Gone are the days when early morning trains from our urban centres to the outer suburbs were nicknamed the “rabbit express” for the high proportion of rifle carrying passengers heading to get food for the family table. Daniel Airo-Farulla and Riccardo Momesso, two Melbourne chefs are on a mission to reconnect urban Australia to the wonders of game food and the benefits of hunting.
Growing up hunting on the weekends with his grandfather, game chef Daniel Airo-Farulla (Merchant Osteria) learned some v important lessons about life and hunting craft. As an excited youngster, not making a noise and scaring off the game was an early lecture. He also got chapter and verse the lesson on respecting the bounty that hunting provides.
“We only hunted to get food on the table,” Daniel reflected.
Hunting was also a family affair for fellow game chef Riccardo Momesso (Ferrovia).
“Growing up Dad would take the kids hunting and Mum would teach the kids how to prepare and cook the game that Dad bought home.” Riccardo said.
For both men, hunting and preparing the bounty was a part of the normal rhythm of family life, as routine as making and hanging salami or preserving fruit from the back-yard orchard.
The step from hunter gatherer to working on the food industry wouldn’t have been a big one, but as professional chefs, each has also carved a niche as an influential game chef, using their culinary skills to educate people on sustainable hunting.
“We harvest 100 per cent, nothing goes to waste,” said Riccardo.
Riccardo is already passing his passion on to the next generation and part of his motivation to promote hunting and game food is to ensure his children can continue to hunt in the future. Whether he’s chasing pigs, goats, rabbits or deer, he maintains good relations with private landholders.
“It’s all about the farmers and helping rid them of over abundant animals or pests. They are the ones that are suffering,” he said.
“I don’t hunt for trophies. It’s a necessity because we need to eat and if I shoot it, it comes home.”
“My kids love it and I want them to be able to do it in their future too,” he said.
Thanks to his Italian roots, Riccardo was well schooled in how to hunt and harvest from the wild. When it comes to deer, he’s the polar opposite of a trophy hunter, the head is the only bit he leaves behind.
“Virtually everything from the liver to the heart is usable,” he said.
“Luckily enough my mum was able to teach me all of that.”
Daniel’s frustrations lie with the red tape around the use of wild game in restaurants and cafes in his home state but he’s hopeful Victoria’s Sustainable Hunting Action Plan will change things for the better.
Both chefs enjoy using their collective knowledge to educate people on sustainable hunting and the versatility of game meat, especially venison.
Daniel spoke about the importance of challenging people’s perceptions about game meat as a sustainable and ethical source of protein.
“There’s definitely waste left out in the field. But it’s up to us ethical hunters to maximise what we are going to take out,” said Daniel.
“If you take a nice deer down, you take back as much meat as possible.
“There is all this talk around lowering our carbon footprint and not using intensive farming, but we have to go through game farms rather than harvesting wild game,” Daniel said.
Merchant Osteria uses boutique suppliers, avoiding the intensive agricultural practices that are much less sustainable.
“You can’t get more ethical and sustainable than using a wild resource that is in huge numbers,” Daniel said, “It’s up to us to change their minds.”
Both Riccardo and Daniel show respect in the way they prepare game food as well as the way they harvest it. Both can take a simple traditional or classic recipe and give it a firm twist, adding flavour and texture that enhances the dish and shows off the venison.
Daniel attributes distinct flavour profiles of venison to their habitat and diet.
“Game has a certain flavour profile depending on where it has been hunted,” said Daniel.
“It has different flavours because the game is eating different things and that is absorbed into the meat.”
Game meats are distinct, and they require care and attention when cooking.
You can throw a steak on the barbecue and stick the charred result between two bits of bread, but venison should be part of a dish.
It can be simple and robust as the two chefs demonstrated at this years Wild Deer, Hunting, Guiding and Fishing Expo, but it must lift the flavour of the venison to a culinary crescendo.
At the expo, Daniel and Riccardo teamed up for Venison Carpaccio — yes, a raw dish, and Venison Ragu — because, according to Daniel, everyone loves pasta.
Riccardo is not about to deny his Italian heritage either, so he agreed on the on the pasta, but he also belted out a succulent Venison Schnitzel which was “pub grub” elevated to fine dining.
“When the audience first heard they were going to prepare raw Venison for the Carpaccio many were hesitant to try it, it was out of their venison cooking comfort zone,” said Daniel.
“Deer can be really tough when it’s not prepared properly, and people might try something at home, but it’ll be as tough as old shoes. There is a variety of things we can do with game meat, but a lot of people stick to their comfort zone because its tried and tested and they know it works.
“If I can show these people that they can do a lot of different things, it interests them.”
Riccardo agreed when discussing the versatility of venison.
“Its flavour is beautiful, it’s a very healthy meat with its minimal fat content,” he said.
“Easy to cook and you can eat almost everything from the liver to the heart. I know how to use everything.”
Serving raw venison was a way of challenging the audience (nearly all deer people) to look at different ways to present their bounty.
“A lot of people wouldn’t even consider eating it raw,” Daniel said.
“People were a bit sceptical, but you’ve got to try something once. If you don’t like it then fair enough.”
Both chefs believe interest in wild food is increasing and that hunting, particularly for deer, is engaging a much broader audience than it did even ten years ago.
“As times change, food trends change and people’s concepts change too,” said Riccardo.
“Raw preparation ten years ago, people were in shock, but now they are willing to give it a try and that’s largely because of all the food channels on tv.”
At Expo, the carpaccio audiences were tentative at first, but most who sampled the sish went back for seconds.
“You’ve got to give people a good first impression of anything,” said Daniel.
“If it’s a bad experience they will never try it again but if you present something really well, you’ve changed their perspective.”
Ragu seemed somewhat tame by comparison.
“Everyone loves pasta,” said Daniel in good humour.
“It’s a very easy dish for people to make.”
The versatility of venison was emphasized with the shoulder meat for the ragu dish as the texture of the tougher cuts suits the rustic style of dish.
Whilst the duo prepared several venison dishes, they both agreed that their favourite game food was hare, but it is a difficult and elusive dish.
“It’s hard to go specifically to hunt hares, it’s usually a bi-opportunity while hunting something else,” Daniel said.
Riccardo said it is worth the extra effort.
“It’s amazing meat to cook with,” said Riccardo.
“Very underrated including by a lot of hunters.”
There they go again, trying to change perceptions.
We hunters, are fortunate to have the likes of Daniel and Riccardo at the forefront of selling game meat and sustainable hunting to the broader public.
By Maddy Fogarty