How to Cook Medieval Sweet and Sour Civet of Venison

Maeve L'Estrange

Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.


When Anglo-Normans sailed into Ireland in 1169, they stepped onto land in County Wexford and built the first ringwork castle, a stronghold, at a site known as Carrick.

That castle no longer exists. But its remains lie within the grounds of the Irish National Heritage Park at Ferrycarrig, a few kilometres from Wexford town.

Fortunately, in recent times teams from the Irish Archaeology Field School have excavated the site – in conjunction with the Irish National Heritage Park – to shed light on the importance of Carrick within the medieval histories of County Wexford, Ireland, and Britain.

One discovery has been that Carrick Castle had a deer park, of which fewer than 50 are known to have existed in Ireland. All known deer parks in Ireland are associated with Anglo-Norman lordship.

Hunting was a custom among elites throughout medieval Europe, along with horsemanship and the use of arms. Hunting gave the aristocracy an opportunity to network, both socially and politically.

For locals, though, the concept of deer parks was a new type of land control. The new arrivals also stocked deer parks with a new smaller species, the fallow deer. The red deer, an indigenous species, Ireland’s largest land mammal, continued to roam wild.

While the Anglo-Normans hunted fallow deer within their deer parks, it would appear the Gaelic Irish elite took no interest in deer parks, preferring to hunt, as they had before, the wild big red deer.

Generally speaking, the smaller the deer, the more fine-grained and delicate is the meat. Meat from a red deer, therefore, has a gamier flavour than meat from its fallow relation.

Venison from either, however, has a grainy texture – and boasts a richer flavour than beef. It’s less fatty, too. The taste is often called earthy, perfect for dinner on a cold winter’s day.

Sweet and Sour Civet of Venison

Ingredients

  • 1 kg/2¼ lb joint venison – a cut suitable for stewing, such as shoulder or neck
  • 750ml/1¼ pt water
  • 750ml/1¼ pt red-wine vinegar
  • 75g/3½ oz sourdough, or other country-style, bread, lightly grilled or toasted
  • 4 tbsp red wine
  • 75g/3 oz raisins
  • 40g/1½ oz unblanched almonds
  • 1 small onion
  • 100g/3½ oz unsmoked pork lardons, or chopped bacon
  • ½ tsp ground ginger
  • ½ tsp ground cinnamon

Method

Place the venison in a deep saucepan. Add the water and red-wine vinegar and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook for 1½ to 2 hours until the meat is tender but not overcooked. Remove the meat from the liquid. Keep the liquid. Keep the meat warm while the sauce is being prepared.

While the meat is cooking, finely chop the bread and soak it in the wine. Place the raisins and almonds into a pestle and mortar and work together until they form a paste. Mix the paste into the soaked bread, add half of the remaining cooking liquid and press the mixture through a sieve. Pour into a saucepan, add the spices and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes or until the sauce is smooth and thickened, adding more of the cooking liquid if necessary.

Peel and finely chop the onion. Heat a frying pan, add a quarter of the pork lardons and cook until the fat begins to render. Add the onion to the pan and cook until it is tender and translucent, but not browned. Allow the pork and onion to cool slightly before adding them into the sauce, simmering it for a minute or two.

Once again heat the frying pan and render the remaining pork. Add the venison and brown on all sides. Drain well and arrange on a serving platter. Check the sauce for seasoning, adding more spices if a stronger flavour is preferred. Coat the meat with the sauce and serve immediately.

Photo by Maeve L'Estrange

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Maeve L'Estrange: Maeve L’Estrange is a culinary archaeologist, studying for a PhD in experimental archaeology in UCD. Since no medieval Irish recipes survive, she tries to piece together what may have been eaten by examining the fauna and flora remains from excavation reports and combining these with spices and other foodstuff referred to in primary documents of the period.

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