New Zealand's pioneering deer milk industry has been going from strength to strength this year, picking up a host of accolades.
Mostly available at restaurants in Auckland and Wellington, deer milk has a unique composition of fat and protein that's mainly used in luxury desserts.
Pāmu, the brand name for state-owned Landcorp Farming, has been working with Sharon McIntyre and husband Peter - who run a 190ha deer, sheep and beef farm at Benio near Gore - to develop deer milk and deer milk powder.
They're one of a few outfits who have looked at producing deer milk - Deer Milking New Zealand in Lincoln Hills in Ashburton has also begun producing commercial deer gouda and havarti cheeses, produced by Geraldine cheesemaker Paul Fitzsimmons’ Talbot Forest Cheese.
Sharon tells Nine to Noon's Kathryn Ryan deer milk, which some people have described as like drinking extra silky cream, has some distinct properties.
"Very white, very light and fresh - an odd thing to say, because it’s very high in solids and in fats and proteins."
"Deer [milk] has some quite specific proteins in it which are very good for your brain, it’s also low in lactose which a lot of people are sensitive to.
"At the start of the season it’s very light and fresh and towards the end of the season it is a lot more creamier but everyone who’s tried it has really liked it.
She says getting creamier over the season is something cows’ milk does too.
“I think they adjust the milk you buy in the shop so it’s consistent, but when you think a young faun needs a lot of hydration at the start.
"And, they’re an animal that’s adapted to a very cold climate ... they increase the fats towards the end to help the faun make it through a harsh winter I think."
She says they've been working with Pāmu and Auckland chef Geoff Scott to develop desserts - so far it’s been made into creme brulee, panna cotta, handmade cheese, yoghurt and milk sorbet.
"Geoff Scott is the chef that Pāmu have predominantly been working with to develop some of these products and I think at [Wellington On A Plate] it was in several restaurants and I think the feedback’s been very positive.
"I think it’s just people’s curiosity - what’s it like? - and first we did some ice cream and then we did some panna cottas and yeah, it’s quite fun to play with the product and explore what it does and how it behaves."
It seems to be more than just curiosity though: Pāmu deer milk powder won the Grassroots Innovation Award at the national Fieldays at Mystery Creek, and they're finalists in the 'Primary Sector' and 'Novel Food and Beverage' categories at the NZ Food Awards.
"We love it," McIntyre says.
"I think Pāmu did some taste tests with sheep, cow and deer milk and the deer milk came out as the preferred option.
"We have a very rigorous risk management programme that we have to go through because it is a milk product and a food product, and we were sampling the milk very regularly to get all our test results back. One of our staff ... she was always drinking the milk at every opportunity."
McIntyre says they first got into deer milk when Graham Shaw - who had been working with elk milk farmer John Falkner - approached them about it several years ago.
"Maybe we didn’t really know what we were getting into at the time. There are a few people doing it now."
She says it's working with their herd of 80 red deer - which don't normally get such a high degree of human contact - that they've enjoyed the most about the experience.
"The interactions with the deer on a daily basis. You get to know them individually - some are cheeky, some are affectionate.
"The behaviour things we’ve seen in them has been quite remarkable really.
"It really surprised us but within three days or two days even of putting them in the stall, feeding them in the stall, letting them out, the animals were perfectly okay and happy.
"They’re a lot like dairy cows, they have their own order - there’s some that like to be first, some that like to be the third one and some that like to be towards the end of milking."
While they're looking at progressing deer milk into the mainstream, she says it's never going to be cheap and plentiful.
"I think It would be something always fairly specialised ... it just takes a special love for the animal and there’s a lot of care and detail that has to go in to make it work."