Thursday 17 October 2013

Oh, Deer

It was the last day of Duncan’s visit to the castle. He had been working hard as a restoration volunteer throughout his stay, so I decided that as a reward we should go for a walk in the sunshine in the beautiful surrounding countryside. I borrowed the builder’s dog “Rascal” and off we set towards the “Backwater Reservoir”. This is a huge body of water just over a hill from Balintore, so you would think we couldn’t miss it, so despite it being my first trip there I didn’t bother to check up first on Google Maps.

We navigated by instinct, and as no body of water appeared round any bend in the path, we veered off to the left across a field, and then decided to follow lower rather than higher contours. We found ourselves in a narrow glen of astounding beauty, with a lush green grassy path winding along the bottom and lofty crags on  either side towering above us. We followed this path; no water appeared. We continued for some time, but still no water. Should we go forward into the unknown or retrace our route and return the builder’s dog before the builder left work for the day? The latter seemed to be the only sensible course of action, so we returned without reaching our objective. However, the glen was so beautiful I will definitely be back! We found out later that we had been on the correct track for the reservoir, and had given up with just a third of the path along the bottom of the glen to go.

As we got close to the castle, Duncan exclaimed “There is a deer caught in the fence”. I would have missed it, had I been on my own. We approached to see what we could do. The deer was very much alive, but one of its hind legs was caught on the barbs and it was suspended upside down. I put on my gloves and tried to lift the deer’s leg off the barbs by pulling it the other way. By the end I was exerting quite a force, and was scared of breaking its leg. The leg did not budge. The deer was screaming. Perhaps, if someone could lift its body up at the same time, the tension on the leg would be less, and I could get it off? Duncan was a wee bit squeamish (understandably!), so I judged the best thing would be to get help from a neighbour or my builder. I drove my builder back to where the deer was trapped. En route, my builder asked if I wanted the deer for a casserole for the event I was going to cater in a couple of days. I was rather shocked and replied that this was an animal in distress and I wanted him to help rescue it!

Instead of walking down a slope from the road. the builder made a bee-line for the animalby leaping over the intervening stream. I was about to follow, then realised quite how wide the stream was and stopped in my tracks! By the time I had taken the leap, barely catching the opposite bank, my builder had managed to cut the animal down with some wire-cutters.

We stood back to allow the deer to calm down and run off, but it was pitiful. The leg was useless, bleeding and cut to the bone all around. I had spotted earlier that despite being impaled on one side, the leg also looked cut on the other. The gamekeeper later explained that the deer get their legs caught between two wires when leaping, and these form pincers when the two wires twist as the body of the deer continues over the fence. 

Anyhow, the deer could not get to its feet, was screaming and the consensus was that she had to be put out of her misery. I went back to the castle to fetch some knives, while my builder did the necessary with a big stone. I could not have done this so I was very grateful. My builder asked if I wanted to be present “Not if I have the choice.” came my reply. I was worried about being traumatised, and doing the best thing for the deer.

As I came back, equipped with knives and with a sledgehammer and standard hammer (just in case), I saw something flying through the air into the forest. It was the deer’s head! I was inwardly grateful that I had missed this stage, but was determined to watch the rest. My builder swiftly skinned the animal and waved the hide in my direction: “Do you want this?”. “No thanks,”, I replied  “it’s a bit too small for a rug.”, but in my mind I was playing out the horrors of the tanning process, The deer was possibly a couple of years old, so the hide was not that large.

My new and hence very sharp vegetable knife was proving to be  the perfect instrument for eviscerating. As my builder delved into the body cavity, there was a spurt of yellow liquid which went over his hand. He pulled this back in disgust. “I think that’s the bladder” I commented facilely. but mainly for comfort. Next to come out were some large greyish organs I could not identify - possibly some of the ruminant’s extra stomachs? After a further delve my builder deftly pulled out the kidneys, one in each hand: “Do you want these?”. These were beautifully pink and egg-shaped, and the shocked expression on my face led my builder to further prompt “They are delicious.”. To which I could only say “Yes.”. Next came the liver “Do you want this?”; another expression of shocked indecision; another “It’s delicious.” and another wan “Yes.”. Fortunately, I had brought a bucket with the tools so I rinsed this in the stream, so I could gather the bits.

My builder skilfully transformed the animal into a carcass: a thin transparent membrane encasing the muscles glinted an intense ultramarine blue in the sunshine. The contrast with the deep red-purple of the muscle was astonishing. The beauty in death was Mishima-esque.

