Monday, 28 November 2011

Zen and the Art of Park Deer

Ian, our work experience lad, has been practicing the art of gralloching deer as part of his college course, just down the road from us at a large deer park.  I need practice too so, being a pushy foreigner, I called the deer manager and asked if I could come along with the college course for a day. He said show up and ask the tutor. So this morning I was stood in the yard of the deer park at 8 a.m. in my rubber overalls, waiting to beg the tutor to let me stay and learn. He kindly agreed.

This deer park has herds of fallow, sika, and red deer, and a few rare Père David's deer, so I got the opportunity to handle different animals, a change from my regular (smaller) roe deer. Park deer are akin to livestock: well-fed and well-managed to create big animals. Compared to the wild deer I've shot, the deer that rely on foraging and fighting to survive, there was monstrous amount of subcutaneous fat and cavity fat on the park deer. And some impressive antlers.

Deer in parks are treated as a walking larder, and appropriate animals are culled to order. Today Richard the deer manager shot twenty deer in total for us to prepare. Richard shot them in groups of up to seven animals, and we took it in turns to pick them up from where they fell. Working in pairs, we wrestled them into a box on the back of a tractor and the driver took us all back to the larder.

Once at the larder, we unloaded each deer and took the legs off below the knees, then cut a slit in the back legs to fit a gambrel - a metal rod that spreads the legs and creates a central point for hanging the deer so its head is pointing downwards. The deer has to have its innards removed quickly, within about half an hour, or the gas build-up in the stomach starts to expand and would eventually rupture, contaminating the carcase and rendering it inedible. Compare the deer in the foreground to the two behind -

Serious trapped wind.

I gralloched a fallow (above), a sika, and a large red - all females - over the course of the morning, alongside other students and their deer. It was a grisly, greasy mess, and I had to breathe through my mouth to stomach so many gut smells in a confined room -

In the field when you shoot a single animal, there's a puddle of congealed blood and a small package of guts, and lots of fresh air. When finished, you clean your hands and knife on wet grass. This was a venison abattoir, with antiseptic wash and separate buckets for kidneys and hearts. The deer carcases kept coming in from the field, and were lining up on the rail as fast as we could attend to them.

The worst part was cleaning the tripe - the deer stomach. Richard feeds them to his dogs. Once removed from the deer we had to cut the stomachs open and empty out their partially digested, grassy contents. The smell was unholy, like bad compost and bile. I turned them inside out, and pressure-washed them off. I did quite a few for the students who couldn't, well, stomach the job.

I also took my turn emptying the 'gralloch' (it's both a verb and a noun - the process of removing the guts, and the guts proper) into the dead pit on the far edge of the estate. It gave me a chance to tour the deer park from the back of the tractor, and take a few photos of the deer that escaped the cull -

That's a small herd of sika deer. I'm afraid that's the best picture I could manage while hanging on in a box on the back of a tractor bouncing over fields, trying not to fall out backwards, or worse - fall forwards into 90 gallons of deer guts.

We finished all the deer by 1pm and, after pressure-washing myself, I stopped for a cup of thermos coffee and a peanut butter sandwich. Masticating always makes me thoughtful (maybe cows are philosophers too?) and I remembered a passage in Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about analysis being like a knife that cuts all experience, and kills in the process. Once something is known, he says, its value as art or its beauty is diminished.

But Pirsig claims that something new, with potential to be art, is created in the process. Gralloching the deer, my knife was both literal and metaphorical, dissecting a natural, beautiful creature that I saw from the back of that tractor into its no-longer-functioning organs and muscles. I didn't feel like I'd created anything beautiful out of the gore and death until I looked in the chiller and saw the potential -

And then the art -

This rebirth took the form of dry cured bacon, parma hams, and salamis. Believe me it is an artform, not wrought only by a skilled butcher but by the helpful bacterias and environmental conditions that have to be in harmony to create the charcuterie.

I left feeling more peaceful about what I'd unmade - then helped to make - today.

I came home to a hot meal, which thankfully didn't include venison or innards of any kind, and Mike offered to help me with the final post-deer gralloching job: checking me over for ticks. We get Lyme's Disease in England too.

The romance of being married to a gamekeeper never stops.

Tomorrow it's back to the pheasants - we're aiming (no pun intended) to shoot 125 birds with our guests. The working dogs will get a special breakfast, what I earned today: a tripe and a kidney each. They love it, but I'll stick to the salami, thanks all the same.


el said...

I dropped off my turkeys the day before firearms season and picked their frozen selves up the day of...let's just say my little butcher had (counted them) 30 on the floor, 3 on the hooks, and three whole trash cans filled with limbs and heads...our deer too which are big compared to sikas etc. The smell wasn't too wonderful nor could we experience our usual howreyoudoins over the clatter of the Sawzall. Good times.

There must be a Pirsig thing going around because right before you posted, Andrew Sullivan sent this up:

basically, we all better like our jobs is the take-away!

have fun tomorrow

Paula said...

Well thanks for the new word. I had to look it up (C19: from Scottish Gaelic grealach intestines]. I knew that you could turn venison into sausages but I didn't know it could be salami, and I sure didn't know it would make bacon! But that might just be those fat park deer.

I love the way you don't warn about grisliness but just throw it on there with no apologies. That was gutsy.

(sorry-- I couldn't resist it.)

Jen said...

El - I hope your turkeys were delicious, post abattoir and Sawzall. Thank you for the Pirsig link. I don't know where that thought came from, I haven't read the book since college (c1990!). Perhaps there's a Jungian collective unconsciousness thing going on??

Paula - Actually, the bacon was from pork, not deer, but the rest is venison based, though pork fat is included for flavour and moisture.

I get desensitised about how gory some of our activities are - I wonder if it would be worth a disclaimer in the blog's header? I can't stop including it though if you're going to reward me with puns!

Kate said...

Wow, you're brave! You really pointed up the differences between field dressing a single animal where it fell, and processing a batch of them indoors. It makes me glad we slaughter and eviscerate our poultry outside. And that we don't use the digestive tract in any way (except for the gizzard). If I had larger animals I'd probably feel obliged to save the casings, but I sure wouldn't relish the work.

I'm with Paula; I love that you just put this stuff out there without apology or any coddling of your readers. Good luck on the shoot.

Harvest Kitchen Sisters said...

Such great pics!

Our dad just went out last week for his annual hunt and no luck. Just didn't get one this year. Hopefully next time.

Nice work!


megan said...

ah, one of my favorite books of all time.

Glad to see this post today. I've been wondering, well - reflecting, on slaughter and beasts and all of that, wondering if there is any way to kill an animal so that it doesn't thrash. No matter how many times someone tells me they are past consciousness at that point, it is super massively hard on me to watch something seemingly suffering. That's a lot of words to say: slaughter is rough. Even with as much as I love butchery. And the beauty of potential, the art of feeding others -
Bleh, not going anywhere with this. Just always glad to read your animal related posts.

Wendy said...

Wow didn't know you only had about half an hour to get their guts out LOL
Would of loved to of been there with you, I love that sort of thing :) LOL X Bet Mike enjoyed his job of checking you over ;)

Hope you have a good shoot, and get the numbers you want X

How's the knitting going hunni? might have to get you to give me some lessons ;) XXXX

Heidianne said...

Whew! what a job! Well, its gory, but I sort of expect to see blood on your blog, what with you being a game keepers wife and hunter. All those deer guts and gore, it was a learning experience for sure!

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I had no idea there was an elegant word for gutting a deer.

It was a skill I was hoping to need this season, but it's not looking good.