EATING FOR BRITAIN: A HUNTER'S BREAKFAST AT THE POT KILN
Last year, HP visited The Pot Kiln near Newbury. It’s fair to say he gave it a glowing report as the chef/owner Mike Robinson’s mix of skilled technique and ingredients gathered during his own hunting and foraging trips pushed just about every button DH possess.
It was little surprise either, after HP visited The Harwood Arms in Fulham recently and declared it one of his meals of the year, to find that the same Mike Robinson was also involved along with Brett Graham of the excellent Ledbury restaurant.
Mike had been kind enough to get in touch when he heard about my EATING FOR BRITAIN trip and invite me down to rural Berkshire to join him for a day’s stalking on an estate on which he has shooting rights. I leapt at the chance and, after the vegetable based debacle of The British Pie Awards, I felt it was no more than I deserved to indulge in a meal primarily composed of something that was decomposing.
I met Mike in the early afternoon just as he had finished lunchtime service and he bundled me along with his beautifully trained hunting dog, Sheba into a large pick up to head out for an early evening in the woods seeing if we could spot any Roe, Fallow or Muntjac deer.
En route, we made a stop at his newly opened and very impressive game cookery school and Vicar’s Game Dealer’s, where Mike brings everything he shoots to be processed before he collects it to be used either at The Pot Kiln or The Harwood. Inside the main building, rows of headless deer were hanging for a week until they were skinned and then butchered to his instructions and he pointed out two particularly large specimens that he had shot earlier in the week.
As the light faded, it was unlikely that we were going to get close enough to anything to take a shot, but Mike still wanted to take me to some of his favourite spots, so that I could possibly get up close and personal to a deer and understand what he finds so fascinating about them.
Mike is a country boy, born and bred and shooting has been part of his life since he was old enough to carry a gun. As a self confessed townie, hunting can be hard to understand, but Mike makes two things very clear; what he shoots, he shoots for the pot not for trophies and that hunting is an essential part of good animal husbandry. The deer he kills might make great eating, but they are not great specimens and, by removing them, the rest of the herd prosper.
This is no wholesale slaughter either, it can take hours before you spot a deer and just as long to get in the position to loose off a shot. Once you do, Mike again wanted to make clear, it is important that the kill is clean and the animal does not suffer.
No animals suffered that night at all, apart from being shocked to see a bald, fat man suddenly come bumbling out of the woods towards them, so we retired back to the pot Kiln for an early supper of a Fallow deer T-bone steak topped with Pheasant’s eggs. Both were a revelation. The steak needed work, to remove the sinew and to scrape from the bone, but the nuggets of flesh I gleaned were incredibly sweet and worth the extra amount of chewing. The pheasant’s eggs were a totally new one to me. Halfway between a quail egg and a hen’s egg, with a soft white and creamy yolk. Stunning and confirming why The Pot Kiln remains one of my favourite restaurants in the U.K
After supper, I had an early night. Mike had arranged for us to head out on a serious stalk at 5am the next morning and like a good chap, I was showered and ready for him outside my B&B bang on time. If I was ready the weather was not and the parts of the estate Mike had selected as likely hunting grounds were covered in a thick blanket of fog.
I was convinced that, that was our lot and I would go back to London without seeing Mike and Sheba in action. But, Mike, an old hand, was sure it was clear and after decamping to a nearby service station for breakfast, we returned to the same spot an hour or so later just as the Sun was beginning to burn off the fog.
Sheba went to work immediately, nose in the air, running from side to side trying to pick up the scent. Mike, eyes peeled looking for changes and shadows on the landscape that would indicate the presence of deer and me, following on behind trying not to get in the way or let my ears startle the wildlife
And, then we spotted one. It was a fair distance away, at least 250 metres according to Mike as he pulled out his powerful rifle and took up a position prone on the ground, handing me his binoculars and indicating that I should do the same.
The animal was grazing at a small clearing near a clump of trees blissfully unaware of our presence. Mike steadied himself and squeezed off one round and a split second later, the animal was dead before it was aware it had been hit. Sheba was itching to get on the blood trail, but Mike held her back and we walked quickly towards the body, which lay beneath the nearest trees.
We dragged the animal out into the clearing, put on rubber gloves to avoid potentially dangerous tick bites and then Mike gave me a lesson in gralloching or gutting the animal so that the innards can be removed without tainting the meat, but leaving tasty vital organs like liver, kidney and heart.
It was a clean kill, with the bullet entering just below the shoulder so that the animal died immediately and without stress. Mike, working with an incredibly sharp knife had the carcass cleaned in seconds and a few minutes later he had dragged it back to his pick up and we were on our way back to The Pot Kiln.
In times past, the liver of any deer killed was considered to be the finest part and the king’s property. Mike was keen to turn into one of the main events in a hunter’s breakfast, the traditional end to a morning’s stalking. Returning to the restaurant, he worked quickly with Gerrard, his head chef to clean, slice and roast the liver, devil the kidneys in a fiery sauce and serve them with a “Barnsley chop” of roe deer and two more of those extraordinary pheasant’s eggs. All of which we washed down with a glass of cider as we sat outside in the mid morning sunshine.
After breakfast, Mike had work to do and I had to head back to London. It had been a memorable morning and one in which I had at least came a little closer to understanding some of the ways of the countryside. There is one thing I do understand completely, however and that is the fact I shall be heading back to eat at The Pot Kiln as soon as I can.