Jamie Oliver is a
novice, Marco Pierre White is a crack shot, and Raymond Blanc has been
doing it since childhood - when top chefs want to relax they don't play
golf, they play with guns. Andrew Purvis joins the boys at the butts
'Have you ever been shooting before?' I ask Raymond Blanc, as we sit
down to dinner at the Blue Lion - the acclaimed North Yorkshire pub and
hotel where game is a certainty on the winter menu and shooting parties
are a way of life. Whatever the answer, I will feel unsettled. If the
man from Le Manoir says yes, my humiliation on the grouse moor will be
guaranteed next day; if he says no, I risk being blown to a mousseline
mush by the flamboyant Gallic chef, as excitement gets the better of him
and he levels the twin barrels of his Purdey at my head, a few jinks to
the left of the hastily fleeing bird. 'My first contact with firearms
was as a nurse in the French army,' Raymond reveals, leading me towards
the second conclusion. 'We had to be familiar with weapons, so they gave
me an automatic capable of firing 70 rounds. I was 30m from the target
and I managed to miss every time.'
Making a mental note of this, I turn to my other shooting companion -
the famously good-looking Curtis Stone, 27-year-old ex-protégé of Marco
Pierre White who has just joined the Conran empire. 'What kind of
shooting have you done?' I ask, and the answer is unexpected. 'I've shot
feral pigs,' the former Australian-rules footballer explains, 'small,
wild hogs that are a menace back home in Victoria because they destroy
crops. My stepfather was paid to shoot them, so I'd tag along. From the
age of six, I shot ducks and rabbits with my uncle. In fact, it was
going rabbiting that first got me interested in food.' Though the rabbit
story slightly worries me (he is probably an instinctive good shot with
impeccable hand-to-eye co-ordination), blasting at ground vermin is
hardly the same thing as killing a pheasant cleanly in the air. And
regarding Curtis's feral experiences - well, pigs don't fly.
For my own part, my gun credentials seems roughly the same as
Raymond's. In the school cadet force 25 years ago, I fired a wartime Lee
Enfield .303 at a cardboard soldier and hit him three times out of 10.
Then sneakily, a few days before the North Yorkshire shoot, I took a
couple of clay-pigeon lessons at the West London Shooting School. With
help from Alan Rose (who has taught idiots to shoot for 37 years), I
shattered maybe six clays out of 40. 'You'll definitely get a pheasant,'
Alan told me, 'because they are bigger than clays. If you're shooting
grouse it's a bit harder.'
As I gingerly dissect my roast partridge, cooked to perfection by the
Blue Lion's chef, I am reminded that notching up clean kills isn't the
sole purpose of our weekend. With the two star chefs and restaurateur
Paul Klein - an accomplished shot and proprietor of the Blue Lion - we
are embarking on a two-day celebration of game. After the shoot (if we
kill anything at all), Curtis will teach me how to pluck a pheasant
while Raymond will share with me his enthusiasm for grouse. 'It is one
of the best game birds,' he says, 'because of what it eats - wild
berries, pine nuts, heather - things that give it a fantastic flavour.
And pheasant is very cheap.'
At the shooting school I was told much the same thing
- that pheasant is no longer an elitist delicacy, but bought as an
alternative to factory-farmed poultry. 'Shooting,' said marketing
manager Jonathan Irby 'is being dubbed the new golf'.
In the bar of the Blue Lion at 8.30am next day, the
analogy seems accurate. As I creak into the room with Paul Klein,
wearing his tweed shooting jacket, long socks with garters and a pair of
green wellies (my first), I am met by 'the syndicate' - eight men
dressed in V-necks and plus-fours (or 'breeks'), who look more equipped
for the putting green than the killing fields of Wensleydale.
