Kill it, skin it, cook it, eat it

I’m not sure what I expected to feel when holding the still-warm heart of one of the rarest deer in the world. An animal that I’d just seen shot.

I knew I wouldn’t find it gruesome – I’ve spent enough time gutting fish and butchering whole carcasses not to be grossed out by the visceral reality of organs, body parts and unprocessed meat.

I wouldn’t have anticipated being sad either, and indeed I wasn’t – I’ve always been relatively matter of fact about the life and death of animals, be they pets, animals raised for sustenance, or wild creatures.

Had I thought about it in advance though, I probably wouldn’t have imagined that my feelings could be summed up by the words ‘wonder’ and ‘respect’. Not least because, being a wannabe alpha male, I hate to admit any form of emotion, even to myself, and I certainly frown on effusive conduct.

But, really, there was genuine wonder at the physical beauty of the organ in my hand, and at the concept that, just fifteen minutes before, this thing had been the life force of a stunning eighty-odd kilogram Pere David’s deer. There was respect for the beast that had just been shot and gutted in front of me, that a few days later would be butchered to provide meat for tens of people, as well as a good deal of respect for the man responsible for both the life and death of that animal.

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I spent a day last week in Norfolk visiting Houghton Hall, the former home of Britain’s first Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, and now the residence of the Lord Great Chamberlain, the Marquess of Cholmondeley. It is not small.

Impressive though the building is, I wasn’t there to look at bricks and mortar. The Hall sits in the middle of about 500 acres of deer park, which is itself part of a 6000 acre estate. That estate is a working arable and pastoral farm and runs a sizeable game shoot. They’ve got a tasty looking herd of English Longhorn cattle, many of which will end up in your Waitrose shopping basket, some happy and equally tasting looking pigs (Durocs and a cross between Tamworth and Middle White), an old Norfolk breed of sheep, more pheasant, partridge and hare than you could imagine, and a whole load else. Just seeing the farm in action and hearing how things are done was a great reminder that meat isn’t grown in vac pack bags.

But the real reason we were there was to see and hear about their deer … and then to shoot and gut one, and skin and butcher another.

I thought you might be interested to read a little bit about the experience and maybe to see some photos too; provenance, ethical animal husbandry, nose-to-tail butchery and cooking are concepts and phrases that are easily banded about, but it’s good to see the living-creature-to-tasty-meal process in action.

It was a real privilege to be shown around by the estate’s deer manager, a guy called Julian Stoyel, who is pretty much the most energetic and hard working man you could ever meet. I feel like everyone should know of Julian, so apparent is his skill, knowledge and ultimately passion for both the welfare of his deer as they live and die, and for that same deer as a food product. There’s talk of a TV programme coming out about him – ‘Deerman’ or something like that. If so, it will be fantastic viewing.

There is a slightly surreal juxtaposition between being driven and then walking around a deer park, looking at the beautiful, almost ornamental, white fallow deer and also the world’s rarest species, the Pere David’s deer, both breeds wandering around in acres of parkland, along with six or seven other types of deer, and then switching quickly to Julian shooting one, bleeding it, putting it on a trailer and driving to a shed to deal with it.

The moment of death was quick and clinically efficient: identify one of the Pere David’s that had been selected to be culled, take aim at the head from about 250-300m away, and dispatch a bullet with expert accuracy. It seemed to take just a few seconds between Julian first focusing on the task and job being complete.

The advantages of shooting animals in their habitat, rather than herding them and transporting them to a slaughter house, were obvious. The welfare of an animal in its last moments and, by consequence, the quality of the eating experience of the eventual food product is affected by the way it is killed. In this case, the deer was totally unaware of his impending death and the velocity of the bullet that hit the animal’s head killed it instantly. There was no trauma or bullet damage to the body of the deer and limited panic amongst its mates. I’ve seen the alternative of being herded up and driven to a slaughterhouse, then being pushed into a fenced corridor and shoved along that until it’s time to be stunned and killed and, as efficient and impressive as those places are, I know that if I was a animal being fattened for eating, I’d prefer my last moments to be as quick and unexpected as the being-shot-in-a-nice-field method.

Standing over the dead animal was sobering. An animal bigger than me had been killed in a second and lay lifeless but obviously warm. Yet the death made total sense too. Herds must be managed so as to preserve and improve the health of that species, and to keep them in balance with their habitat. This is as true for controlled parkland deer as it is for wild ones. Between August and April each year, Houghton Hall cull about 500 parkland and 120 wild deer.

The deer’s throat was cut to start the bleeding process and then we loaded it on a trailer to head to an outhouse equipped for hanging, butchering and storage.

Whilst I’ve watched a deer be expertly skinned and butchered, and done the same myself in a slightly more amateur fashion, I haven’t seen a deer gutted before. It is quite a sight and the organs are strangely beautiful. Intestines have a faintly mesmerising bluey tinge when they are fresh. The offal – the lungs, liver, kidneys and heart – are all different shades of red and purple and are also transfixing. Like I said above, holding that heart just minutes after the animal had been shot made me think about what that animal had given. I have no desire to preach, but over the last few months, and in particular following this experience, I’ve come to believe more and more strongly that the best way to respect an animal that’s been killed for food, is to waste as little of that animal as possible.

The deer that we shot was to be hung for four to seven days before being butchered. This is less time than some other species and age of deer, which often hang for seven to fourteen days or more before being skinned. But the Pere David’s deer is a paler meat than others, akin to veal, and the animal that we had shot was only just over one year old and didn’t need a particularly long period to hang before it would be tender and good to eat.

