It was obvious from the outset that my first chinese water deer was quite unlike anything I had ever encountered before. Even as I had gralloched her on the marsh when she had fallen, my knife ran into trouble. She was so absurdly fat that it was almost impossible to gain any purchase on her with a blade. Removing the grass bag showed me part of what I was up against – her guts were absolutely smothered in white fat, and I accidentally cut one of the kidneys in half as I dug around blindly for it. She weighed as much as a roe deer despite her diminutive frame, and even carrying her back to the barn where I was staying proved to be quite a challenge.
Once she was home and properly hung, the fat set into a thick, waxy folds. I skinned her with some difficulty to reveal that she was wearing a jacket of fat that was over an inch deep in some places. I once watched a taxidermist skinning a badger, and it was hard to avoid making direct comparisons between the two carcasses. I had to pull off a good deal of this back fat just so I could get my bearings on where the joints were hiding, and soon I had the body divided into some recognizable cuts. My shot had cracked the bone on the near side leg and damaged the far shoulder, but I was able to salvage almost 3Kg of mincing meat as well as the saddle and haunches.
Enlisting help from a friend when it came to cooking, we chose the saddle as the most straightforward cut for a roast, but we were both baffled by the meat’s pale colour – a yellow-brown lamby tone which was quite at odds with my usual experience of venison in deep burgundy and purple. Its consistency was even more bizarre – the muscle looked porky – coarse, floppy fibres coated with fat and sinew. We prepared ourselves for the worst and checked what time the chip shop would shut.
In the event, we were all pleasantly surprised. The flavour was certainly that of venison, albeit with a unique tang of something other. The saddle fed four of us easily, and there were leftovers for lunch the following day. We had feared a greasy, mutton-esque misery, but the fillets melted in the mouth, leaving a slight (and not altogether unpleasant) fatty coating in the mouth.
I would rate roe venison above all others, and having now tasted every British deer species, the status quo remains intact. I would probably place chinese water deer towards the bottom of the venison league-table, but that is only because I love the others so dearly. My doe had made for an excellent supper, and I have grand plans to build on this success with the meat from the haunches.
As with muntjac, I have a special place in my heart for chinese water deer. I can’t help but admire their tenacious occupation of foreign lands, and they bring something new and exciting to the British countryside. Dining on a “chinese” was an odd experience, but perhaps this was in keeping with the strangeness of the beast itself.