Traditionally in Europe, venison was reserved for feasts and important events. King Charles ll, the patron of the Royal Society of England, did not often attend meetings but sent gifts of venison for its dinners. Samuel Pepys was the seventh president of the society: his famous diary contains 76 references to venison and only 40 about beef.
Venison is recognised as an extremely healthy meat – it is very low in fat (especially saturated fat), calories and cholesterol, and high in protein, iron, zinc, Vitamin B12 and some polyunsaturated fatty acids. New Zealand farm-raised venison is nutritionally similar to tenderloin of beef, and has less cholesterol than either grilled salmon or skinless poultry.
Hunted (wild) venison from New Zealand was first exported commercially in the early 1960s. The trial shipment was cut up on a kitchen table and sent to Germany for sale. This was successful, and a highly competitive trade in wild venison began. Commercial deer-hunting took place throughout the back country, and game-recovery depots were set up where hunters took the carcasses. Processing plants, inspected by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, were set up.
The success of these ventures sparked the development of deer farming.
Venison in Germany
In Germany, venison is strongly linked to the autumn hunting season. Game restaurants, which sell venison and other foods, are part of the German culinary tradition – although their popularity is waning as younger diners move away from heavy traditional dishes.
As deer farming developed in the 1970s, farmed venison was exported to Germany. At first no distinction was made between farmed and wild meat, in order to take advantage of both the low European import tariff on game meat, and the appeal of game products.
The New Zealand Deer Farmers Association, founded in 1975, fought to ensure that farmed deer could not be slaughtered in facilities that processed sheep and cattle, to help preserve the image of deer as game animals, different from livestock. Registered deer-slaughter premises were set up where only farmed animals could be processed.
Top-quality venison comes from one- to two-year-old deer. The lean meat content from these young deer is almost 75% of the total carcass, while in lamb and bull beef the figure is around 60%. Farmers are paid out on a hot-carcass weight basis (the weight before chilling), with premium prices paid for 50–70-kilogram carcasses. Wapiti and hybrid carcasses are bigger and generally leaner than red deer. The Elk and Wapiti Society of New Zealand is establishing NZ Elk Ltd to process and market these carcasses as a niche product.