It’s funny how the removal of the skin and head of an animal makes such a difference to how you view the same object; cute or beautiful animal, to meat carcass in a matter of minutes (Julian made it look so easy). Very quickly Bambi turned into a product to be cut up and portioned for consumption.

With a few well practiced and swift cuts, swipes, saws and slices, the deer was made even more recognisable: the shoulders were removed to be minced to make burgers or sausages, and diced for stewing; the belly would be cooked slowly, then pressed and maybe breaded; the fillets were easily taken off from under the rib cage; one loin was removed whole, the other loin kept on the bones to be cook like a rack of lamb or as chops; chops too from at the back end of the saddle; then the two legs were split up, one of which could be butterflied or roasted, the other divided up into the muscle groups (silverside, topside, knuckle and rump) and portioned into steaks for us to take home. All of the carcass, including the offal, was accounted for.

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We discussed a great deal during our little tour that I haven’t covered in this piece – the life, death and taste difference between farmed, parkland and wild deer; the taste difference between the species and how, as consumers, we’re only just getting access to and knowledge of these differences (so many game dealers just bag meat up and sell it as generic ‘venison’, yet a muntjac and a red deer, for example, are very different beasts); and so much more. But I suspect I’m losing you so will end here.

Please do click on the slideshow below and see the pictures in full size and technicolour; I think there’s something compelling about the ones that show the reality of killing, gutting, and butchering an animal for the purpose of satisfying our appetite.

14 thoughts on “Kill it, skin it, cook it, eat it

  1. Amazing! So well written, as always, Ed. makes me feel as though I was actually there.

  2. What a fantastic experience.

    Last year, we visited Lebanon and happened to pause at a tiny rural butcher’s, I think the plan had been to buy some liver for lunch. However as we arrived, out back they’d just hung up an entire cow to be butchered, the head had just been taken off and hung on a separate hook and as we watched, stepping back occasionall to avoid the blood, not that much remained, they cut open the animal and pulled out more intestines and organs than I thought possible to fit in the space. We weren’t able to stay to watch them break down the entire beast, but it was fascinating to watch what we did.

    Whilst I understand completely that in our society, people take on different job roles, so I work in IT whilst some work on food production. But at the same time I’ve always felt that, as someone who eats meat, I should be willing and able to take part in the process, should I need to, and at the very least, witness and learn more about it.

    I find very frustrating those people who eat meat but are so squeamish they can’t even see a carcass hanging before its butchered, let alone deal with the idea of the animal being killed. I’ve often heard them saying that they want it ready cut, plastic wrapped and if it’s too obvious it’s come from a living animal, they don’t want it.

    Such lack of respect for the animal that was killed for their meal makes me cross indeed.

  3. Kavey – True. Nothing worse than preaching too much about something, but at the very least I reckon you get more enjoyment if you understand what it is you are eating.

  4. Excellent stuff, Ed. And fantastic photos.

    Head shot, eh? Still, one shot kill, just the way De Niro says it’s gotta be in Deerhunter.

  5. The head shot is an unusual approach. Most stalkers would aim for the “Kill Zone”, essentially the vital organs of the heart and lungs, aiming just behind the shoulder. Its a large target, which kills the animal very quickly. Headshots are inherently more risky, so we can assume that Julian is very confident in what he is doing. Impressive.

  6. As someone who’s pretty squeamish about meat (I love to cook and eat it but have been known to squeal at the odd out of place tendon) this is such an interesting read. It’s so important to know where our food comes from and what processes have been gone through to get it into an edible form (even if I couldn’t do the butchering myself!)

  7. Platter and Little Brother – Yep. Just a head shot – he was totally confident with that approach and said he never misses. I didn’t doubt that.

    “You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about. A deer’s gotta be taken with one shot”

  8. The cannibals in Borneo share the same philosophy.

    Here in Louisiana the hunter does nor wax so poetic, but finds reverence in the art of preparing the meal. The hunt is more about obtaining guns and gear, male bonding and competitivness, and the size of ones gun, pick-up truck, and various unmentionables. To much too fast, too soon.

    In the early 1900′s up to 1960 or so there was still a factor of art in the preperation of the hunt, in the manufacturing of the weapons, the feel and smell of the clothing,the smell of the woods: a reverence for the ceremony of taking a life. Today, it’s a multi-billion dollar business with no time for sentimentality or respect.

    Still, I value the privilege accorded to those who partake and hope that they will remember from whence we all have come.

    I too am a carnivor, and give as much respect to the cattle, swine, and chickens who give their lives that we might survive. If only the food lot producers felt about the barnyard varieties as we do about Bambi.

  9. Fascinating read! Reminds me of growing up in Oxford and seeing the huge deer carcasses hanging outside the butcher’s in the Covered Market. Without any ethical pretense, I think nose to tail eating is great because there is so much flavour in offal and other less popular cuts that it’s hard to understand why it wouldn’t appeal! My favourite example is eating whole fig birds in the Levant, bones and all. You can’t get much more nose to tail than that!

  10. Turning a professional blind eye to the food safety principles being flouted, looks a great day out, and a good quality deer. Having seen a fair bit of commercial farmed venison slaughter, its not pretty (but not as bad as goose), I can concur that one shot and a quick process after is much better. Sure you wouldnt want to be dispatched in Merthyr if you were an animal?! Off to my first Chinese slaughter house in the next couple of weeks, which should be interesting… Did some prawns last week. I massively appreciate the amount of work that goes into prawns now. Blood, sweat and tears! Take care Moosio

  11. Good post, with an excess of deer in our country, its weird we are not eating more of it. I live on the edge of two moors, I love venison.
    It is also imposible to factory farm, I was told T.B. being a problem with confinment. Wild is best, but there is some good farmed stuff, usually better than most beef.

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