Technically speaking, the word "venison" in the Middle Ages was in reference to any beast of the hunt, not just deer, and could imply a variety of creatures we would never normally associate with "venison." And for deer itself, more specific identifications such as stag, roe, buck, etc., were in more common use than today, indicating a much closer relationship with the animal. Medieval people had a great fondness for deer, and venison of deer was an enormously popular food, as the records of great households tell us. For example, the 13th c. Bishop Richard de Swinfield frequently ate it, and not only during great feasts. In Christmas of 1289 he and his household consumed four does as mere appetizers between courses, and on Ascension Day 1290 they had two sides and one haunch of hart, one side of doe, one fresh deer and two roe deer. For Easter 1290 they ate three deer. For this particular household, deer venison represented half the meat eaten at Ascension, a quarter eaten at Christmas, and one-fifth of the meat consumed at Easter.
Bishop Swinfield was surely not bored with a steady diet of deer meat, as medieval cooks prepared their venison in a variety of delicious ways. It was roasted, boiled, baked, and cooked on a spit. It was served in huge broiled chunks, it was hacked into pieces and covered with strange sauces, and it was mixed with eggs and fruit and baked in meat pies. It was made into "nombles," served with "furmenty," cut into "ffelettes," and turned into "carpeis." There were venison soups, venison rice dishes, and even "mock" venison: the genitals and intestines were highly esteemed as trophies of the hunt and were served, hot and steaming, in honor to the high table as a dish called "haslett" (thus making the deer a versatile beast, indeed). In later periods more "civilized" folk substituted the real thing with sliced apples & pears, dried fruits, and nuts, all strung together and batter fried. The resulting product was quite realistic in appearance (and very delicious). When cooking real venison, such as ribs, the recipe was often a simple one: "Venison in broth: take ribs of venison, and wash him fair in water. And strain the water through a strainer into a fair pot, and cast the venison thereto (with) parsley, sage, pepper, cloves, mace, vinegar, (and) salt. And let it boil til it be done, and serve it forth." For a roast venison, one should "take fair filets of venison, and pick away the skin and the bone, and parboil it, and roast it on a spit. And sauce thereto. And serve it forth." The most popular sauce accompanying venison was frumenty, made from wheat boiled with milk and eggs and flavored with saffron and sugar. Equally good was a pepper sauce, made by frying bread in oil, then blending the bread thoroughly with broth and vinegar to make a thickened sauce, and seasoning with salt and freshly ground pepper.
As the centuries have passed, so has our taste for venison. Beef, pork, and poultry have become the meats of choice and venison is now considered a bit of an oddity. Venison is certainly more common than buffalo or crocodile meat, but still very hard to find, in the United States, without being a hunter or knowing one. (The fortunate English are still able to purchase it in butcher shops & restaurants.) Oh, the lucky feast cook who can lay venison before his guests! I was fortunate enough once to be given a whole deer, freshly killed and dressed, just one day before a medieval feast I was cooking for. The deer was expertly spit-roasted all day long by a local hunter, and brought into the hall, still on the spit, on the shoulders of two young men. When served it literally melted in your mouth. It was an occasion that will live long in my memory. So now when I drive down the road and see the ubiquitous signs of a highway deer fatality, I'm reminded of the history of this fine beast and tell myself, "Now there's some tasty looking nombles!"
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In the Pursuit of Venison ©
1997-2005 by James L. Matterer
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