Four hours after leaving the city and heading north, the scenery changes dramatically. We hit the rugged highlands of Scotland where the mountains rise and the valleys open, the green fields and trees surround us and the great lochs share our journey on the empty road north. In this vast and peaceful wilderness, we pass a number of deer roaming free, wandering through the various estates, grazing on the highland grass and heather.
Shortly after we spot the deer, we turn off the road and head up a stone drive, through a fairy glen bursting with blue bells to meet Anja and Jan Jacob Baak of Great Glen Charcuterie. The couple are originally from the Netherlands but back in 2000 Jan Jacob took a job as an estate manager near Spean Bridge. His job was varied on the estate but he soon became involved in the management of the wild deer population. As nobody actually owns the wild deer in Scotland, they are free to move around, but each year the different estates have a quota to manage the numbers and keep the deer population healthy.
Back in the early noughties, the price of venison was low; there wasn’t much of a market for the meat so Jan Jacob started experimenting and built a smoker in the garden. He wanted to make a dried venison salami and got in touch with a friend who was a master butcher in the Netherlands, “He suggested I wouldn’t be able to make salami out of venison because the meat is too lean. I was adamant. I wanted to make a pure venison salami and after a lot of experimenting I had a winning recipe.” It wasn’t long before friends and family suggested he started to think about building a business around venison charcuterie.
“We never use farmed deer, only wild; that way we know they are grass fed and are very lean because they have the freedom to roam.”
So in 2003 the business started trading out of the old butcher’s shop in Roy Bridge, producing smoked prime cuts of wild venison. In the beginning, this type of cured meat was alien to customers, it wasn’t well known or even produced in the UK, but as soon as people tried it, they loved it. Anja says, “It wasn’t long before we broke out of Scotland and started to sell all over the UK in farm shops, deli counters and food halls.” One of Jan Jacob’s first recipes – a green pepper salami – has been their best seller, picking up three gold stars at the ‘Great Taste Awards’ and an award for ‘Best British Charcuterie’. Now they make a range of chorizos, salamis, pepperonis and their prime product, bresaola.
Each season they buy the meat direct from the local estates, choosing cuts of the finest, sustainably-sourced wild venison. Anja says, “We never use farmed deer, only wild; that way we know they are grass fed and are very lean because they have the freedom to roam.” They deal with estates based in the highlands of the Great Glen, from Glenfinnan in the west up to the Cairngorms in the northeast.
This type of produce takes time and needs dedicated space to achieve the perfect flavour; the bresaola for example is aged for seven months. Jan Jacob says, “I don’t mind waiting if it means we get the best results.” They are currently building a new unit to give them more space and increase output, but are wary not to grow too big too fast. What is important to them is sustainably using the amazing wild produce available on their doorstep and turning it into a high-end product that can be enjoyed by people all over the world.