When I decided to create a recipe for venison, I wanted to meet the hunter who shot the animal. I was expecting a man of few words with rowdy dogs. However, a hunter-philosopher and his quiet, patient dogs left me inspired and humbled.
I met Swiss-German hunter Martin Baumann on a warm June morning in Bern, Switzerland to take his portrait (along with his hunting dogs) to accompany the recipe that follows. We drove to a place along the banks of the glacier-colored Aare river. Patiently awaiting the release from their cages in Baumann’s van, the dogs were familiar with this area, where they often walk, play, and hone their hunting skills. The dogs are his year-round companions during the 60 days each year Baumann spends hunting deer, wild boar, foxes, and ducks. He uses copper bullets instead of lead, and he hunts throughout Switzerland, Germany, and France.
We began our walk toward the marshes of the riverbank as my hunter-conservationist companion explained his perspective on hunting. Baumann shared his belief that modern day agricultural practices produce crops using more energy than a natural forest would—energy that is consumed by the surrounding wildlife, increasing their populations. Without natural predators, these populations require a certain amount of culling to keep the forests and landscape in balance. Baumann’s day job is managing game numbers and regulations under the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment, but he is a hunter for personal reasons: “Hunting is an active process,” Baumann says. “Hunting is being part of nature. I am not an observer.” He adds that hunting also has a lot to do with not pulling the trigger.
After more than 30 years of hunting experience, Baumann has found that hunters fall into three categories: the philosophical hunter, of which he considers himself one; the utilitarian hunter (I need meat, therefore I hunt); and the sport hunter, who hunts for the thrills, the technical gear, or the attention—and hunts only to shoot. To Baumann, the beauty of the hunt lies in the level playing field between man, dog, and game, rather than in a calibrated hunt from a position of superiority. He feels that most people unfamiliar with hunting have reduced it in their minds to an act of violence that is devoid of joy. To him, it is a pleasure—but killing is not. Hunting is always emotional. It helps him maintain a connection with nature.
During our walk and photo shoot, we stopped at Baumann’s favorite spots along the river where the dogs could run and swim in the water. All three dogs are female: Ginger, the leader of the pack, is an 11-year-old, long-haired German hunting terrier. Lilly, two-year-old, is the youngest of the group and also a German hunting terrier but short-haired. Moustache is a five-year-old Griffon Fauve de Bretagne with a highly skilled nose.
Over the years, Baumann has transitioned from a dominance model of training his dogs to a collaborative one—one that dates back 35,000 years, since the peak of the last Ice Age, when wolves were first domesticated by humans. Rather than forcing his dogs into submission, he treats them like team players. “When I’m hunting, I need a dog that collaborates with me. I need my dogs to have a lot of initiative and imagination,” he says. “As a pack, we work well together. The dogs show me what I can’t see.”
To the question of what a vegan might say to hunting, Baumann says, “When you become a hunter, you realize that there is no ‘I’ without ‘You.’ As an individual, you have an influence on nature, and you take up space, just like a large tree in the forest takes up space. As soon as that tree falls, light and space are created for new seedlings to grow.”
He uses a field of lettuce as another example, explaining that if you prevent a mother deer from eating the lettuce by building a fence around the field, she may not be able to produce enough milk to feed her baby, and it may die. None of us is exempt from nature’s community.
If he knows he will only injure the animal, Baumann withholds his bullet to prevent animals succumbing to painful and drawn-out illness or starvation. As stewards of the land, we are required to maintain a balance amidst our modern-day agriculture and the resulting displacement of habitats of the animals being hunted.“ I won’t shoot unless I know it will be an immediate death,” Baumann says.
Baumann recognized that his ancestors over-exploited the land. As he tells it, Switzerland was a poor country devastated by famine in the early 1800s. In 1874, the first regulations were enacted to make forestry and hunting “sustainable.” Today, Baumann finds this kind of political will nearly impossible in most modernized countries, with our insatiable appetite for profits, results, and instant gratification.
