In praise of versatile venison

JP McMahon: Try this wonderful meat – it’s the time of year for it

Why is it that deer roam in the forest but when they appear on my plate they undergo a nominal transformation and become venison? Has this phenomenon ever tickled your fancy? Why do some animals change their names on the way from the farm to the dinner table? Is it cow or beef? Pig or pork? Sheep or lamb?

A lot of the reasons for this arises from the division between the labour of rearing the animal and its gastronomic consumption throughout history, particularly during the feudal system in Europe.

Venison is a wonderful wild meat that we should be eating more of at this time of year. Perhaps we could take a break from one red meat and switch to this one, for the winter at least.

The word venison derives from the Latin venari (to hunt or pursue). The word was originally applied to all wild game, including rabbits, hares and wild pigs. It was the Romans who introduced fallow deer to Britain specifically for hunting, creating parks on their estates.


Red deer was introduced into Ireland by neolithic hunters around 3500BC. Due to the extinction of the the Irish elk and the red deer, there had been no deer present in Ireland when the first settlers arrived around 10,000 years ago.

Fallow deer were introduced to Ireland in Norman times and Sika deer (originally from Asia) were introduced to Powerscourt park in the 19th century. They subsequently escaped from captivity, and now number about 20,000. This is why it's a very popular deer to eat at this time of year.

The oldest venison written recipe dates from 1750BC, from Babylon. Inscribed on a slab of clay is a venison broth with garlic. I can only imagine the spices that went into this broth. Venison stew has also been popular in Ireland appearing in many recipes collections of the 19th and 20th century. I like to add barley to mine, forgoing the usual spices. Despite its historic affiliations with nobility, venison appears now to be enjoyed by many. It’s available all over Ireland so go out and enjoy some this winter.