Scottish Highlands offers best free-range meat

So why aren't we eating it?

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Haute Cuisine

Scotland’s hills, upland moors and Highland glens offer great scenery, but in addition to that they’re the source of some excellent food. Gordon Davidson finds out more from the people championing the ultimate free-range food industry.

Scotland’s hills and mountains are central to our national identity, great brooding heaps of stone and scree that anchor our nation, making us feel quietly indestructible in a way no featureless flatland ever could.

But what few appreciate is that these uplands, some 4.6 million hectares and 85 per cent of our land, offer something more – they are a source of natural and delicious foods that are only now being recognised for their health advantages and their distillation of a pollutant-free environment into something wonderful for the dinner table.

Almost as iconic as the hills themselves are the deer that live on them, and it is a mystery why venison is not our national dish. Grazing on a varied diet of hill grasses, young heather shoots and blaeberry bushes, deer develop meat that is peerless for flavour and almost entirely free of the saturated fats that bedevil other red meats.

It has taken an incomer, Christian Nissen, of Highland Game, to make real progress in introducing Scots to venison. His company’s supermarket-friendly packaging and no-nonsense cooking instructions have changed the prevailing attitude from ‘never tried it’ to ‘tried it once, that wasnae too bad’.

‘Venison is pure, natural and as “organic” as only wild produce can be,’ says Nissen, a Dane who has lived here for 18 years. ‘Wild venison is a beautifully tender, lean and succulent meat with little or no saturated fat, due to its natural origin. Its fat content is half that of beef and a quarter that of lamb. In fact, venison is so nutritious that even a serving smaller than the recommended portion will provide higher levels of nutrients and a state of satisfaction compared to other meats.’

Scotland’s own deer-farming evangelist, John Fletcher, of Reediehill, Fife, still fears the Scots venison sector may be lacking the support it needs to survive, which he describes as a ‘damn shame’ given that many a Scottish artery could do with a dose of deer.

‘Scotland’s hill ground is perfect for really extensive grazing, where ruminant animals get a varied diet that is good for them, and which in turn gives them the perfect composition for human health,’ says Dr Fletcher. ‘Scottish deer do not get fed any cereals. From a biological point of view, animals fed chiefly on cereals produce meat with fats that are potentially toxic to humans. I am convinced that deer farming has a huge amount to offer both to Scottish agriculture and the health of the Scottish public.’

The land bestows the same blessing on Scotland’s other great hill species, sheep, in particular the Blackface, which any shepherd will tell you is more wild than tame. Recent research found that hill-fed Blackface lambs were bursting with Omega 3.

Looking to increase returns for shepherds across the Highlands and Islands, farm adviser Fergus Younger is two years into the Argyll Hill Lamb project. ‘What we have done is to create a specific hill-lamb brand, capturing the culture of hill flocks, the shepherd working alone with his dog, the purity of the hill, the scenery, the really good natural herbage these sheep eat – and the fit and active lifestyle they lead to find that food,’ he says.

‘These sheep live on hills up to Munro level – at 3000ft, it is just them and the deer. Up there you can taste the cleanness of the atmosphere, you are far away from the pollutants that settle over the cities.’

But Aileen McFadzean, the Blackface Sheep Breeders Association secretary, still fears that, pitched against the marketing might of other meats, hill-sheep producers may be bleating in the wind. ‘Hill lamb is this unknown product. We try our best but it has not been advertised enough. So the public has forgotten about it, and all the attention tends to be on how wonderful Scotch beef is. Beef is good, but everyone in the know will tell you a good bit of hill lamb is better.’

Not all publicity is good publicity, however, the grouse being a case in point. Each year the public is bombarded with news stories about the start of the shooting season and the rush to get a brace or two from Scotland to London, convincing many people that this delicious bird is not for the likes of them.

This pains Scottish Countryside Alliance director Ross Montague, who emphasises that hill game does not carry the price-tag people expect. ‘Grouse and venison are the ultimate wild, natural and free-range meats from Scotland’s hills and moorlands. People really should give them a try.’

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