Ten years ago, only 28,000 Alberta hunters were between 18 and 35 years old. By 2010, they numbered almost 37,000 and out-numbered the middle-aged. Many are drawn to the sport by a desire to follow their food from start to finish.
Carlene Deutscher is young, university-educated, an unabashed “foodie”, and a bow hunter. She’s part of a trend. People who want to really know where their food is coming from are hunting it for themselves. Deutscher got her first deer last December during a vicious cold snap. “It is as organic a meat as you can get. It is not like shipping a cow thousands of kilometers in a cattle trailer where they are stressed out. You are a lot more connected to your food source and I find you just treat that dish with much more respect.” Deutscher’s food blog, “BS in the kitchen” features recipes such as “Braised Wild Boar” and “Red Duck Curry”.
“This whole ‘farm to fork’ idea is people wanting to understand how the animals they are eating have been raised and where they come from,” says Culinary Arts instructor, Desmond Johnston. “I’m seeing a lot more interest in that.” Johnston teaches at SAIT and owns Brassica Mustards. He is a lifelong hunter, who tries to explain to his young students the connection he feels with the food he hunts. “Once you’ve harvested your own game, it becomes a part of you. The amount of love that you put into the preparation of that food is massive and I think that comes out 100 percent in the product you put on the plate.”
Joe Mathes, Manager and co-owner of La Chaumiere restaurant on 17th Avenue SW, has hunted all over the world. He grew up in Austria and still remembers taking his first deer. It was a Roe Deer, a species we don’t find here in Alberta. “I remember shooting it, and I got a good shot at it, but then I couldn’t get out of the tree stand because I was so shaky, so nervous. You never forget the first animal you hunt.”
Mathes hunts to put meat on the table for his family. He is concerned about the chemicals used in commercial production and vows to “hunt as long as I can. My family grew up on wild meat. They never really ate much else.”
Mathes can serve his family wild deer he hunts, but his customers find only farmed elk on the menu at his restaurant. “You are simply not allowed to harvest an animal from the wild and sell that either to a retail operation or to a restaurateur, or to anybody for that matter,” says Kris Vester, the Convivium Leader for Slow Food Calgary. “You can harvest that for yourself, and only for yourself and your family.”
Slow Food embraces the hunter as a fellow traveler. Says Vester, “We allow animals to be kept in completely unnatural conditions and we raise them to maturity relying completely on antibiotics to keep them alive because the conditions are so incredibly unnatural, but we allow that to be sold into the food system. And we can’t take an animal from the wild that has had a very natural clean diet and put that into the food system? That’s really regrettable.”
This fall, Quebec will launch a pilot project to put hunted game meat on restaurant menus. The Globe and Mail reports that “Ten restaurants, including Normand Laprise’s Toqué! and Martin Picard’s Au Pied de Cochon will be part of an experiment…to allow licensed hunters to kill certain species in the wild and sell them to the eateries.”
That makes Joe Mathes nervous. He points out that there is no way to look at a piece of game, or even a whole carcass, and know if the meat will taste “gamey”. Des Johnston is more enthusiastic. “Would I love to see hunted game in restaurants?” asks Johnston. “One hundred percent I’d love to see it. I think it would make it really, really special.”
Both Mathes and Johnston are already making plans to hunt this fall. They will join more than 100,000 other Albertans on the journey from forest to fork. Carlene Deutscher will also bundle up against the cold and spend hours in her blind, waiting for the right animal to get close enough to take it cleanly with a bow. As a young woman, she finds it empowering. “I can provide and put this on the table. I killed it. I cooked it. I’m competent in the field and I am competent in the kitchen.”
Chefs’ Tips on game
La Chaumiere’s Joe Mathes says, “You can overcook game in a hurry and then it is dry and it is tough and it gets a bad rap. But if you cook it perfectly, it is a way better meat, a way, way better meat than any other meat you can buy.”
Executive Chef Bob Mathews sears elk tenderloin medallions in a hot pan with canola oil, allowing them to caramelize, and encouraging browning and crusting with a little butter and basting. He aims for no more than medium rare. Easy on the “medium” please. He allows the meat to rest then gently brushes it with grainy mustard, often one of Des Johnston’s Brassica products. Rolled in a combination of breadcrumbs, pink peppercorns, and thyme, it is ready to be topped with a quail’s egg and served with chanterelle mushrooms.
Jeff Collins is an avid shooter who hunts deer every year near Fort MacLeod. He lives, works, cooks and eats in southeast Calgary.