GAME, it is often claimed, is an increasingly popular choice for shoppers and diners, and entrepreneur Nigel Sampson says his sales figures show just how venison is indeed proving a rival for traditional helpings of lamb and beef on British dinner plates.
Mr Sampson has seen sales of his venison soar since setting up Holme Farmed Venison on his farm near York 25 years ago. With sales typically rising by 25 per cent each year, the enterprise is now run from a purpose-built factory in Sherburn in Elmet, near Castleford.
He has a herd of 2,000 native red deer which he manages on his own farm and several associated farms across the country, with much of his meat sourced from grand estates, including Harewood House near Leeds.
Next weekend will see the extensive grounds of Harewood House host the CLA Game Fair - the first time the countryside spectacular will have been held in Yorkshire since 2003 - and Holme Farmed Venison will be exhibited in the Fair’s Totally Food Show.
Mr Sampson said: “Visitors will be able to buy from our range of venison products and from our Deerskin range of clothing.”
He believes the use of venison by chefs on the likes of MasterChef and other popular television cookery programmes has fuelled the growing interest in cooking with game.
“We are still seeing increasing sales of venison, around 25 per cent a year, and when people get together for meals on special occasions - such as Royal weddings and the Olympics - sales are at times up by 600-700 per cent.
“When we started we thought we had too many deer and now we haven’t got enough, so we source a lot from animal parks like Harewood. There are 188 deer parks around the country and we source our deer from some of the very best.”
Venison is rich in omega-3s and is a lean red meat with little or no fat, largely because deer feed on grass and vegetation rather than high-energy cereals.
Mr Sampson said people had woken up to the benefits of venison as part of a general healthy eating drive but he found a big barrier that had to be overcome was communicating about how best to cook it.
“It took a long time to get momentum going when we first set the business up but MasterChef and other programmes have generated interest and people have realised that it is easy to cook.
“We go to quite some length to explain how it should be cooked on our packaging.
“Because there’s no fat, it doesn’t shrink in the pan. The most important thing with venison is not to overcook it and our whole process works along those lines. It’s about pan frying and sealing the meat to lock the natural moisture in. Because there’s no fat, if you overcook it you’ll never get that moisture back.”
Food features prominently at the CLA Game Fair at Harewood which starts on Friday.
Event organisers have teamed up with The Field magazine to run a ‘Game Chef of the Year’ competition. Four finalists have been selected to take part in a cook-off in front of visitors to identify a champion amateur cook and a professional chef who best reflects the great British countryside through their food.
The amateur contest in on the Friday and the professional pair go head to head on the Saturday.
In each showdown, competitors will be given 45 minutes to conjure up a dish using a cut of game meat and three other ingredients. They will be judged by The Field editor Jonathan Young and chef Mike Robinson.
For more details about the CLA Game Fair at Harewood House on July 31-August 2, and for tickets, visit www.gamefair.co.uk or call 0845 612 2052.