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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Pho­to­graphs by Sarah Farnsworth

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.