Through the whizzing of cars and wind you can hear the fast thud-thud-thud of almost 100 red deer running up the ridge at Dave and Rhonda Howe’s Misty River View Farm in New Braintree, Massachusetts. “Here girls, here girls,” Dave calls, trying to bring the deer into the paddock where he’s waving a bucket of silage. Four donkeys mill around in the big pen, vying for the food before the deer arrive. In the pasture on the opposite hill, a cow grazes — and beyond the cow are around 80 young goats, being raised for meat.
Incorporated in 1751, New Braintree is an old farm town northwest of Worcester and within miles of the Quabbin Reservoir. Once a center for dairy production in the state, New Braintree today has far fewer dairy farms than in the 19th century but still remains rural. On the way to the Howes’ broad, hilly farm are fields of cabbage and kale, farmhouses and silos. Stillman’s farm — familiar to many Boston-area farmers market goers and CSA customers — is down the road.
The Howes moved to Misty River View Farm in 1994 and originally focused on retail and wholesale chrysanthemums, produce and strawberries, adding the deer in early 2000. The deer are raised for meat, although that wasn’t always the plan, says Rhonda Howe. She and her husband, both New Braintree natives, were looking for a way to diversify business on their 77-acre farm when they started raising deer, intending to sell the grown animals to game preserves.
Deer aren’t the first animals you’ll meet on a visit to Misty River View Farm, where Dave and Rhonda live with their children — Keith, 13; Monica, 11; Megan, 9; and Tiffany, 6. Goats are scattered across fields and clustered in the barn; six pet dogs hang out in corners of the house and fields. The Howes have three St. Bernards and three Wheaten Terriers. There are four donkeys, a few cats, a cow and a sheep and her lamb. The family used to raise pigs, but the feed got too expensive, says Dave.
Once you see the deer gallop across the ridge, the bare trees shifting in a cold wind behind them, the rest of the animals seem so, well, domestic. “It’s amazing to be so close to something so wild,” says Rhonda.
Technically, though, the deer are domestic. Plans for selling the animals to game preserves were dropped when Massachusetts banned the shipping of deer over state lines as a precaution against chronic wasting disease (a rare neurological disease found in deer with no known cases in the state). At Misty River View, the Howes’ herd roams the woods and pasture on the family’s land, eating grass in the summer, hay in the fall and winter and grain and silage — fermented ground corn — year-round.
When the stags are between 15 and 18 months, they’re taken three at a time to Blood’s slaughterhouse in Groton, where the meat is butchered and dressed. The Howes sell the venison at their farm, at Reed’s Country Store in New Braintree as well as over the Internet, and for people in search of locally raised meat, Misty River View venison is worth a try.
It tastes good. It’s lean and healthy. And it’s produced by a family who clearly loves animals. “It is a labor of love,” Rhonda says, looking out at her herd of goats after the deer have galloped back toward the woods. “You do it because, well, because this is what you do.”
Braised Venison Roast
For lunch at Misty River View Farm, Rhonda serves a roast that’s been braising in the slow cooker all morning. The meat was dense, flavorful, and tender, served with carrots and potatoes. The Howes eat their share of venison, says Rhonda, who has developed recipes for venison roasts, meatballs, sausage, and more. Moist heat methods like braising and stewing work best for the larger, tougher cuts, she said.
I marinated a bone-in roast overnight in red wine and red onions, then braised it on the stovetop in red wine and chicken stock with aromatics and browned mushrooms. The meat and pan sauce were rich and satisfying. Served with roasted potatoes and Brussels sprouts, it was a fine hearty meal for a chilly night.
Makes 6 servings
5 pound venison roast
For the marinade:
3 cups red wine
1 medium red onion, thinly sliced
2 bay leaves
2 or 3 sprigs of thyme
For the braise:
3 Tablespoons olive oil
1 pound mushrooms, cleaned, stems removed, and thickly sliced
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 celery ribs, chopped
2 cups reserved marinade
2 cups chicken or beef stock
1 bay leaf
2 thyme sprigs
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large bowl, combine the red wine, red onions, peppercorns, bay leaves and thyme. Add the venison and turn to coat it. Cover and refrigerate, turning occasionally, for 12 hours or overnight.
2. Remove the venison from the marinade and pat dry. Reserve the marinade. Sprinkle the roast with salt and pepper.
3. In a large Dutch oven, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the venison and brown evenly on all sides. Remove venison from heat and set aside.
4. Add the mushrooms. Cook over medium heat for 5 to 10 minutes, or until mushrooms are browned and water has been expelled. Remove mushrooms to a bowl and set aside.
5. Add the remaining oil to the pot and, when it is hot, add the onions. Cook them until they turn translucent, about 10 minutes, then add the carrots and the celery. Cook over medium heat for about 10 minutes, then return the venison to the pot.
6. Add 2 cups of marinade, stock, bay leaves and thyme. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then reduce to a simmer and cover.
7. Cook the venison over the lowest possible heat, covered, turning occasionally, for at least 4 hours. Add additional liquid as necessary.
8. The venison is done when the meat is tender and pulls easily from the roast. The internal temperature can reach up to 200 degrees. When done, remove roast to a carving board and cover loosely with foil. Let the meat rest for a few minutes before carving.
9. Reduce the liquid to a thick gravy and serve with the sliced meat.
Misty River View Farm venison is available by contacting:
Dave and Rhonda Howe
Venison in Boston’s Restaurants
Although Boston-area chefs may be keen to learn of a source for local venison, the Howes say working with restaurants is challenging for a farm of their size. “We have a relationship with a restaurant,” says Rhonda, “but they only want sirloin and tenderloin.” Since the Howes slaughter only three animals at a time, it’s hard to meet this type of demand.
But as chefs like Justin Melnick of Tomasso Trattoria and Nuno Alves of Rialto demonstrate, there’s more to venison than sirloin and tenderloin steaks.
At Rialto restaurant in Cambridge, Jody Adams and her team feature venison two ways in a single dish. Fresh Denver leg from Pennsylvania is marinated with shallots, black pepper and fresh crushed juniper berries, then quickly grilled, explains sous-chef Nuno Alves. Since the Denver leg, similar to a top-round cut in beef, is tender and lean, “you don’t want to overcook it or it gets really dry,” says Alves. The flavor, he says, is stronger than lamb and rather intense. “Venison loin has three times as much flavor as beef tenderloin,” Alves says, but it’s sensitive to overcooking. “If it’s overcooked,” says Alves, “it tastes like sawdust.”
Sliced grilled leg is served with braised venison shank — “similar to veal osso bucco,” Alves says — that marinates in red wine overnight and is braised in a low oven for up to nine hours. The shanks Alves works with at Rialto are quite muscular, he says, with lots of cartilage — hence the red wine marinade. The acidity in the wine helps break down the cartilage, says Alves. The leg and shank are served together with polenta and quince.
At Tomasso Trattoria in Southborough, executive chef Justin Melnick runs venison as a special and serves it in a variety of ways —from grilled racks and loins to venison sausage and stew with cippolini onions and butternut squash. Regardless of how he prepares the venison, says Melnick, proper cooking techniques are the key. “If you overcook the loin, you lose the fresh, delicate flavor,” he says, “and when you’re braising stew meat, you need to cook out that toughness.” Regardless of the preparation, Melnick says, “I like to let the venison speak for itself.”
Leigh Belanger is a Boston-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Boston Globe and Cooks Illustrated. She is the Program Manager for Chefs Collaborative, a non-profit working with chefs on sustainable food issues, and a candidate for her master’s degree in gastronomy from Boston University.