A while back, it seems that I spent a couple of years killing things. Our national fascination with food had reached a peak, everybody had caught on to “nose-to-tail” eating and there was a lot of interest in British game. Many of us — chefs, writers, editors — got very excited about the idea of getting bloody, so I wrote features on every kind of shooting, visited abattoirs and attended ritual slaughters in all sorts of rural communities.
The stories were good and we all felt that we were somehow being brave and clever and getting “real” with what we ate. But after a couple of years, it got wearying. It didn’t seem to be adding anything new to the conversation, often it seemed like an excuse to photograph a chef being macho with a gun and a dead creature, and I became very uncomfortable with the level of privilege at many of these events. It wasn’t about integrity in food production, it was about posh people in tweeds paying to kill stuff.
I had promised myself I wouldn’t do another story on the subject, and then something came along that quite changed my mind . . .
I don’t want to come over all Brideshead on you but Aynhoe Park, overlooking the Cherwell Valley in Oxfordshire, is the sort of country house you dream about for the rest of your life. It was remodelled in 1798 by Sir John Soane, who was the son of a bricklayer not an aristocrat, so his work, I like to feel, is bedded in a sort of manly, honest modesty.
And Soane, an obsessive and eclectic collector, would have loved what’s been done with the place today. It’s full of high-camp modern furniture, a subversive art collection and some of the most surreal taxidermy you will ever encounter. There is a real, stuffed, white horse on the Bechstein grand, recumbent, in gold crown and uni-horn. In the orangery, a fully grown giraffe floats under a bunch of balloons on the ceiling.
Aynhoe is no longer owned by aristocrats. Today it belongs to James Perkins, a man with a background in antique dealing, the music industry and running successful dance clubs. I didn’t see a guest book, the place is far too discreet to leave one lying about, but if it exists it will surely list the new aristocracy — musicians, sportspeople, Hollywood stars and the very few who can drop £150,000 to rent the place for their wedding.
True to the original design, one of the most beautiful features of Aynhoe lies outside; a deer park, originally laid out by Capability Brown, across which roam 250 beautiful white deer. In the far corner, about a mile from where we stand, three men, one of whom has two Michelin stars and is sporting a fine coating of blood, are disembowelling 27 of these perfect, still warm beasts.
Brett Graham, chef patron of The Ledbury is emphatically not a dilettante. He’s an Aussie, proud of his working-class origins. He’s working with Alex, a gamekeeper and deer expert, with a disconcerting resemblance to Bradley Cooper, and Alan, a game butcher and experienced shot.
The animals are beheaded, bled and eviscerated within minutes of death. Graham is intensely focused, heaving the carcasses on to a frame for the butchers to do their work, plunging his hands into the steaming piles to harvest the hearts, livers and kidneys, which he rushes to an ice tank in the back of a refrigerated truck. What’s most noticeable is that he’s working roughly twice as hard as everyone else. Within an hour, the job will be done and the carcasses on their way to a specialist game butcher in Scotland.
Perkins needed someone to take on the project of setting up and maintaining a herd on the deer park and approached the chef in 2016. Graham, who is increasingly obsessed with sustainability and the quality of his ingredients, saw a chance to run something exceptional — not a commercial venison farm but a body of livestock for which he could control every condition, every input and serve to discerning and high-paying customers. He says he knew nothing about deer when he began but, with the kind of unnerving intensity not uncommon among chefs, he threw himself into it.
The park itself is a simple proposition, just 65 acres of grassland, two small woodlands and a big fence (which Perkins paid for). Graham stocked it with a mix of reds, fallow, roes and sika, for meat quality, with the individual animals selected partly for “leucism”, a genetic pattern that causes reduced pigmentation in skin and fur. “White” stags and harts feature throughout European folklore as symbols of spirituality and romance.
He also laid down £10,000 worth of seed. “It’s a layered mixture,” he explains, “of 13 different grasses and herbs, things like clover, yarrow and chicory, early, intermediate and late dip rye. I didn’t understand this stuff at the beginning but without good grassland, you don’t get anything.” He made arrangements with a local brewery to buy their “spent” grain, a nourishing byproduct. The animals were going to taste as good as they looked.
The deer spend their entire lives in the park. They don’t need shelters or stabling. In fact, as we drive out to the park, it’s apparent that they don’t actually have any contact with humans. We stop the truck about 50 yards from a group but any idea of feeding them a handful of grain evaporates.
These things are big, as wild as you can imagine, they have a canteen of extra-sharp bone cutlery on their heads and they fight for fun. In commercial deer farming, the animals are usually de-antlered for safety but that wouldn’t work at Aynhoe. “They’re wild animals,” says Graham, “you can’t touch ’ em.” And I’m not sure I want to. People often talk romantically about stags as “magnificent”. Up close, though, “armed and unpredictable” feels more appropriate.
I suppose I’d imagined the deer might be dispatched quietly at an abattoir but that idea now seems mad. Any attempt to corral these creatures would distress them intolerably. In these circumstances, killing them with a rifle suddenly becomes not just the only possible route, but the most humane. When stalking a deer in the wild, the shooter must follow the animal, sometimes for hours, until he can position himself for a clear shot.
