing the doe in situ, doing what most of us do each week in a supermarket, in the bush.
“The idea of moving to wild foods may be controversial, but my goal for 2019 is that all of the meals I make at home will use wild food,” says LaBrooy, a keen spear fisherman who has been diving with some of the world’s best – including Brazilian chef and wild food campaigner Alex Atala – and who was recently inspired to stalk venison after a trip to Sweden. LaBrooy wants wild food to be within reach of every one of us, and his latest campaign is to use his influence as a chef to put Australia’s wild venison on the table for those of us less in touch with our hunter-gatherer instincts.
“I’m half Swedish, and when I was there, I was with guys who go on moose hunts to fill their freezer to feed their family."
"Hunting is not necessarily a blood lust, my motivations are completely subsistence.”
LaBrooy explains that he prefers to target younger animals that have exquisitely tender, higher-quality meat, and which are a manageable size to handle and prepare, unlike the older trophy stags prized by game hunters for their stature and antlers.
Deer were introduced to Australia in the 1800s during a Commonwealth program that introduced ‘beautiful species’ from Europe. While deer are considered the most prized animal of the forest – by both humans and animals – the concept of eating game didn’t take here, with Australians favouring traditional proteins of beef and lamb. So, with no natural or adopted predators, deer numbers have multiplied into the millions (with some estimates that there is almost one deer for every two humans in Australia). They are classified as pests by the Australian Government and State Governments conduct widespread culls each year (many by helicopter) in an attempt to curb populations.
We spend huge amounts of taxpayer dollars to control deer and during these culls, the animals are shot and left to rot in the field – consequently becoming a food source for other pest species such as pigs and foxes!
"While in countries such as New Zealand and the US it’s a multi-million dollar industry,” says LaBrooy with no subtle exasperation that this high-quality wild meat is going to waste (and diners are missing out) because professional hunting is not part of the equation.
Ray Borda, National President of Kangaroo Industry Association of Australia (which also represents other game species including rabbit, hare, wild pig and venison – “we really need to change our name!” he says), is the man behind delicious. Produce Awards winner Paroo Kangaroo. He says the main hurdle is a generational view in this country that wild meat is a pest. Changing the culture of how people eat is really hard, but it can happen – a few centuries ago in America, lobster was only considered fit for slaves and prisoners; and it’s highly likely we’ll be eating more insects in the next 50 years. However, this change is dependent on shifting paradigms at national and local levels.
“This has been a situation I’ve been trying to nut out for 30 odd years,” says Borda. “If you look at other countries, they embrace and pay more for wild game because it’s part of their heritage. In Australia, the only people it was traditional for are our Aboriginal people. White man brought his own animals and ‘free-living meat’ – as I like to call it – became a pest because it competed for pasture. That’s been in the psyche of landowners for hundreds of years.”
Borda, who wrote the guidelines for the kangaroo harvesting legislation in the 1980s, is campaigning the South Australian government to work with landowners to change this perception of all wild animals as pests. He wants cattle farmers to see the roo and deer on their properties as part of their herd, and train them to humanely and accurately harvest the wild animals according to animal welfare and food health and safety standards. This would have the dual benefits of bringing farmers an additional revenue stream – “highly important in this time of drought,” he says – while putting a dint in populations. If it sounds like a long stretch, it’s not. Borda has laboured to change our attitude towards kangaroo, and it has worked: Paroo started out as a pet-food supplier because there was no market (or way to market) for the world-class meat, but now Borda says his biggest market is Australia (followed by Japan) and his busiest time is the run up to Australia Day where demand for his ‘kanga bangers’ and ‘roo burgers’ soars.
LaBrooy, who makes a mean venison chorizo, 600 of which he gave away at Three Blue Ducks last Father’s Day – has a project in the works to create a value-added venison range to help move it up the protein hierarchy and onto our plates. The chef says the range ticks the boxes of being healthy, delicious, sustainable and waste-free. “Venison is so nourishing – you have a completely organic, free-range animal eating nothing but wild shrubs and grasses, and eating that right up until the minute that it dies,” he says. The range will find a home and a purpose for every part of the animal in braised venison shanks, schnitzels, salami, air-dried and pressed meat, the roasting cuts in the rump, tenderloins, back straps and that infamous chorizo.
The range is of course dependent upon game meat being harvested and accredited for human consumption. There is a stigma around hunting in Australia, but both LaBrooy and Borda agree that it is an important new food frontier here. Far from being violent, hunting is a part of human evolution – an idea Harvard Biologist Richard Wrangham explores in his book Catching Fire. Borda says trained and accredited hunters shooting game in the wild is the most humane technique for the animal and the environment, and LaBrooy agrees: “When you start to hunt and gather and you’re eating the things you’re collecting, there is no way that you don’t turn into an advocate for protecting the environment. The more people who are involved in this chain the better.”
The final link in the long chain from getting venison from pasture to plate will be landowners and governments collaborating with accredited meat harvesters, such as Borda’s Macro Meats, to enable this world-class food resource to be accessible to chefs, wholesalers, butchers and you and me. Along the way, farmers get a chance to diversify their business and we reduce the waste produced by culling programs in an era of high-cost protein and growing food insecurity and inequality. Not such a wild idea after all.