Adventures in Grouse and other English Endeavors
View from the Lodge's Dining Room over the Yorkshire Dales.
Over the past five months I have found myself busy travelling to North Yorkshire, a two and a half hour train ride, North along the East coast of England, to an imposing shooting estate, to cook for the master of the house and his guests. It has been a magnificent adventure full of royal butlers, Swaledale sheep, one very good masseuse, a Swiss chef and now fabulous friend, a Jack Russell puppy, a princess, and a lot of grouse.
I got the call from a friend of mine from culinary school who has worked on (we’ll call him Sir) Sir’s yacht, and knowing he needed a last minute chef to work at his pile up north for the autumn shooting season, contacted me. Shooting season at an estate. It’s one of those things I know still exist here in England, but I certainly don’t come across it with any regularity and am much more inclined to feel like I just live in another anonymous city, not England, per se. Anyway, I was unable to work the entire six month season up there, but they asked if I would go when Sir had special guests. Having no clue what I was in for, I agreed, and thus my adventures in the English countryside began.
In preparation for my first trip I Googled Sir and his estate, coming up with quite a lot on Sir and his famous family and very little on the 36,000 acres he owned. Essentially he’s the landlord of this Wuthering Heights landscape, complete with purple heather on the hills and endless stone walls criss-crossing the dales. From the moment I laid eyes on it, all I could do was imagine Cathy and Heathcliff running hand in hand in the brisk windswept countryside. Sir spends the shooting season, August 12 until the end of January, at his Lodge and then the rest of the year in his other homes around the world (or yacht).
On my first journey to the Lodge, Sir’s driver alerted me to when I was going to loose all cell phone coverage. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would loose it. The roads, already small for the Land Rover I was hurdling down them in, kept twisting, and in turn shrinking until I thought we’d surely sideswipe the stone walls and thorny hedgerows lining what can now only be referred to as lanes. In the distance, groups of hikers dotted the hills and all of the B&B’s had no vacancy signs hung on their shingles. Apparently this desolation and 60 degree damp was an appealing late summer getaway for many. The stone houses seemed to be the palms from which fingers of stone walls emerged. We passed a pub, drove over a livestock grate, slowed for a herd of cattle crossing the path we were now driving on, and arrived at the Lodge just as the sun was setting.
A Gurkha (yes, more on that later) took my bag for me, and the harried looking housekeeper, her forearms bulging like Popeye’s from years of ironing and laundry, showed me to the kitchen, where much to my relief a smiling curly-haired woman greeted me. As kitchens go, this was magnificent. A six burner professional stove, a six foot square marble island worktop, a walk-in fridge, and a roof lined with skylights that framed the flower beds. Chef was in the midst of preparing dinner for Sir and his wife – just waiting for him to return from a day of pigeon shooting as a warm-up for the next day’s main event…..GROUSE.
Then, in walked one bespeckled blond, uniformed gentleman. He stuttered a bit like his tongue was too big for his mouth. Butler 1. Then he was joined by his exact replica. There were two of them! Twin butlers, who were very quick to tell me they had worked for the Queen and the Queen Mother, owned their own restaurant, and couldn’t believe they weren’t treated with more respect by Sir and his wife, and did the kitchen really need two chefs? I mean there had never been two chefs in the past, and they travelled with Sir and his wife to all of their homes and gave them their undying service, had done for years, and really we should do all we should to make our lives as simple as possible, I mean, just serve a Sunday roast kind of meal and Sir couldn’t be happier, don’t make too much work for them by making everything fancy.
Not one question directed towards me or even a real warm welcome. Never mind, I couldn’t tell them apart! Then a call came and the sound of a helicopter hovered outside and Butler 1 and Butler 2 scrambled from the kitchen to do whatever it is they do, somehow undoing their aprons and donning their black jackets in one motion.
Chef quietly shook her head and lit the flame under her soup. She offered me a taste – a spicy Thai prawn soup, if I remember right. Sir loves Asian food. And then in burst the man himself, his cheeks bright pink from a day in the elements and his still thick white hair mussed. He stood in the door, smiling and looked more like a little kid than a man of his status. I was greeted warmly, he asked Chef what he was eating for dinner, and then turned to re-enter the plush side of his home, away from where everything that made his life comfortable happened.
To be continued……..Tomorrow, the cooking and the grouse are tackled.