The range is usually several hundred metres and so he aims for the chest where the shock of the impact will disrupt the blood vessels around the heart and lungs; the deer will run a few yards, drop and die. Often the damage to the surrounding area means much of the fore part of the carcass is unusable. A head shot would be better, but is far higher risk. Very few are good enough shots to hit the brain over that range.
Farmed deer are the only livestock that can be slaughtered legally “in the field”. Here, they are shot with a rifle fitted with a “silencer” (it “helps keep the herd calm”, says Graham). There is no ritual, no noble tradition, above all there is no element of “sport”. The 100m range is not to test the shooter’s skill, but in order not to spook the animals.
A stag in the park will die instantaneously, completely unaware, and drop where it stands. What feels odd, indeed almost unnerving to the observer, is how the herd around it seem unmoved by the event. One hundred deer are culled at Aynhoe this way, every year. Each one is in peak condition, at ideal weight and “perfectly” shot.
Once killed, they are collected and driven to the corner of the field for processing. It’s remarkable to see them laid out, the bodies faultless, almost identical, undergoing the change from creature to ingredient that is so important to acknowledge.
Jeremy Lee is one of the most respected chefs in London. Beginning his career in the 1980s under Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum, he has been a solid strand through the British restaurant renaissance with his particular combination of modern and traditional British cooking. A Scot with strong opinions about game, he is collaborating with Graham on a game dinner at his restaurant Quo Vadis and has come to see the deer they’ll be using.
They’re an unlikely couple. Graham, compact and quietly intense; Lee, tall, prolix and theatrical. Graham tweezers his dishes into paintings on a plate; Lee arranges food like the flowers in his restaurant, in sumptuous, almost outré generosity. But both love game and neither of them is having any of the macho nonsense of crawling across muddy moors to shoot something. Graham wants his precious animals killed and dressed with surgical precision.
Lee quotes his friend Fergus Henderson that we must acknowledge where our meat comes from but “we don’t need to eat in an abattoir”. He has no desire to pull a trigger, nothing to “prove”, but he still considers coming here, to see the animals begin their journey to his dining room, a vital part of the process.
What is key to them both is the way that the process of getting the deer ready to eat has been effectively inverted. In traditional stalking, an animal that has foraged in the wild is selected by the shooter; it is killed as humanely as possible, but in a way that favours the sport over the food ingredient. Its flavour is then managed by hanging and ageing after death. In Graham’s herd, the flavour of the meat is controlled through management of diet and conditions, and processing, postmortem, is reduced to a standard 10 days’ hanging.
Two weeks later, the chefs meet in a private dining room at Quo Vadis. Graham has pulled out all the stops with a salad of confit endive leaves topped with shaved cobnuts and a bowl of mash, full of whipped bone marrow and dressed across the top with great lumps of it. In a cast-iron pot, the cheeks of the deer, well-muscled and rich with connective tissue have been slow-braised into surrender and topped with shaved truffle.
All of this, though, just leads the eye to the main plate. There are three “lollipops” of minced venison, grilled on skewers of liquorice stick and then the chops. I don’t recall ever seeing venison as a chop. Fillets, yes . . . lean and clinical. I’ve had haunches and saddles, hung ’til they’re high and roasted in celebration of tradition, but this is very different and very modern venison.
The cooking brings everything to bear that contemporary knowledge can offer. Grilled on the bone, 4cm thick, with the ideal balance between rare interior and a crisp, seared surface. The flavour is unlike any venison I have tasted before — more fragrant than beef, with the smooth texture of fine lamb.
The juices are exactly that. Neither blood nor an overworked gravy but juices — the very essence of the meat and the pasture that fed it. This is the cleanest, purest and least messed with meat you’ll put in your body and, at a very elemental level, it feels special. All of us — three palates overstimulated by years of fantastic food — fall silent as we taste.
I don’t think anyone in the room thinks that this way of bringing venison to the table is going to change the meat-eating world, and it’s not going to make anyone rich, but it does seem to represent a new, refreshingly pragmatic approach. To use the horrible contemporary term, a “synergy” has been created. Aynhoe gets deer on its beautiful park, Graham can farm to the highest standards and restaurant goers can thrill to a luxurious meal.
The Scottish Venison Association says that Scotland produces around 3,500 tonnes of wild venison and 70 tonnes of farmed each year, with the majority coming from the annual cull of red deer. Demand from the UK well outstrips supply so more farmed carcasses are imported from New Zealand and eastern Europe. Demand is growing, enabling sheep farmers, in particular, to diversify. There is a strong push to persuade consumers to take venison in place of beef or lamb.
My killing years behind me, I’m strangely impressed with Graham’s Aynhoe herd. Venison is delicious meat, for which both stalking and farming are sustainable sources but I find the practice — and cultural baggage — of stalking anachronistic; the intensification of deer farming, while sensible, seems set on improving quantities and price rather than meat quality. The unique Aynhoe model, however, though not “profitable” in the traditional sense, sees the whole process from beast to plate subverted in pursuit of the delicious.