Brits have always done the best shooting lunches, says Clarissa Dickson Wright.
Brits have always done the best shooting lunches, says Clarissa Dickson Wright.
I have a love-hate relationship with shooting lunches. Not the cooking – oh no, that is never a chore. The problem is invariably what it does to my shooting. I tootle off into the morning, full of breakfast and good resolve. During the course of the morning my eye improves and even my loader starts to smile at me – and then it is time for lunch.
Of course, I am glad to go in, chilled, ready to inspect the plumbing and with a good appetite from the morning’s exertions. But I know, as the warmth wraps round me like a Mogadon and delicious smells assail my nostrils, that I might as well give up now, hand my gun to someone else and doze away the afternoon.
Shooting lunches are a singularly British institution. Take yourself off to the grandest European estate where your host has more quarterings (and probably more blots) on his escutcheon than the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta. If you’re in luck, you will stop briefly to assuage your hunger with a slice of black bread and bratwurst or a tepid cup of bouillion, and, if you are very lucky, a bean stew with – you guessed it – sausage. There is no doubt that, when it comes to sporting hospitality, the English do it best. Hunting, of course, is different, your intrepid fox or stag hunter goes all day on a hipflask and a squashed ham sandwich.
When did this lavish shooting entertainment begin? I think we must blame the Edwardians. During that golden age of shooting the great shots vied with each other like Wild West gunfighters to put the most hypothetical notches on their Purdeys, Hollands and Bosses.
The Edwardian house party as a social event must have made the best excesses of Sodom and Gomorrah seem tame by comparison – the excitement of corridor creeping; the heady possibility of the heir to the throne cheating at cards; the palpable tension between the sportsmen as the bags were tallied; the fourteen-course dinners; and all that corsetry to add extra titillation to the gentlemen’s amorous advances.
Come the day, the ladies, exhausted by the demands of the night, would lounge around until it was time to join the guns for lunch. Clearly they were not going to be content with a stale sandwich – and neither was the greatest gourmet and keenest sportsman of them all, the Prince of Wales. After all, a man who declared that he would never dine twice at a house that served him ptarmigan was not going to be fobbed off with a cabbage leaf.
Suddenly, in recipe books of the day we find a proliferation of lavish raised game pies and such portable goodies. A shooter’s sandwich became a gourmet dish in which a whole fillet of beef was inserted into a hollowed out loaf, surrounded with mushrooms and lightly pressed until ready for slicing. The great sportsman and founder of the Waterloo Cup, the Earl of Sefton, has at least five recipes named after him, all but one undoubtedly aimed at feeding his guns and his friend the Prince.
I am told that the most beautiful elevenses spot in the kingdom is at Buscott Park in Gloucestershire, where the guns stop by a stunning waterfall to admire the Capability Brown landscaping around them. But running it a close second is James Percy’s shoot in Northumberland, with its stark northern landscape, created by God rather than man, hosted by undoubtedly the most beautiful man in shooting. (Those who saw him modelling chest waders at the Game Conservancy Ball will know what I mean!) Another of the most delicious elevenses must be at Conholt, where the consommé and frankfurters are brought out by a horse and cart.
Venues provide another delight. For some reason Tatler’s article on ‘10 Houses to Marry Now’ failed to dwell on Rupert Kenyon-Slaney’s elegant cricket pavilion. A perfect venue for shooting lunches, Holkham Hall and its neighbouring estate of Houghton take the breath away, despite the flat lands in which they stand, both for the architecture and the high wild pheasants which rocket off.
Just when they seem to be slowing and one hopes for a shot, the second exocet kicks in and they soar over the trees. Powderham Castle, home of the last Plantagenet, the Earl of Devon, with its views over the Exe estuary, is another beautiful venue, and the food is pretty good too.
Although European lunches usually disappoint, those countries to which Victoria’s children carried their domestic influence have fared better. My friend Olga Romanov once showed me a picnic hamper designed for the tsars’ shooting lunches. With all the cutlery and plate in solid gold, it would have taken at least 10 stalwart footmen to carry it. (Nowadays, though, I gather that the main element of a Russian shooting lunch is borscht with added vodka.)
Spain also holds its head up in this regard. No doubt Alfonso XIII, who returned to Spain delighted with his English adventures and introduced driven partridge shooting to his country, took some of our luncheon practices back with him. I am informed that the paella lunch given at L’Andeluce causes even more ecstasy among the shots than the beautiful partridges. Paco and Ignatio, who own the 150,000-acre estate, smile politely when their guests rave about the dish, but keep the recipe to themselves.
Cooking for shoots is a lot of fun, as everyone comes in with a fantastic appetite. There is a practice now to break off and come into the house for your meal, which I feel is too hedonistic, but which certainly makes a cook’s life easier. My worst experience was in the 1980s, when cooking at a shoot in Sussex. The guns were due in at around 1pm and at noon all the electricity in the area failed – and mine was an electric kitchen.
After much pulling of hair I remembered that the under-keeper lived in a caravan in the woods, which used gas. I loaded my pots of stew on to a trailer behind a Land Rover and made it to the caravan, only to find it locked. Thinner in those days, I managed to climb through the window, which I had unscrewed, and heated my stew and mash amid his interesting collection of partially cured taxidermy. We made lunch, but the young man never forgave me for the intrusion.
A number of chefs are keen shots: Michel Roux and Marco Pierre White spring instantly to mind. It was while I was shooting with Michel at Conholt that Max Hastings declared he would really rather eat his grouse raw and our recipe for carpaccio of grouse was born.
The restrictions of some shooting estates are a challenge to many cooks. In the Highland sporting estates everything has to be driven in, as there is seldom a shop for many miles around. If you forget your anchovies or your cream turns sour over the rutted track, you just have to improvise. I have actually made butter in a glass jar on one occasion, when the hungry guns had had a midnight snack and there was none left for breakfast.
The notable Isabel Rutherford, who cooks annually for A.A. Gill (a demanding task at the best of times) when he rents Paul van Vlissingham’s Letterewe, a remote Highland estate, discovered the joys of venison suet when the party suddenly demanded a clootie dumpling. He swears it is better than even best-beef variety.
However, the chosen domestic goddess of all the guns I spoke to is Angela, who cooks the lunches at the Challacombe Estate, famous for its partridges. Her roasts raise endless glasses in praise and her sticky toffee pudding ameliorates the rather uncomfortable metal chairs completely.
The explorers and big-game shots of the Empire set forth intrepidly into veldt and wilderness, but always with a memory of home. Mungo Park had his collapsible egg-cup and many safaris were provisioned entirely by Fortnum & Mason. You might think these days are over, but my hero of the hour is Keith Halsey (aka Tosh), the owner of Boss, who tells me that in the middle of the African day, when the sun is too hot to continue tracking, he gets the bearers to build a fire and bake some bread, which he then toasts and spreads with cheese from the whole Stilton he has brought with him (growing riper by the second, I suspect). While such devoted gourmets live and flourish in the sporting community, the shooting lunch will never fade.
Well, I have failed to answer the question of why we have the best lunches in the finest venues and am forced to fall back in this instance on the words of the old Swann and Flanders song that begins: ‘The British, the British, the British are best, I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.’ As brother Blair is undoubtedly turning his eyes on shooting next, I advise you all to eat roe-deer testicles in green peppercorn sauce – a dish I created and called Bollocks to Blair. Good shooting to you all.