Out of the woods
At dawn on a still autumn morning, Nick Hammond joins the deer keepers at Woburn Abbey to harvest a fallow buck and enjoy a proper stalker’s breakfast
Nick Hammond joins Woburn’s deer keepers to harvest a fallow buck and enjoy a proper stalker’s breakfast
The sweet, heady tang of chopped timber fills the ride; pine straw, dried brown oak and beech carpet the woodland floor. A nuthatch sits upended on a fissured oak bole, watching us pass. Suddenly, a muntjac barks and the woodland stills. I feel like Blake’s Tyger.
In front of me is a figure, slung with rifle. When he stops to raise his binoculars, I freeze in my tracks. It’s a little past dawn in Bedfordshire, as a swab of gold veneer washes the woods and Tom hewlett turns to me and indicates with his eyes. The bulk of a big fallow buck stalks across the ride away to our left, breath steaming.
he’s too big for us today—a magnificent specimen in the prime of life. Usually, we wouldn’t have known he was there, but he’s in rut and daft with it, too. he inspects our silhouettes, plods past and tosses an antlered head. We move on.
Deer management on the Woburn Abbey estate is a 24-hour-a-day business. Two fulltime deer keepers—including Tom, whose home is tucked, Hansel and Gretel-like, among the woods—scour the farmland and stands of trees that form part of the estate, as well as the grounds of the 3,000-acre deer park surrounding the Abbey itself, not to mention the work needed on the Abbey’s deer-farm business. Another part-time employee flits between both the parks and the deer department. Manager Dan Debaerdemaecker and his team race against daylight during winter months to keep on top of the park’s herds of nine different deer species. Deer and Woburn have long been synonymous—herbrand Russell, the 11th Duke of Bedford, collected more than 42 species, including Chinese water deer and muntjac. About 400 magnificent red deer now roam the woods and pastures here.
Perhaps the park’s greatest deer success story is the milu or Père David. The species was wiped out in its native China in the early 20th century, but, thanks to the only breeding herd in the world at Woburn Abbey, a successful reintroduction was subsequently made by Robin, 14th Duke of Bedford, in 1985.
Back in the woods, with the predatory ‘switch’ of a peregrine spotting inland waders, Tom suddenly stops in front of me, foot raised. he swings his shooting sticks into place, settles the black fore-end and, with a startling crack, takes the shot.
Pigeons explode from nearby beeches and squirrels scold in the canopy. We wait. Less than 100 yards away lies a fallow pricket— a good cull buck with one antler tine shorter
than the other. He’d been sniffing around the perimeter of an established male’s harem.
‘Deer management is essential, it’s as simple as that,’ attests Charles Smith-jones of The Deer Society. ‘Left unchecked, they simply outgrow the land—disease and starvation is the end result, which nobody wants to see. Culling removes the weakest and poorest younger animals in favour of the strongest and healthiest, which is exactly what a wolf pack would do.’
At Woburn, during short winter days, the pressure to keep up with culling is compounded by the limited amount of daylight and takes up a good portion of the keepers’ time. However, on this glorious autumn morning, we have time to drag the buck to a nearby ride and amble back to the vehicle. From here, it’s a short drive to the deer larder, where the beast—blood steaming in the chill morning—is strung up and quickly eviscerated. Watching a skilled gralloch is always impressive, this one even more so as it’s carried out in a spotless larder specifically prepared for the job. It’s completed in a little less than 10 minutes, the floor is sluiced and the larder is pristine once more.
I head back into the park, the deer’s heart in a bag beside me like a strange vestige of a Brothers Grimm fairytale. Paris House maintains the allegory. It’s an 1878 Parisian building, brought back piece by piece to England from the Great Exhibition in Paris by the 9th Duke of Bedford, and it now sits in splendid isolation in a quiet corner of the park, surrounded by its own herd of barasingha deer (they’re kept away from the main deer park as they have a nervous disposition). It’s also a restaurant of renown, owned by chef Phil Fanning and his wife, Claire.
In days gone by, Paris House flourished under the flamboyant ownership of Peter Chandler, the first English chef to Albert and Michel Roux. Then, it was a gloriously defiant old-school restaurant—dining there was like eating in someone else’s front room. Today it’s very different, but equally memorable.
‘I love deer heart!’ says Phil with a smile as I pass him the bloody bag. I know. You asked me to bring it. The restaurant takes about a carcass a week from the park and Phil knows every sinew of each beast. Watching him break down a whole carcass that’s been hanging in his chiller for a month is an education. Nothing is wasted. Cheaper cuts are set aside, bones will be boiled down for stock and sauces. Sinew and the tough, fluffy fat is cleaned clear with a dextrous thin blade. Top rump, loin, saddle and fillet emerge.
It’s now late morning and I remind Phil that the metaphorical kettle has long since boiled. A breakfast of ruminant proportions is required. Venison black pudding may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s certainly mine. Phil has tried making it with venison blood—‘very venisony’—but regulations around park-supplied blood were ultimately defeating. So, a venison base of minced meat, coriander, mustard seed, celery salt and black pepper is blended thoroughly with fresh pasteurised pig’s blood. The colour is rich ketchup, the texture on the coarser side of mousse. Seared on the plancha and lightly finished under the grill, it’s served on a bap with crisp bacon, garlic-butter mushrooms and a fried egg. The black pudding is sensational—a hint of venison, rich, deep and smooth. Now, that’s a stalker’s breakfast. And I particularly enjoyed watching a Michelinrated chef fry an egg.
Kudos is soon restored with a knife in hand and the rest of the butchery takes place with photographer Sarah Farnsworth and I vying for best viewing position. Sunshine from the parkland window streams through the cathedral of the ribcage as we prepare a ceremonial silver platter of meats for the ceramic Big Green Egg in the garden. Incidentally, there’s a bunker here that was supposedly built as a Churchillian bolthole from Bletchley Park. Never mind that —there’s meat to be cooked. Firing up the Egg (think barbecue-cum-aga), woodsmoke is soon lilting through the air, causing the barasingha deer to lift their heads and snort.
Finally, after searing some sensually soft and woodland-flavoured rump, comes that heart—de-veined and flattened out, cooked flat like a mini bavette. It’s pink, with just a little give in texture, similar to rare woodpigeon. Delicious.
It’s barely lunchtime by the time we pack up, yet we all feel we’ve already done a good day’s work. I suspect that Tom is somewhere green and leafy once again, listening and watching in a world of deer.
Above: Deer keeper Tom Hewlett lines up the shot. Right: A fallow buck in rut
Above and right: Coming to a bap near you: one carcass per week is sent to Paris House