Monday, 18 February 2013

Johnsons of Old Hurst had a farm... and a farm shop!

Last autumn, my wonderful culinary consultant took me to visit Johnsons farm in Old Hurst. It was a complete surprise that there is a farm with such a diversity of animals right around the corner from where I live. I love animals. I love watching them but I also love eating them. And I know this is a controversial topic. I can totally understand why some people choose to become vegetarians, as most animals are treated absolutely appallingly. Evolutionally speaking, humans have always been omnivores, and I have chosen to include meat in my diet. However, I also think that eating a balanced diet most certainly doesn't mean you have to eat meat at every meal. There are plenty of vegetarian sources of protein, along with eggs, milk and fish. Also, having followed the whole horse meat scandal has made me once again think about origin of the food I'm eating. Personally, I don't feel like the food scandal has touched me in any way as I only eat food I prepare myself, and I'm hoping it will make more and more people appreciate that ready meals are an inferior option compared to healthy, home cooked food. Obviously I recognise that home cooked food is not automatically healthy, but at least cooking yourself gives you complete control over what goes in there, and make it as healthy or unhealthy as you choose yourself. 
I would love to buy all the meat I'm using directly from a farm where I can see how the animals live, and where they don't have to endure long transports to the abattoir. My mum has always been a big champion of buying local meat. For years and years she has been buying beef from local farms. Sadly, at the moment I have to balance my desire to buy only the best meat with trying to keep my food budget in check. No use of eating top quality beef if I'm eating it while living under a bridge. I realise it's all down to deciding where to spend my money, but with my current salary, I do feel like I have to make compromises from time to time. 
Johnsons farm is a family run farm with a wide range of animals. So far on my two visits, I have seen cattle, pigs, lamb, ducks, turkey, chicken, lamas, ostrich, bison, deer and of course the crocs.  As much as I enjoy watching the animals out in the huge fields surrounding the farm, I also love the farm shop. The website says that 90% of the meat they sell in the farm shop is home reared. In addition to meat, the shop has a wide selection of sausages, cheese, pies, beverages, sweets and some fruit and veg. There is also a selection of frozen exotic meats such as kangaroo, python, camel and reindeer. The price of the meat is somewhat higher than in supermarkets if you compare to the cheapest possible options, but when I did a comparison with some of the Tesco Finest products, the price difference was not very significant for most cuts. Some cuts even turned out to be slightly cheaper, so it's not an incredible luxury to indulge in buying some meat from the farm. This time when we visited, we ended up buying a beautiful venison fillet and I was scared breathless of cooking it. We usually don't buy expensive meats, and I have a very poor track record of cooking red meat in general. I was also eyeing up the huge chicken fillets which looked so much more appetising than the ones sold in the supermarket, but this time I didn't have the opportunity to buy some to take home due to transportation challenges. Next time I will me some chicken filles and also get a good chunk of liver for my oven baked liver casserole.

Back home with my beautiful venison fillet, I did a thorough google on how to prepare it. There is actually very little info on how to cook a venison fillet, there was plenty of info on how to cook venison steaks. Venison is low in fat, so you really don't want to overcook it, as it gets tough. I was particularly trying to find cooking times and temperatures. Good thing the culinary consultant bough a meat thermometer a while back when we started experimenting with roasted chicken. The info I had to go on was this conversation thread on the Jamie Oliver discussion forum which said to sear the fillet and then bake in a 200 degree C oven for 10-12 minutes. To me that sounded a bit too short. I also had the added complication of the oven I was using, which usually requires about 20% longer cooking time than stated on recipes, as it's kind of... temperamental. So I wanted to also find some information about the appropriate temperature to cook the meat to. I found a link saying the appropriate temperature for venison fillet is 63-65 degrees C, but I can't seem to find the link anymore. So armed with this information, off to the kitchen I went, praying to the meat gods that I wouldn't make a total mess of the venison.

Venison fillet (serves 3-4):
600 g venison fillet
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp butter
salt and pepper for seasoning

The howto:
Preheat oven to 200 degrees C (gas mark 6). Bring the meat to room temperature before cooking. Heat a pan until hot, and add olive oil and butter. Sear the meat on all sides. I only used about 45 seconds for each side of the meat, just enough to give it the dark, streaky look. Insert meat thermometer into the tickest part of the fillet. Ours was clearly a middle piece of the fillet, as it was relatively even in thickness, which helps cook it evenly. Cook until 63 degrees. For this specific fillet it took about 23 minutes. After removing from oven, immediately wrap in foil and let rest for 15-20 minutes. Season to taste.

The verdict:
After I popped the meat in the oven, I just went "oh sh..." thinking I should probably have marinated the meat somehow. I was so focused on cooking it right, it hadn't even crossed my mind to do anything else to it. To make a long story short, I am really happy I didn't marinate the meat in any way. Because beginners luck would have it that the meat was cooked to absolute perfection (in my humble opinion), it tasted absolutely wonderful just as it was. It had that slightly game-y flavour of venison, which came through perfectly. The meat itself was really tender and succulent. When my culinary consultant sliced the fillet to be served, his first words were "It feels exactly like the ox I had", referring to the perfectly cooked fillet of ox he had on our holiday. And the meat was pink all through, but not too red. Moist, tender and exquisite. I was so relieved to see it looked so good, and tasting it just confirmed that for once I managed to get things just right. This experience really has encouraged me to cook fillet or some other expensive cut of meat another time as well. The important thing is to use the thermometer rather than cooking time, as every oven seems to have it's own individual personality, whereas the thermometer is a very objective way to judge how the meat turns out.

The venison was part of an elaborate three course dinner my culinary consultant cooked me for V-day. He cooked everything else apart from the meat, which I was responsible for. I was treated to a starter consisting of a smoked salmon, king prawn and avocado salad with Marie Rose sauce and cheesy garlic bread. All this with a bottle of sparkling pink wine. Incidentally I happen to love smoked salmon, king prawns, avocado and cheesy garlic breads. For the main course, the venison was served with a plum sauce (completely the culinary consultan's own creation, and it was delicious!) and oven grilled sweet potatoes, sweet peppers, onions and courgette. For pudding, I was served peaches in brandy and fruit compote with dulce de leche ice cream. All in all, I felt thoroughly spoiled. Food always tastes so much better when it's cooked by someone else. 


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