Norway has a long tradition of curing – graving – both fish and meat in order to conserve them. While cured salmon (gravlax / gravlaks) may be more well-known, the same technique can, and is, applied to meats. Curing the meat provides a distinct flavor and smooth texture, which today is seen as being quite exclusive. Yet, it’s simple to make at home.
When I use the term venison, I’m referring to deer meat. You, of course, can use other game such as elk, moose, antelope, and reindeer/caribou interchangeably in this recipe.
A mixture of salt and sugar is really all you need for the curing process. Herbs and spices provide a wonderful flavor and aroma, and aquavit is thrown in for good measure- and, of course, taste!
I use a local aquavit called Fjellvitt Akevitt “white mountain aquavit” that has a rich characteristic of caraway and other spices, and just a hint of sherry. This paired with aniseed, juniper berries, peppercorns, and thyme, give the venison a rich, earthy, and sweet flavor – perfect for the holiday season.
It’s common in Norway to serve cured meats with sour cream and berries, sometimes blended together. The most common berries to serve alongside are tyttebær (lingonberries) and blåbær (European blueberries known as bilberries), and I always have a few bags of these berries in the freezer from our foraging in the autumn months.
I wanted to pair my cured venison with pickled bilberries, because the taste is sweet and a little sour, and it elevates the whole dish. I found that while most people use fresh berries when pickling, frozen berries work well too. And in the winter months, when fresh berries are unavailable locally, except from the store, it’s good to be able to use what was picked in season and then preserved. If you can’t access bilberries, by all means substitute regular (small) blueberries.
This is a delicate dish that can be served as an appetizer or with other small dishes, particularly during the winter months when venison is more available. You can easily substitute venison with other game such as elk, moose, antelope, and reindeer/caribou. If you can’t access any game, feel free to substitute with beef, although the flavor will be quite different.
Aquavit-Cured Venison with Pickled Bilberries (Gravet hjort med sylteblåbær)
Serves 10 to 12
For the cured venison:
- 8 whole black peppercorns
- ½ teaspoon whole juniper berries
- ½ teaspoon dried thyme
- ¼ teaspoon aniseed
- 2 1/2 tablespoons(45 g) fine salt
- 4 tablespoons (45 g) granulated sugar
- 1 pound (450 g) venison (eye of round, loin, or topside /lårtunge, indrefilet, eller flatbiff), sinew removed
- 2 tablespoons aquavit
Sour cream and flatbread/crackers, for serving
For the pickled bilberries:
- 1 ½ cups (about 235 g) frozen bilberries or blueberries
- ½ cup (120 ml) cider vinegar
- ¼ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 3 whole black peppercorns
- 3 whole juniper berries
- 1 sprig fresh thyme
- 2 cloves
Plan to make the venison ahead of time (3 to 4 days) and plan to make the pickled bilberries 1 day before you plan on serving the venison.
For the venison, place the peppercorns, juniper berries, thyme, and aniseed in a pestal and morter (or small bowl) and crush gently, leaving the mixture a little coarse in texture. Mix together with the salt and sugar. Place the venison in a large dish, and massage the mixture into the meat. Place the venison and excess mixture in a large, sealable plastic bag. Pour the aquavit over the venison and seal the bag, removing any air. With your hands, massage the venison from the outside of the bag, ensuring the entire piece of venison is covered well with the aquavit and spices. Place the bag in the refrigerator, turning once a day, for 3 to 4 days or until the meat has stiffened. When ready, remove the meat and discard the bag, and excess liquid and spices. Slice in thin strips and serve alongside the pickled blueberries, sour cream, and flatbread/crackers. To keep the leftovers, wrap tightly in plastic or foil and refrigerate for up to 2 weeks.
Plan to make the pickled bilberries/blueberries 1 day ahead of serving the cured venison. Defrost the berries and drain any liquid. In a medium saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, salt, peppercorns, juniper berries, thyme, and cloves to a gentle simmer. Cook for 5 minutes or until the sugar and salt are dissolved and the herbs have infused the liquid. Add the bilberries/blueberries and give a good stir to coat the berries, about 30 seconds. Remove the berries with a slotted spoon and place them in a jar, leaving some room between them and the top of the jar. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the liquid to a boil, cooking for 3 minutes or until the liquid has reduced some and thickened. Remove the liquid from the heat and pour over the berries inside the jar. Cover and let stand at room temperature until cooled, 1 to 2 hours. Place in the refrigerator overnight and serve the next day with the cured venison. The berries will last up to 1 week in the refrigerator.