Some flavours ask a little more of the bon viveur than a trip to Tesco’s or the pop-up food courts of Dalston.
As a culture we’re pretty strange in our dealings with animals. Some animals we torture, wrap in plastic, and eat, some animals we Disney-fiy imagining them to have morals and emotions that match our own.
Sanitised to abstraction those two for a fiver chickens and meatballs of more than one animal – sometimes more than one species – can only be as cheap as they are if a living thing is reduced to a commodity, one that is moved through the process with as much haste and as little interaction as possible.
The lawyer comes from a family of hunters, ‘home’ is a farm in Ethiopia; his dad hunts, his uncles and cousins hunt. During the week he works 14 hour days in the city. In the early hours of Saturday morning while his colleagues are staggering home from the lapdancing bars he’s on the road for the 100 mile drive to an estate in the country he has leased to shoot deer on.
After a few years as a vegetarian I started to eat meat again, while my reasons for being vegetarian were largely about the assumed health benefits for me, my renewed interest in meat eating made me question the morality of eating meat from the industrialised food chain. If I were to eat an animal perhaps I owed it to the animal to kill it myself and to eat all of it, from nose to tail. I’m a novice hunter, I didn’t start shooting my own dinner until I was in my mid thirties and still have a lot to learn.
In our highseat we sit and marvel at the dawn chorus, a bat swoops past and somewhere nearby a woodpecker excavates his breakfast from under the bark of a tree. Our seat is positioned to overlook the spot where four ‘rides’ or wide pathways through the woodland intersect, the perfect place for the deer to browse the new growth where the trees have been cut back, and to keep a look out for predators. This is where the magic happens.
Fallow deer were indigenous to these islands; hunted to extinction in pre history, and reintroduced by the Romans, they flourish on the abundant foodstuffs provided by modern farming. So much so that there are now more deer in the UK than at any time since William the Bastard landed in Hastings. William kept all the deer for himself and his acolytes, no Saxon was permitted to take one. Anyone caught ‘red-handed’ with the blood of a newly killed deer was marched to the gallows as an example to his neighbours.
At this time of year the deer are at the peak of condition, with all that barley to eat the living is easy, as the summer ends they’ll have to work harder for every calorie. It’s the only time of year the deer will have a layer of fat under their skin and kidneys encased in caul-fat. By the new-year the deer will be lean, the lustre will have left their coats.
Suddenly as if teleported in, a Doe appears with this years fawns following her, she catches a hint of us on the breeze but unable to see or hear us, rather than panic and run; she wanders away down the ride, looking back every few steps, trying to confirm her suspicions, still unsure what unconscious cue she’s responding to.
The sun breaks the treeline and another family group rocks up, this time a doe and fawn are followed by a Pricket, last years child now with the single pronged antlers of his ‘teenage’ year. He pauses to gnaw at the tender shoots of a coppiced hazel. At last the opportunity has presented itself; I set the scopes crosshairs on the space just behind his shoulder and slowly squeeze the trigger, as gently as possible adding more pressure until the trigger breaks like a champagne glass snapping in my hand. My concentration is so complete I don’t even hear the bang. A hole the size of a 5p piece appears just behind the pricket’s shoulder, his legs buckle and then straighten. Silently he stumbles a couple of steps and slumps to the floor. The bullet had killed him before the bang reached his ears.
Youtube is full of redneck hunting videos, where the hunters whoop and cheer, all high-fives and a pounding metal soundtrack. I prefer the more sombre tradition where a couple of fronds of vegetation are put into the animals mouth, a last supper, a benediction to see him on his way, some thanks that acknowledge that he has died so we might live and a quiet moment that serves as a reminder that, death is not to be caused lightly, even that the resource of deer in those woods was not to be over used. Like any funeral these traditions are more about the living than the dead.
For me the moment is still, the calm in the eye of the storm that lead us here; the days on the rifle range - working on the accuracy needed for the immediate one-shot kill, evenings sharpening a hunting knife until it’s sharper than a razorblade, and the weekends of practice-stalks, being busted trying to get close to unsuspecting deer. Now the shark is jumped, its all hard work from here on in. After the ‘Gralloch’ or gutting in the field we’ll drag him to the truck and let him cool in a chiller before taking him back home where I cut him into steaks, stews and burgers. Sixty Five portions of meat, a terrene of Pate from his liver, and a breakfast of his Kidneys.
The first cut is above the deer’s solar plexus, his blood is still under some pressure and pumps out for a few seconds pooling on the grass, I heave the stomach onto the ground, steam rises from the cavity and the lawyer reaches in to lift the still quivering liver away from the other offal.Slicing off a hunk he offers it to me on the blade of his knife “in my family we always eat a bit of the liver at the kill site”. It melts in my mouth, woodland sashimi and honesty. A taste you can’t get anywhere else.