Confounding my prejudices, they are not the chinless blue-bloods I
expected. The syndicate leader, Richard Duffus,
works in the telecommunications industry. In fact, there is only one
double-barrelled name - Christopher Godfrey-Faussett, a stockbroker - to
complement the double-barrelled shotguns secreted in the car boots
outside. Not all shooting parties are as discreet as this, however;
later, I see dozens of hotel guests wandering through the Blue Lion with
guns slung over their shoulders and cartridge belts around their waists,
bringing a hint of the OK Corral to the Yorkshire Dales.
As we sip buck's fizz, Richard
Duffus tells us what we can and cannot shoot. Pheasant, grouse,
partridge, pigeon, duck, snipe and woodcock are on the menu; rabbits,
hares, deer and celebrity chefs aren't. No mention is made of
journalists. With the sun scarcely above the horizon, I am offered a
small, silver cup. 'It's rum,' says Richard. 'You'll find your peg
number engraved on the bottom.' Downing the breakfast aperitif, I see
the number three and ask Paul Klein what it means. 'It's your position
in the line on the first drive,' he says. 'On the next drive it will be
five, then seven ...' I note that Raymond Blanc's position is two.
A short car journey away, we tramp across a muddy
field. As Raymond and his minder take up their position at peg two, I
walk with Paul to peg three; the eight guns will be lined up diagonally
across the field. To our left, there is a wood; to our right - Raymond
Blanc. As we load the guns with two cartridges and take up our 'ready'
positions, the beaters - an assortment of dog lovers, housewives and
children - are somewhere over the hill, flushing out pheasants with
hand-clapping and waving flags.
A rook soars over a tree and everyone twitches. 'You'd
better get ready,' says Paul - so I snap shut my gun, point the barrels
and rest the butt on my ribcage. Thumb on safety catch, I wait for the
pheasants without really knowing what they look like. 'There!' says Paul
- and the bird is dead before I have seen it. Behind me, Paul's black
labrador Archie waits; he wants the next bird to be mine so he can dart
out and retrieve it with a 'soft mouth' - a technique taught using eggs,
so the dog learns not to crush an injured bird. Back at the peg, its
neck will be wrung to kill it.
Distracted by the idea, I am a split second late when
the three hens appear. I have been told to shoot only into 'clear blue
sky' to avoid the other guns lined up across the hillside - but the
Yorkshire sky is grey and interrupted by tall ash trees. Should I fire?
By the time I have slipped the safety catch, and squinted down the
barrel, the bird is almost behind me - but I imagine it has a vapour
trail like a jet fighter (just as I have been taught), lock on to that
and sweep the gun along this hypothetical line until it slightly
overtakes the bird. Bang! To my amazement, the carcass crashes to earth
in a puff of feathers and Archie runs to retrieve it. Even with ear
plugs in, I can hear Raymond Blanc applauding. When the other guns fall
silent, he walks over and shakes my hand. 'A beautiful bird,' he says,
squatting down to inspect the hen, which is now as lifeless as a feather
duster. 'Did you get anything?' I ask Raymond, and he shakes his head;
no birds crossed his end of the line, though an entire flock apparently
flew over mine. 'Well done,' he says, walking away with a back-to-front
baseball cap on his head. 'One out of 20 isn't bad.' Though jocular,
there is an edge of rivalry - and I suddenly feel competitive. One
pheasant is better than none, Raymond. At the other end of the line,
Curtis Stone has failed (for once) to pull a bird, though a regular
syndicate member has shot three. 'I think that one's mine as well,' he
tells Paul, pointing to my lifeless hen (he is too polite to confront me
directly). With horror, I realise that the bird is peppered with shot
from both guns; though I may have hit it, the experienced gunman
probably killed it. 'I think we'll call it a shared bird,' says Paul
tactfully. It was the only pheasant I shot that day.
As we struggle to the top of the high moor to try our
hand at grouse, there is a near disaster. Hugh Le Mesurier, the
astonishing 82-year-old who carries the dead birds in a wire frame
across his shoulders, has disappeared - with the champagne glasses!