I inquired whether I should get a plastic bag to take the carcass back to the castle. “No, just fling it in the back of your pick-up.” came the reply. I felt rather stupid for not working this out myself: a pick-up was more of a life-style choice than I had bargained for.

My builder washed the carcass in the butler’s sink and jointed this for me: two (fore) legs; two haunches; back and neck, and saddle. There appears to be no end to my builder's hidden skills. At this stage, things were sufficiently removed from the animal, that  I was able to start cutting the joints into cubes for the casserole. Duncan had avoided the butchering in the field but gamely joined me in the cubing. The haunches of a deer are the most extraordinary pieces of meat: no fat whatsoever, just pure muscle. Yes, I know I should have slow-roasted these but I wanted to use the best cuts for my guests, so these went into the casserole. All-in-all there was around 7 lb of prime venison which would have cost around £100 at a butcher’s. I reserved the saddle and put it in the freezer, for future slow roasting, and kept back some other bits for venison soup, etc. - but basically the majority of the meat went into a casserole recipe which I scaled up to 24 servings. This filled my largest catering-sized pot to the brim!

jointed deer at Balintore Castle

venison casserole 

I had not been present before for the complete processing of an live animal into food, and it gave me considerable pause for thought, particularly as it was so unexpected. Fortunately, I am not squeamish, but what prayed in my mind was the swift transition from life to death: there but for the grace of God go I. Little separates a human in distress from a deer in distress. That evening, I asked Duncan if he could make a vegetarian dish for the evening meal! I reflected that both squeamishness and moral ponderings are hallmarks of “spoiled children” of modern society, and for Neolithic man, finding a deer caught in a fence would be a cause for rejoicing not for panic. At the same time, there is space I think for “good karma” i.e. using as much of the deer as possible and empathetically minimising its suffering.

Casseroles are perfect when catering for large and/or variable numbers. However, I am not impressed by the quality of meat from supermarkets, so recently I have largely done vegetarian or sometimes chicken dishes. The quality of this venison was ne plus ultra. I knew precisely where it had come from, and that it was incredibly fresh. The casserole, in the end, was delicious and my guests made it disappear alarmingly but gratifyingly quickly.

I had not had any venison “from the wild” previously, despite owning a shooting lodge in a hunting landscape for 6 years. That it should eventually arrive 2 days before I had to cater for 24 guests, and that I would personally assist in the butchering, does make one reflect upon the unexpected coherence of real-life narrative.

As a postscript, when my builder found out we had failed to reach the Backwater Reservoir he was so concerned that Duncan had missed such a beautiful spot where he loves to fish, that he took us there the next day just before Duncan drove off in his own car. You can’t beat mountains reflecting in highland-blue lochs on a sunny day. I will be coming back again and again to Backwater: the life-and-death drama has forever etched the landscape in my mind.

Thursday 10 October 2013

Stars at Balintore

Last night it howled a gale. The electricity went down at 9 PM, and has only just come on again this morning at 10:30 AM. I was concerned the power would be down for days. 

Anyhow, my visitor Duncan and I were reduced to watching the film "The Wolfman" on a laptop by the wood burner. We did the first 75 minutes of the film, before the charge ran out, tantalisingly, just at the climax.  Due the howling wind, mother nature supplied an atmospheric surround-sound soundtrack. The wind inside the castle blew out the candle I was trying to use to get to bed. There was much groping in the dark. Duncan was braver and went out to get some photographs. The wind had blown away the last hint of a cloud, and the stars were amazing as Duncan's photograph below shows.

stars at Balintore

Tuesday 8 October 2013

Spot the Furry Visitor

A friend called Duncan is helping out at Balintore for a few days. As he was typing away on his laptop in the ruined castle scullery yesterday evening, he had a little furry visitor. Can you spot the critter in the first photograph? If not, I have enlarged the interloper for the second image.
spot the furry visitor

So what kind of animal is this? Duncan thought it might be a stoat. I thought it looked more like a pine martin. My builder says it is a ferret with a hint of pole cat. I am tempted to believe my builder as he has kept ferrets in the past. If anyone would like to toss their own oar in ...... ? :-)

furry visitor close-up

Sadly, I never have had furry visitors as cute as Duncan's, and haven't even seen one of these in the wild.

Saturday 5 October 2013

Fantasy vs. Reality

In her fantasy life, Ms. Balintore plays an English boarding school, behind whose walls lies a sinister web of corruption, scandal and conspiracy. This is a genuine book cover created by my talented artist friend Catherine McIntyre . Coming to a bookstore near you!

