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Deer diary

Game cooking over live fire is a passion for Mike Robinson. But there are far more ingredients in the larder of this chef and hunter than venison, as RUPERT BATES discovers

 Rupert Bates   Summer 2022

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As a cub reporter on the Newbury Weekly News, I adopted the role of food and drink correspondent when it suited me and it always suited when I visited The Pot Kiln on the Yattendon estate in the West Berkshire village of Frilsham, my editor turning a blind eye to venison for one on expenses. 

Back then it was owned by Mike Robinson and a gastro pub long before the term became over-cooked and applied to any tavern with a menu. The Pot Kiln was sustainable too with a field-to-fork philosophy ahead of its time. Robinson, hopefully like the young journalist, has come a fair way since. But his mindset hasn’t changed, with wild, local provenance his mantra, the highest standards of animal welfare and husbandry an absolute.

If, in a remix of The Hunger Games, you could select one person to cook venison for your life it would be Mike Robinson, king of game chefs. He’d have shot the deer for you too, culled with honour and dignity as befitting the monarch of the glen and many more acres besides, for the monarch rules a vast army.

“Deer are the most wonderful creatures; these large mammals living on our hugely populated island and beating us, which is why we must get the balance right to sustain them. They are incredibly intelligent and resilient and taste ridiculously good,” says Robinson.

“The best meat for BBQ is wild deer and it is also best for your health and best for the environment.”

Robinson’s respect for the animal is total, but he has turned awe into income as founder of Deer Box and his Robinson Wild Foods business. Deer Box is the circular economy with antlers on. Robinson and his team now manage more than 50,000 acres of land for deer. Deer Box has its own rangers and butchers and a processing larder in Wiltshire, supplying year-round wild venison to over 20 restaurants, as well as home deliveries.

Chef, restaurateur, wild farmer, hunter, conservationist, Robinson, who lives in Gloucestershire, is not just about feeding and educating the nation, but creating healthy herds, while protecting the environment, managing landscapes and improving biodiversity, helping farmers and landowners who are losing young trees and crops to a deer population that is simply unsustainable for both land and beast.

“We can do all this because we have created our own end-user market to sell to,” says Robinson, with venison, cooked over charcoal and wood, a hero dish in his two signature fire restaurants The Woodsman in Stratford-upon-Avon and The Forge in Chester. Robinson also has the Harwood Arms in Fulham (the only London pub with a Michelin Star and owned in partnership with Brett Graham of The Ledbury) and The Elder in Bath. Another restaurant in the Cotswolds is in the pipeline. You can bank on elevated live-fire cooking and I’m also guessing some Argentine and Basque influences. Watch this space.

Robinson’s world of food and fire is as pragmatic as it is romantic, as circular as it is sensible. Ash dieback is devastating British ash trees, but rather than leaving the ash to rot, use the wood for charcoal, says Robinson.

“Live-fire cooking is theatre; it is raw, it is elemental, but you can elevate it too, as we’ve done in our restaurants.”

 

 

Robinson is a huge advocate of Traeger, using them in his restaurants and at home. A big Traeger Ironwood now lives at The Woodsman, cooking the meat for his nose-to-tail menus. Sunday lunch at The Woodsman is a 140-cover institution, with whole venison and shoulders of lamb slathered in wild garlic butter and oil, brown paper packages tied up with strings and left to slow cook in the Traeger the night before for 14-18 hours.

“24 half shoulders of Hebridean lamb in the Traeger can serve nearly 50 covers. And if we’re not grilling meat, we’re roasting fish, all from sustainable Cornish day boats, in the wood-fired oven, which has never seen a pizza.”

Vegetables and herbs, plucked from local kitchen gardens, are on his menu too and Robinson loves nothing more than putting a tray of asparagus in the wood oven, with salt and olive oil at 350°C for a beautifully blistered finish.

But meat rules Robinson’s roosts. As well as venison, a firm restaurant favourite is dry-aged beef, grilled and roasted over oak and beech logs and temperature checked with a MEATER probe – Hereford Crosses bought at 30 days and sold at 60, displayed on wooden boards, labelled and weighed, then served with bone marrow and charred vegetables. 

“Our customers smell the smoke and see the fire, drawn to the dance. Our food is not super-refined. We want it to be hearty, but elegant – clean flavours and distinct, with our plated dishes looking cool and tasting delicious.”

Mike, forget the Cotswolds, your next venture needs to be in my Sussex postcode.

Robinson also uses Traeger grills for his American TV work. Farming the Wild is a show on the Outdoor Channel and on its fifth series with most of the cooking over fire, while Fishing the Wild is on its second series. He also presents Wild Game Masterclass and Wild Fish Masterclass.

Robinson’s first job was a forester, having studied forestry management at Bangor University in North Wales. His first restaurant job was, in between pursing his passion for mountaineering, washing dishes in the French Alps. The culinary fire was lit.

He believes British restaurants now lead the world, “fresh and lively with nobody frightened of experimenting.”

He has just finished building a cooking barn at his Gloucestershire home, with a dedicated outdoor kitchen and a big Traeger, a Traeger Ranger and a Robata grill.

“At home I cook on my Traeger three times a week.”

So, as we ask all our BBQ magazine interviewees, what would be his last meal on earth? Venison obviously.

“No, I would have eaten so much venison. I would have an enormous charcoal-roasted turbot with Hollandaise sauce – to start with! Can I have a pot of Beluga caviar to go with it? Then a massive T-bone of beef aged for 60 days, about two and a half inches thick, with grilled purple sprouting broccoli and green peppercorn sauce, together with obscenely rich and crunchy goose fat roast potatoes and a watercress and shallot salad on the side, washed down with a Chateau Haut-Brion claret. I’d die happy, having left room for a lemon tart for pudding!”

I don’t know about you but I’m full, although not as full as Robinson’s diary – the diary of an outdoorsman, woodsman, huntsman, forager and chef. “Before you go, remind your readers to barbecue venison this summer. It is game to eat all year round and it is amazing in the summer.”

You knew it had to end with venison – and frankly my deer, I do give a damn.  

We all should.


 


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