Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Supper #32 - Temple Coombe, Somerset

Steve the gamekeeper has agreed to let me come for supper. It's a really busy time for them all because the pheasants chicks are being put through the 'hardening up' process. He drives us over to a spot in the middle of nowhere to see what it's all about. A mound of old sawdust burns, smoking up the early evening sky. Chicks chirrup in darkened hutches. They're all kept in different zones according to age - from really warm to 'sunroom' to ambient - and kept vigil over for weeks to ensure the heaters don't go off or the foxes don't advance...or 'out of towners' don't come and release the birds.

"Oi don't moind 'em, 'slong as those fuckers don't come a meddlin'", he tells me.

It must be pretty annoying when you're going about your business; carrying on a tradition started generations before - something which plays an important part in the balance of the countryside, not merely as a sport for the hell of it - when some upstart comes burrowing in without any knowledge of what it's all about and kicks up a stink.

We watch as Steve and his son, Daniel, gather up lame chicks and dispose of them, stoke fires, staple up flaps and wheelbarrow feed about. All very industrious. It seems a shame to tear them away from all the fun but Cheryl is back at the ranch cooking up a feast.

THE SET UP: Steve and Cheryl have three kids - a son who's a trapper near Yeovil, a daughter who works down at the stables and Daniel who left school at 16 to pursue gamekeeping full-time. He claims to be able to pluck a pheasant in 30 seconds flat and has a couple of pheasants stuffed and displayed in his bedroom - shot when he was eight years old. In fact, never mind about the stuffed birds, Steve has half a forest worth of animals stuffed and mounted on his walls. I've never seen anything like it - not where you're there with the gunman, telling you the story behind each shot. Munt Jack, Roe deer, Chinese Water deer line the hallway - and then it starts getting serious when you clap eyes on the Warthog. Back in his bedroom stands his pride and joy - a Kudu shot when Steve went on safari in the Northern Transvaal.

They have such beautiful, strong eyes. I'm crazy about deer; it's the only meat I avoid eating and it's almost eerie seeing so many in such a small space. Back in the kitchen Cheryl is plating up enormous helpings of venison. I balk inwardly and gladly accept a glass of red wine from Steve who's chucking it back enthusiastically. Ferdie's on the scrumpy and Cheryl chides him in her merry way. Daniel slopes in bulkily and then moves next door to devour his plate in front of the telly.

WHO CAME: Steve, Cheryl, Ferdie and me, plus Daniel in the other room.

WHAT WE ATE: Large slabs of slightly overcooked venison, boiled cabbage, boiled carrots, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puds. I get stuck in and am soon struggling with an un-swallowable bit of gristle - AArgh, no napkins to spit discreetly. I chew it, cow-like for as long as I can but it has to go. I grab my opportunity while Cheryl is telling us about her eight brothers and sisters...

DINNER TABLE TOPICS: When Cheryl's mum died only three of her siblings attended the funeral. Imagine that. I ask my favourite question about how the two of them met - it was at the local dance, back when Steve was a bit of a wild'un and keen on bare knuckle fighting and hard drinking. I suggested a few scenarios: "So Steve, did you see Cheryl and sidle up to her, telling her you had some new moves you wanted to practice?". "Dunno, can't fuckin' remember". Cheryl fills us in on what happens, with times and dates and jokes how it's a good job someone has retained this information.

Steve's got real heart - I like him. Ferdie, someone who's as straight talking as they come, really likes him. They take us into the garden and show us the tortoise, the dogs (in a kennel), the peacock eggs and the hooks for the newly shot game.

THE PUD: I've made baked chocolate fudge. It's already been revealed to us that Steve eats five KitKats a day and that Cheryl bakes cakes all week, so I'm sure it'll be met with approval. I slice the old rascal up. It's just warm, with a crisp outer layer and an almost gelatinous dark centre. I think they like it - they have seconds anyway and Daniel even stays to eat it with us. Ferdie suggests it might have benefited from some cream. I tell him he needs to stop over-egging the gut.

As we leave, Cheryl gives me a great enveloping mum hug and Steve grasps my butt firmly. Daniel is sweet and placid. I'm so touched that they were happy to have us over when they were clearly so busy - and the whole thing is done and dusted by 8.30pm (still light!). We drive on to Uncle Jules' house a few miles away and catch up with them before we all turn in, me with Graham Greene's 'Our Man In Havana'.

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