Hendrukus Wisker honed his long thin knives to razor edge as he considered the deer carcass lying before him.
"If I were an American-trained butcher I wouldn't need these," he said. "Here all a butcher needs is a bandsaw, plus an old pocket knife for trimming. It is terrible what they do to meat, particularly to game."
Wisker, who is master butcher at the A.M. Briggs meat company in Washington, was schooled in meatcutting in his native Netherlands and served as an apprentice in Germany. His horror at the way the typical American deer hunter handles his kill led to a four-hour tutoring session over a pair of Virginia whitetails.
"The first thing is to clean the deer quickly and cool it out," he said. "Unless the weather is very cold, it should be skinned right away. I don't think it matters whether you rinse the body cavity to get out stray hairs, but since most of the streams are polluted, you are likely to get more bacteria from the water than from the hairs."
In any case, Wisker said, butchering should not begin until at least 24 hours to a week or so after the kill. "An animal does not die all at once, you know. It takes a minimum of a full day for the tissues to die out." That there is no need for haste was underscored by one of the deer he was using to demonstrate: the buck had been shot Monday morning, hung 2 1/2 days in daytime temperatures up to 75 degree F and the same length of time in a 40 degree storage locker, yet the meat had no taint of spoilage.
Wisker's tools included a hacksaw, a cleaver, a long thin, boning knife and an equally long and somewhat wider filleting knife. To split the backbone for American-style chops -- of which he does not approve -- he used the bandsaw. "Why you want the bones with the meat I do not understand," he said. "In Europe there is no cut with a bone in it; they are cooked separately. In this country I think you have developed a taste for bone dust."
Bone dust aside, he said, the bad thing about using a band saw is that the resulting cuts of meat are indiscriminate. Tissues of entirely different taste, texture and cooking quality are lumped together, along with seams of fat, sinew and connective tissue.
"Muscles with various functions lie next to each other, but it does not follow that they should be cooked together," Wisker said. To learn the difference, he studied the anatomy and physiology of mature and young hogs, cows, sheep, horses, goats, fowl and game animals so thoroughly that he can take one apart, trim each muscle down to pure meat, and then put it all back together.
It is a painstaking process. Although his knives moved almost faster than the eye could follow, each deer took him nearly two hours, compared with perhaps 15 minutes for an American butcher. When Wisker was through, a 72-pound carcass had yielded 43 pounds of steaks, roasts and chops, 9 pounds of stew cuts, about 14 pounds of bones and some 6 pounds of waste. A somewhat larger deer, rendered by an American butcher, yielded 29 pounds of steaks, roasts and chops and 19 pounds of "deerburger," with the rest wasted.
Asked what part of the meat should be ground, Wisker said, "None, unless you are going to make pate or sausage, in which case use the neck meat and the long muscles of the legs. Or, for steak tartare, the choicest cuts only. Otherwise the only excuse for ground meat is sloppy butchering."
Trying to follow Wisker's method in detail without having had his training and experience would be frustrating at best, but the principle is simple enough. Using a very sharp knife, one separates each muscle, or at least each major muscle, by following the line of the muscle sheath. Go slowly, because the intersections are sometimes hard to recognize, "and pretty soon you have wandered off into another tissue entirely," Wisker said. As each muscle is removed the sheath and tendons are trimmed off by running the blade along the junction with the meat, with the edge of the blade angled slightly against the part to be discarded. This takes practice, but after a while the knife almost guides itself.
Wisker begins by separating the spine from the pelvis and the hindquarters from each other. The forequarters come away with a few logical knifestrokes, but boning out the muscles is slow and tedious. Take special care with the thin muscle attached to the underside of the shoulder blades, which is as fine a cut as the long filets that lie along the spine.
The neck, particularly meaty in a buck, can be cut into chops which take long braising but are tasty, or can be boned out in one piece and rolled into a pot roast. "Cook it slow," Wisker said. "Cook it all day. Cook it all night. It has a wonderful flavor."
The pairs of filets along the top and bottom of the spine are the best of all, and Wisker separates them out without wasting a gram. He cuts off the ribs about four inches from the vertebrae, then removes the top filets. With the larger bottom filets he bones out the rib portion as well; leaving this attached to the filet gains almost a third more meat than the standard method.
The hindquarters can be partially or entirely disassembled or simply boned for large roasts. To bone one he simply removes the small muscles of the lower leg and then works the knife carefully around the femur from top and bottom until the bone slides out. The pelvic bone separates at the ball joint, along with several small muscles; the top round, biggest of all the muscles and suitable for either roast or steaks, can be removed to leave a smaller roast.
At the end of the whole process one is left with a large number of small and medium-sized muscles, which can be roughly grouped by similarities in size, grain and texture, plus filets and roasts and a bunch of bones to be cut into convenient lengths with hacksaw and cleaver. "Shame on you if you throw away the bones," said Roland Bouyat, chef of the Bread Oven restaurants, who took over at that point. "They are for the stock. What cannot be used at once can be cooked down to double strength and frozen. The venison is too good and too hard to get that you should waste any part."
To demonstrate use of coarse and fine cuts and the deer, Bouyat prepared consomme and a leg roast; his recipes follow. VENISON CONSOMME with quenelles
Small pieces of the neck, breast and/or shoulder meat and bones can be used. It is essential to partly roast them beforehand in order to strengthen the stock. INGREDIENTS 2 1/2 lbs. lean venison 2 1/2 lbs. bones onions with 2 cloves stuck in it; a liced carrot; a medium leek; 2 clery stalks bouquet garni (parsley, several bay leaves and fresh thyme, tied in muslin) 5 quarts water 1 oz. salt and a few peppercorns pinch of nutmeg 1 oz. whipping cream 1 eggwhite glass of Port
Roast the bones, 1 1/2 lbs. of the meat, the onion and the carrot until brown. Transfer bones to a saucepan and cover with water. Add the leek, bouquet, pepper and salt and cook slowly for about three hours, skimming often. Strain.
In a food processer blend a pound of lean venison. Add an eggwhite and pinches of nutmeg and salt and process to a fine puree. Add an ounce of whipping cream and blend briefly. With two teaspoons mold the mixture into olive shapes and poach in part of the consomme. Add hot quenelles and the port to the consomme just before serving. LEG OF VENISON with game sauce
(The sauce is a sauce poivrade which, after cooking, is thickened with 2 oz. of roux, which is equal parts of butter and cornstarch gently browned, plus 2 tbsp. red currant jelly and 1/2 pint whipping cream.)
Trim leg very carefully. Insert small wedges of cold lard into the heart of the roast, 2 or 3 per pound of meat, to keep it from drying out. Dust with salt and ground pepper and roast at 350 degree until browned; reduce to 250 degree and cook until done rare.
Slice and serve on a bed of chestnut puree, topped with sauce.