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.