Toward the end of our walk, Baumann explains how our modern thinking shies away from death in an endless struggle to prolong life. Rather than seeing the environment as what is around us, he prefers to see it as the system to which we are inextricably linked. Without our connection to nature, we are cut off from our understanding of the environment and our place within it, and we no longer feel responsible for our actions. In other words, if you recognize that your life depends on healthy nature, you will agree to nurture it. “Everytime there is birth, there will be death,” says Baumann. “Death is a part of nature.”
Looking back, I got far more than an environmental portrait of a hunter and his dogs. I received a philosophy lesson on nature and the role we play in it. In my search to understand the web of life and my own place in it, I have spent much time considering the contribution of cooks, butchers, winegrowers, and farmers to our food system. Perhaps now it is time to better understand the hunter, the one who brings in the kill. But not without sentiment and respect for the animal, for nature, for himself, and for you.
Venison Steaks in Mushroom and Shallot Cream Sauce
Season: Autumn and Winter Preparation Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: 45-55 minutes Servings: 2
This recipe was inspired by the opportunity to cook wild deer meat harvested by Baumann. He primarily hunts deer and boar with his three hunting dogs (see previous page). Serving as deputy head of the Swiss Forestry, Hunting and Game Commission within the Federal Office for the Environment, Baumann manages Swiss game and hunting regulations and practices. The meat he hunts generally goes to family and friends, and I felt honored to receive some myself.
The relatively short cooking time in this recipe requires a loin cut (or tender part of the animal), as tougher cuts require longer cooking, especially when it comes to game. The deer steaks photographed in this recipe come from European roe deer, which are similar to the white-tailed deer found in the United States. Many ingredients used are inspired by a traditional French stew for wild game called a civet, as well as a traditional German hunter’s sauce called Jägersosse, which is made of cream and buttery mushrooms. This combination creates a satisfying meal worthy of the valuable venison meat. The steaks are best when marinated for at least three hours, or for as long as overnight. This recipe can easily be doubled to serve four.
For the Marinade (To be done three hours ahead of time or the day before serving)
For the Mushrooms
For the Shallots
For the Steaks
2 tablespoons duck or goose fat
For the Cream Sauce
Place the steaks in a bowl. Add the garlic, juniper berries, bay leaf, and cloves, and pour the wine over the steaks. Marinate for three hours or overnight.
Melt the butter for the mushrooms in a large, heavyweight stainless steel or cast iron pan over medium-high heat. Place the mushroom slices in the pan, and allow them to brown for two to three minutes on each side. Remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
Melt the duck or goose fat for the shallots in same pan over medium-high heat. Add the shallots and salt, and brown the shallots for four to five minutes. Remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
Melt the two tablespoons of duck fat for the steaks in same pan over medium-high heat, and brown the steaks for two to three minutes on each side. Remove from the pan and set aside in a bowl.
Pour the marinade into the pan. Stir in the cream, arrowroot, shallots, and mushrooms. Allow the sauce to reduce for five minutes, stirring frequently. (If the ingredients are sticking to the bottom of the pan, reduce the heat slightly.)
Place the steaks into the sauce in the pan and cover. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 25 to 30 minutes.
Serve the steaks covered in the mushroom and shallot cream sauce accompanied by boiled potatoes or other fall or winter vegetable. Garnish with minced parsley, if desired.
Wine Tip: Pair this dish with the red wine used for the marinade. I’d recommend a traditional, tannic red Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, perhaps with a touch of Cabernet Franc and/or Petit Verdot. Alternatives would be tannic red wines from the Rhone Valley in France or the Valais in Switzerland, or a spicy, tannic red wine from the United States (preferably organic).
Tania Teschke is a writer and photographer who is passionate about French food and wine, and holds a diploma in wine science and tasting from the University of Bordeaux. Tania has learned from winemakers, home cooks, butchers, and chefs in France while exploring their deep connections to the land, the nutritional density, and the health benefits of an ancestral approach to food and lifestyle. She recently moved from Europe to the Washington, D.C. area.
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