While we scale the hill, he has plunged into the woods with his dog to
seek out birds that were 'shot in the arse' but failed to die
immediately. Unfortunately, he has the essential items with him, so one
of the guns is sent to find him. Minutes later, we are looking out over
the River Cover and drinking Kir Royale from plastic flutes, preparing
ourselves for the hike to the grouse moor. Up there, it is a different
world, a moonscape of windblown grasses, and hillocks swathed in a
pea-souper fog. Dotted across the moor are the grouse butts, wooden
structures behind which the guns hide - making their profiles invisible
to the grouse as they skitter and jink across the landscape, inches
above the ground.
'You're peg five,' Paul reminds me - so Raymond must
be four; Curtis is just visible, way out to my left, while the beaters
are advancing towards us through the mist.
'Here they come,' says Paul. Now, the birds are upon
us - half a dozen grouse flitting madly from left to right; as they
pass, I swing right and pull the front trigger, emptying one barrel -
then the back trigger, discharging a second blast. Just yards away,
between Raymond and myself, a grouse is hovering dementedly, unable to
fly and slowly losing height until it crashes brick-like to the ground.
Without a doubt it is Raymond's and he nearly shot a journalist in the
butt as well. As the beaters appear, waving white flags, a whistle is
blown to mark the end of the drive. It seems only fair to congratulate
Raymond. As he hands his grouse to Hugh Le Mesurier, a strange ritual
occurs. Hugh lifts the grouse to his face and places its head in his
mouth, looking as if he might swallow it. 'Don't worry,' he says. 'I was
just showing Raymond a little trick.' The gamekeepers used to do that,
he explains, to see if the bird was young. If it was young the skull
would collapse. In an older bird, it wouldn't.
On that note, we adjourn to the Blue Lion for lunch -
a spread of roast lamb, mash and green beans. I sit next to Raymond and
Curtis, finding out more about their relationships with the act of
killing. Growing up on a farm in the Jura region of France, Raymond was
sent as a small boy to find 'the biggest, fattest rooster' in the yard.
'I would catch it, cut its throat, take out the entrails, the liver,
heart and lungs,' he says, 'and give it to my mum. Food was an act of
love for me.' Rabbits, too, were bred for the table rather than as pets.
'The only time I saw my mum cry,' he recalls, 'was when we killed the
rabbits. She loved the flesh of the rabbit, too, so she would cry with a
smile on her face!' The young Raymond took small birds from their nests
and roasted them; even young crows were deemed suitable for the pot. 'I
bought an air rifle,' he says, 'and shot anything that moved, like a
good Frenchman. There was no hypocrisy. We depended on the forest to
provide, so killing was normal. In France, in every village there are
150 to 200 guns.'
Slowly, I realise that Raymond's military target
practice was only one half of the story; like most top chefs, he is
totally at home with shooting, killing, skinning and gutting, fascinated
by the drama of life and death and the bounty of the changing seasons.
It's a connection many chefs have lost in this era of vacuum-sealed
animal parts, but with such advances, is it still necessary to be a
hunter-gatherer? 'Learning about food from the source is important,'
says Curtis. 'In Australia, we have a lot of seafood which we class as
game - such as barramundi and barracuda - and knowing what it feeds on
helps you understand the flavour. When you see a pheasant running, you
realise how much work it does. The legs will therefore be tough - so I
rarely roast a pheasant whole, because you end up with over-cooked legs
when the breast is only just getting there.'
If you don't understand the bird, he argues, how can
you cook it? But does that mean that you have to shoot it? 'The way I
see it,' he says, 'is that every deer shot for venison means one less
cow crammed in a lorry and transported in barbaric conditions. I don't
have a problem with it.'
