In the spirit of sharing
In the spirit of Thanksgiving, members of the Block Island Volunteer Fire Department were treated to a, not firehouse franks and beans, but a gourmet feast of expertly prepared venison with all the fixings on Thursday, November 17. All the fixings included roasted asparagus, potatoes, home-made bread and apple crisp.
Behind the occasion was the visit to Block Island of Mike Robinson, along with cameraman Joe Harding, both from England, to film an episode of Robinson’s show on the Outdoor Channel, “Farming the Wild.” He also does “Fishing the Wild.” Both series emphasize the ethical harvest of fish and wild game.
With its ethos of living off the land, Block Island is a microcosm for such things and Robinson and Harding were here to document it.
Robinson’s shows, episodes of which can be seen on YouTube, take viewers through the entire process of hunting, processing the carcass, and finally, cooking the meat, although not necessarily all in the same episode.
As with many traveling cooking shows, showing off the local cuisine is central. While in Rhode Island this summer filming one of the fishing segments, Robinson met James Manni, former head of the Rhode Island State Police and now town manager in South Kingstown. Manni has been coming out to Block Island for over 20 years to hunt with locals Chris Blane, Kirk Littlefield, and Joe Dematteo. In that time, Manni estimates that the group has taken 1,400 deer with 95 percent going to charity. About half goes to the Center for Southeast Asians in Providence. “They really do appreciate wild game,” Manni told The Block Island Times.
Manni suggested that Robinson go out to Block Island to “see what they do out there,” in controlling the local deer herd and putting the resulting harvest to good use on the mainland.
It’s bigger than just the group of four hunters though, Manni says. There is the willing cooperation of local landowners who permit them to hunt on their properties, and Interstate Navigation, which transports the deer at no cost. For this particular event, lodging for Robinson and Harding were donated by the Inn at the Spring House.
The itinerary for Robinson and Harding’s trip was to spend Thursday and Friday hunting with the local guys and to prepare dinner as a thank you for the members of the fire department. Then, on Saturday, the group would deliver deer to the Center For Southeast Asians in Providence, where dinner would be prepared for them, to showcase how those in the Southeast Asian community cook venison in their own cultures.
Out hunting, the group took nine deer on Thursday alone.
“I made a dent,” said Robinson, who also said it was the first time in years that he had shot a gun without a silencer.
If nine deer is a “dent in the population,” it may be because of the diligent efforts of island hunters to reduce the herd. Blane estimates that the current deer population is about 350.
Manni agrees. He says the deer on the island are now larger and healthier, an indication that there is less competition for resources.
Besides the television shows, Robinson has four restaurants, one in London and three others in hotels in fairly upscale English suburbs. He also has a deer management business that avails him of some 55,000 acres to hunt. England, he says, has an over-population of deer. “England is a big version of Block Island,” he says of the island nation. He adds that there are very different, and looser regulations when it comes to hunting. No licenses are required, there is no tag system, and, yes, silencers are allowed. All one needs is the landowners’ permission. His restaurants use about 3,000 deer per year, and they “take” about 1,500 themselves.
Meanwhile, back at the Fire Barn, getting the dinner together was underway. It’s all somewhat staged of course, and although cooking is central to Robinson’s shows, it was Littlefield who did all the actual work when it came to the venison, which he prepared in advance while the others were out hunting. Venison is a delicate meat to cook with – low in fat. But Littlefield has it down. He spent the morning pounding out venison backstraps and then rolled them up with a stuffing of spinach, roasted red peppers, prosciutto and smoked gouda cheese. Tied with string and individually sealed in pouches, he then used a method called sous vide to pre-cook them. He brought them all, still warm, in a cooler to be finished on the grill.
Robinson and Littlefield grilled up the venison roulettes together though, on a brand-new electric grill that was donated to the Fire Department by one of the sponsors of “Farming the Wild,” Traeger Grills.
It doesn’t hurt to have seasoned chefs in the kitchen to assist with the side dishes and serve up the feast. Beth “I can feed a crowd” Rousseau and Patti “I’ll just pop it in the oven” Crowley, who absconded with the asparagus to make sure it was roasted perfectly, pulled the meal together while the men concentrated on the meat.
While the final prep was underway at the fire barn there was a bit of added drama when a call came into dispatch and a crew of young firefighters was sent out on a call to check on an alarm. Robinson made sure that Harding captured the moment the fire truck left the station. (Dinner was delayed slightly until they got back to the station.)
Then it was time to carve up the meat – with Harding filming it all - and to serve the hungry firefighters who sat down to the dinner at tables with draped with white tablecloths and fresh flowers to enjoy the homegrown feast. Thank you, firefighters.