The shooting party

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

Sunday August 10, 2003
The Observer

'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 shoot.

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)