On the second pheasant drive, he demonstrates how true
that is. In one smooth movement, he raises and tracks his gun, and a
large, russet cock drops like a stone and scuttles across the grass -
the phenomenon known as a 'runner' - before a dog is sent to retrieve
it. I discharge a few shots into the air, several feet wide. The score
so far is Raymond 1, Curtis 1, with me following in the rear with only a
miserable demi-bird. As dusk draws in and we begin the final drive of
the day, all this is about to change. Standing with Paul, I see the
beaters edging their way along the slope, flushing out pheasants with
their dogs. I am terrified I will shoot a spaniel. Behind me, 20 yards
to my right, is Raymond - with his baseball cap tilted back on his head,
looking rather less the part than me in my borrowed Barbour deerstalker.
As a pheasant appears through a gap in the trees, I blow off a branch
but miss the bird, while a twin report followed by a dull thud suggests
Raymond may have hit it.
As the beaters come within range and the sky darkens,
a whistle indicates that the day is over - and when we assemble back at
the road, I am astonished. Raymond has shot a pheasant and a woodcock,
tripling his one-grouse tally from the morning. Curtis and I are way
behind with 1 and 0.5 respectively, while the five experts have shot a
further 18.5 birds between them - a total of 23, divided up so everyone
receives a brace of pheasant (regardless of skill) in return for tipping
the gamekeeper £20. Johnny Dudgeon apparently shot three birds with
three consecutive shots. When I ask about similar feats, there is
muttering about 'double-gunning' (where a loader hands you a second gun
as soon as the first is empty) before Richard Duffus answers: 'We've
heard of one guy who had four birds dead in the air at one time.'
Impressive though it is, a syndicate shoot like this
is hardly a high point in conservation - and the gamekeeper, who wishes
to remain anonymous, tells me how the numbers work. On an estate like
this, 1,000 pheasant will be bought each season as seven-week-old
poults, then reared in pens dotted around the woods for two weeks. They
are fed high-protein poultry pellets - then weaned on to wheat before
being released into the wild. Of the 1,000 birds, about 500 will be
slaughtered by the guns - and a good pheasant costs £30 to £40 to rear.
'Grouse are a different kettle of fish,' the gamekeeper tells me, 'at
£55 a bird.' Thus, a typical 100-bird shoot costs £3,000 to £6,000 to
run. However, Jonathan Irby at the West London Shooting School told me
that some wealthy guns demand several thousand birds to shoot. 'I heard
of one man who went £40,500 over his quota.' The syndicate run by
Richard Duffus is comparatively modest. Membership costs less than
£1,000 a year for each of the eight regulars, equating to roughly £100 a
At dinner that night, Raymond steps up to receive a
trophy - presented to anyone who kills three types of bird in a day. I
ask him how it feels to have bagged his first grouse, a difficult bird
to shoot. 'Looking back at my experience as a marksman, I have nothing
to shout about,' he says. 'I was surprised to get that bird. It was an
act that connected me to my childhood. It was a big step for me to shoot
something that was alive just a moment before, though I feel not a pang
of guilt. It was a clean shot as well - and you cannot even claim that!'
The next day, we turn our attention to the preparation
of the game. In a shed at the back of the Blue Lion, Curtis Stone is
deftly plucking a pheasant. 'It isn't ideal,' he says, 'because they
should be hung for two weeks so the feathers aren't in so deep. If you
pluck it too early, the skin tears.'
Curtis holds the bird. 'Feel the neck here,' he
instructs, 'and you can tell what it has fed on.' As I rummage in the
opening, I can feel grains of wheat, eaten seconds before the hen was
shot. 'In the kitchen,' Curtis explains, 'the bird's diet gives you some
indication of quality.' This is a man who knows his snipe from his
woodcock. 'It's something I've learnt here,' he says, 'because in
Australia there's no tradition of cooking these birds, but in Britain,
all chefs tend to cook it to the same traditional formula. In my view,
there are lots of ways of bringing out the flavour. Kangaroo is much the
same; it used to be seen as a shit meat because it was cooked badly. So
much more can be done with it.'
The Blue Lion, East Witton, North Yorkshire (0196962
4273). West London Shooting School, Northolt, Middlesex (020 8845 1377)