Our very first delivery of Mountain River Venison in China was on October 11, 2015. It was to a five-star hotel on the Bund, in Shanghai.

I remember very clearly the excitement of receiving this order of boneless venison leg, and it had the number 3 in the unit/kg column. With deer legs being a lot bigger than 3kgs, I rocked up to the hotel with one box (three legs) around 20kgs of meat.

At the start it was clear we had no idea what we were doing. By the surprise on the faces of the receiving department, they did not often see a foreigner deliver products to their hotel. I quickly got my first of many “no”, “go away” and “you can’t do that” by a receiving department, and this attitude has continued to this day.

After a couple of phone calls, some meetings and plenty of discussions, we managed to get the hotel to take the whole box. I had to return in the afternoon with the correct paperwork. Doing is the best way to understand the Chinese market. From that day until now, we continue to learn and understand the market through actions.

More than five years later we are still here and selling New Zealand venison. It is challenging because it is still a new product for most Chinese consumers. What Chinese people think they know or have heard of venison is, it’s a “heating meat” that it gives people bleeding noses. It’s a tough and smelly meat and it is only good in winter dishes. There are hundreds of other reasons why Chinese people will not eat it.

Forever the optimist, I think this does not apply to high-quality farm-raised NZ venison. In most cases if Chinese consumers try some NZ venison 99% of the time they actually like it. It is a meat that can be used in many different cooking styles and it is surprising the amount of NZ venison Tartar and Carpaccio, both raw meat dishes, are sold in China.

Some of the biggest limiting factors in growth of sales of NZ venison in China is often the chefs’ imagination or the restaurant management being negative to the product sale. This is a massive challenge and one we continue to work on.

We have been very fortunate over a number of years with good support from Mountain River venison and the NZ deer industry to host Chef Graham Brown in China. He is a NZ deer industry chef who travels the world promoting NZ venison. His time in the Chinese market has given us the ability to open many new doors and create interest in NZ venison.

We started our earlier trips of presenting NZ venison dishes in less-than-ideal conditions in Inner Mongolia. From those humble beginnings, to Chef Graham’s most recent trip in 2019, he impressed a large group of high-power hotel executives in downtown Shanghai. He has been extremely helpful in creating demand for venison because of his knowledge, unique skill set and ability to deliver amazing venison eating experiences. This has often been under some very challenging conditions in Chinese kitchens.

One trip to Beijing in 2016 we had a media event to launch a Mountain River venison promotion within a high profile five star hotel steak house. As in most situations in China, nothing really goes to plan and a couple of hours before this event the hotel management started to panic.

They were worried the invited media and KOLs (key opinion leader/online influencer) might not like eating meat. So they decided to add some seafood to the menu event. That did not go over too well just before the event.

Chef Graham presented five amazing cocktail dishes – Tartar, Vietnamese Roll, Slider, Yakitori and Dumplings. All produced from a leg of venison! Everyone who attended was blown away with the taste, flavours and entire eating experience. No one touched the seafood!

We find this all over China; if our Mountain River venison is cooked and presented correctly, Chinese people really enjoy the eating experience. Getting Chinese chefs to do this is another challenge. This is no different to markets in other parts of the world.

The team at Mountain River led by John Sadler have been very supportive and we are very grateful and proud to deliver this product around China. The advantage of working with a small and highly focused processor is that we are constantly working together to adjust the cuts best to fit the market.

We are making these adjustments from direct market feedback and one example is venison shanks. We have gone through nine different cut/packaging changes over the past few years. We now have settled on a range of cuts that work on the production side and within the market. But this could potentially change in the future if the market requirements move again.

Also over the past five years we have not had a major product quality issue, which is a clear testament to the effort farmer suppliers and Mountain River go to supply a quality product.

With Covid-19 the food service market has moved again, which makes things interesting. The most important thing is that currently there are no social distancing rules for restaurants and Chinese consumers are still enjoying eating out.

The opportunity and challenge is to get them eating more NZ venison.