Ms. Balintore's fantasy life

In her real life, Ms. Balintore was today hosting my friend Andrew and myself as we laid down winter wood supplies. A couple of weeks ago, the electricity company chopped down a massive yew tree close to the castle, while putting in a new overhead supply cable.  This was too good an opportunity to miss. Armed with my 240 volt electric chainsaw (that real men don't use), an inverter, and his land rover's car battery, Andrew turned the tree into logs for the wood burner. I dragged away the detritus, and built a bonfire on the castle terrace. We kept going all afternoon. Winter will be much the more bearable knowing there is now an impressive supply of fuel.

woodsman in lopping frenzy

logs for the wood burner

bonfire with castle in autumn evening sunshine 

Game of Thrones

The keen-eyed amongst you, may spot the burring of art and life courtesy of a novel "Game of Thrones" sigil designed by my friend Andrew.

spot the interloper

Friday 4 October 2013

Kinnaird Castle

It is salutary to keep abreast of other baronial piles in the area, :-) so I was delighted to visit Kinnaird Castle on Sunday 15th September with three friends under the Angus Open Doors Scheme. 

the Open Doors tickets

Kinnaird (many times the size of Balintore) is in private ownership, so the opportunity was not to be missed and I was decidedly in my element. :-) Although, I would say that many of the fancy detailings depart from the Baronial style so much, that it becomes more "generic country house froth" and while greatly enjoyable, they are not artistically pure.

I especially loved the 1400's part of the building. It felt warm and dry in the castle even in the ground floor mediaeval vaulting - and the housekeeper said that contrary to expectations "It's by no means a cold building". Also warm was the Servant's Hall so it was interesting to compare this with Balintore's freezing equivalent.

I was checking out all the wood strip floors in the interior, as I am currently trying to source reclaimed wooden flooring. The wooden floors look great at Kinnaird, despite not all being in the best of condition - so I was reassured on the reclaim option - my reclaim stuff is in slightly better condition. :-)

We were graciously shown round by the Earl of Southesk. He is set to inherit the Duke of Fife title on his father's death. My thanks go to him, and indeed everyone who made the visit possible.

There was a huge fire in 1921: fortunately most of the contents were saved with the locals carrying things out the building, but the interior was destroyed, Given the date, things were put back somewhat simpler that before, and the woodwork was not at that Victorian apex of craftsmanship.

Fascinatingly, not all the rooms have been restored since the fire. The library is still a shell but an absolutely magnificent space - the biggest room in the castle that we saw. It was roofed after the fire and is now used as a badminton court, Another unrestored reception room is now used for cricket, complete with the run, bails and netting round the room!

The Earl seemed to be most taken with the Georgian incarnation of the castle, and at one stage said "Sadly, it had a Victorian make-over". I smiled inwardly, as the Victorian make-over is what, for me, makes the building so fantastic. There is still prejudice against the Victorian.

It was encouraging for the long haul restoration, that I am engaged with at Balintore, to see a huge Baronial building in use as a comfortable home. There was a particularly lovely drawing room, with sunlight streaming in through the window. Amongst the antique furniture and paintings, were a collection of board games - it was clear the owners love spending time there.

The only downside of the visit was seeing the Kinnaird Castle gong. I thought my recently acquired antique gong was as large as you could get. Gong envy is such an ugly emotion.

I thought the entrance façade was massive, with an astoundingly monumental porte-cochère

entrance façade and porte-cochère

That was until I saw the even larger garden façade.  The derelict library is behind the tall windows on the right hand side.

garden façade 

My envy on a-spying the gryphon waterspouts was unbridled.

gryphon waterspouts

Can you decipher the name of the cryptically encoded name(s) of the architect(s)? This is your "Dan Brown" challenge. I failed! The date is very close to Balintore's 1860, so no doubt the rival architects were aware of each other.

can you work out the architects ?

 The stable block at the back is totally charming:

stable block

The stable block was built just before the main Victorian "make-over", is smaller scale and has a sense of whimsy,

stable hopper head  - dated 1854

Loved this curved door by the stable. No wiser words on children were ever uttered, than by this sign.

curved door with child flap

What an amazing finial on this tower by the stables - note the central thistle! 

finial fantasy
Thanks go to my friend Andrew for taking the photos. I didn't even have a camera phone with me, so shamefully gave Andrew orders!