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.


  1. Jeezus. I once had to kill a Chaffinch with a brick because a cat had torn off a complete wing, and the event still has the power to make me shudder. I decided not to casserole it. But here in squeamish Oxfordshire, we have Tiggywinkles nearby, and they turn out to any deer casualties. Those which cannot eventually be re-released back into the wild (lost a leg etc) are kept in their protected grounds. I have taken many an injured or orphaned bird to them, and their veterinary skills are second to none in Europe. Les Stocker is a Saint, and not in least bit squeamish either.

    1. I'm not sure I could even kill a chaffinch so well done. I was discussing the why's and wherefore's with Duncan, and he reckoned he could shoot a deer but not finish it off with a rock, due to the possibility of messing it up. I suspect my position is about the same.

      Having lived for some time in Oxfordshire. I can confirm that the south is definitely "softer", and this has its attractions. Balintore is a much harsher landscape, not just in winter, and the life and death struggle of creatures in the wild is always present so mortality is much closer to the surface,

  2. hi david oh deer!! I think I would have fainted !! lol although I enjoy a bit of venison but you were so brave to stand holding the bucket lol hope you are well an how is your castle doing ? hope your well ! hugs Catherine and violet

    1. Good to hear from you both! I'm glad you think holding the bucket was brave, but it was actually my builder turning into "action man" which saved the day. :-) Things are definitely pushing on at the castle at the moment, and I've not let the colder weather get me down so far. Hope you are both well.

  3. we are fine david thanks and you must be freezing up there just now!! we would love to come see you when the weather gets warmer lol and we will bring muffins ! how is the castle doing are you getting there? keep cosy cosy david and if you need help then give us a shout we can wrap up warm and do some cleaning for you ,:) take care Catherine and violet xx

  4. Mmmmm, fresh venison (drooooool) - It's been too many years since I've enjoyed such a feast. Here in Texas they have strict laws about wildlife and butchers aren't allowed to sell native game, only butcher for licensed hunters, so you have to hunt or know a hunter. I like to slow smoke for BBQ, at least 6 hours.

  5. Goodness I catch spiders and things and take them out to 'somewhere nice' !! Deer suffer from 'Capture myopathy' which is a disease brought on by extreme stress, either during being trapped or handled by humans who try to help them. Once it takes hold it's mostly impossible to stop so the animal just dies from stress. If you are really quick on releasing a deer by forst covering his face then you have a chance to help it, otherwise it's not possible so chances are you could have done Nothing more than put it out of it's suffering.