Eyebrows are usually raised when you mention the words deer milk. It’s not something the average person would have in their fridge or pantry. However, thanks to a clever competition devised by the creatives at Pāmu Farms NZ and team Cuisine, chefs across the country have been competing to create imaginative desserts showcasing the distinctive qualities of this unique product. I first came across deer milk when Pāmu picked up the ‘Novel’ food award at the prestigious Massey University New Zealand Food Awards in 2018 and I’ve been curious about it ever since. The opportunity to purchase some shiny new wellies and head out to Benio Farm near Gore to meet the McIntyres (Pete and Chris McIntyre, and Pete’s wife Sharon) and their hefty herd of red deer was one that I jumped at. Together with Pāmu, the McIntyres have developed a whole different way of farming, engineering new milking systems and devising ingenious ways of processing the delicate deer milk.  It’s not easy milking deer as they are timid but curious characters. The milking area needs to be calm and quiet and they don’t appreciate strangers in the mix. Professional deer milking is hardly a fast-growing career choice so finding people who are good with animals is paramount. There has been no guide book for the McIntyres to follow and there have been years of trials and testing and developing on the go. In the paddocks the deer are free to roam and graze on dock, chicory and any leaves they can reach on the trees, a natural grass-fed diet all year round. Their milk yield is low with the window of opportunity for milking starting in February and not extending far beyond April. Milk production drops off on hot days, too, so when you factor in the complicated process that then happens to get the milk from  the farm and turn it into 100% deer- milk powder you start to understand  why it’s priced at $40 per 107g sachet (when combined with water each sachet yields 500ml of deer milk).

This project is a huge investment in New Zealand innovation and provides opportunities to think outside the box. With its high-fat content and protein levels, the deer milk is currently being used for food service and cosmetics, with other uses being explored. Pāmu has partnered with a Korean company to develop a range of products from skin milk to moisturiser and facial treatments and these are already in high demand. It’s the sort of innovation that produces a potentially high-value, niche product and ensures that our agricultural sector remains competitive. But, how does deer milk taste? In my opinion, it has a smooth texture and is full of flavour that is astonishingly light despite the high-fat content. It’s a sophisticated ingredient with endless possibilities – which brings me to the judging of our Pāmu Cuisine deer-milk ice-cream competition.

The event was held on 16 March, just as precautions around public gatherings were starting to ramp up because of the coronavirus threat. It was extremely difficult for me to be in a room full of chefs and not be able to hug them – I couldn’t do the new hands-free foot shake for fear of stabbing guests in the ankle with my high heels, so I resorted to the elbow bump instead. My fellow judge Giapo Grazioli was the perfect judging partner with his genius approach to ice cream as art. In his Auckland store and workshop, Giapo and his team see ice cream as much more than a dessert. Their creations are a mash-up of technology, art and science, offering a narrative where imagination and ingenuity play an important role. And they are utterly delicious.

Well-known chef and restaurateur Geoff Scott chose our three finalists from a group of 25 participating restaurants, all talented and respected chefs who took an incredibly creative and unique approach to their deer-milk ice-cream creations.

Makoto Tokuyama, of Auckland’s Cocoro restaurant, designed a dish to reflect the Benio deer farm on a spring morning, with an umami-rich ice cream on a layer of ‘daifuku gyuhi’ rice pastry with red bean and sesame crumble, sesame praline, deer-milk cheese snowballs, yuzu powder and deer-milk powder, sansho (Japanese pepper) biscotti slices, crispy buckwheat noodles, green tea tempura and mānuka smoke. Stunningly beautiful on the plate and extremely interesting to eat as we moved through the smoky layers.

Paul Limacher, of Chameleon restaurant in Wellington’s Intercontinental Hotel, showcased the ever-popular doe-nut trend with smoked Pāmu deer-milk ice cream, wild-thyme honey praline, plum, a deer buttermilk japonica-filled ‘doe-nut’, deer-milk skin and plum liquor zabaglione; it was as comforting as it was intriguing. I wanted more of that thyme-honey praline!

And it was chef Corey Hume, of Queenstown’s The Rees Hotel True South Dining Room, who became our winner with his dish inspired by his childhood memories of a lemon tree in the garden next door. What was basically a deer-milk and vanilla-bean ice cream encasing a lemon-and-mint sorbet and served in the form of a lemon was presented with a spray of citrus mist as the words from that classic song (by Fool’s Garden, by the way) drifted across the room. “And all that I can see, and all that I can see, and all that I can see… Is just a yellow lemon tree.”

Giapo and I were simply blown away with this assault on our senses. The dessert was light and fresh, the lemon sorbet cleverly acting as a palate cleanser cutting through the rich, delicate deer-milk ice cream.

It is not an everyday occurrence for a chef to be able to work with a newly created ingredient. It’s an opportunity to open the mind to experimentation, creativity and true innovation. Bravo to our three finalists and hats off to Pāmu Farms NZ and the team at Benio Farm. Pāmu deer milk offers a story of world-first innovation with traceability right back to the farm. We look forward to seeing where this unique ingredient takes us next…