On a particularly wet and windy day, I found myself in a threshing barn face-to-face with an unlucky rabbit. I say unlucky as he had already met his unfortunate end in the dewy grass of Glynde Estate in East Sussex and I was hovering over him with a sturdy meat cleaver. My friend, Hannah, stood nearby with an array of knives and secateurs at the ready.
Our task for the morning was to butcher our new furry friend, and then eat him for lunch. The fact I had a whiff of a hangover from a wedding the night before was neither here nor there; this was no time to be queasy.
As a meat eater, I’ve always told myself that if I’m happy to eat it, I should be happy to butcher it. Now here I was on a full-day course of butchery and foraging at Hunter Gather Cook at the foot of the South Downs National Park, ready to see if that had all been a load of guff. This loosely coined cookery school is nothing like the clinical institutions you’ll find in a city centre; instead the superb countryside location is at the heart of everything they do.
You will either be tucked up in the sun-dappled woods at the Treehouse (made from nearby birch trees and kitted out with tables milled from on-site oaks); or on the Seasonal Day Course, spending your time as we did at the Shepherds Barn, which dates from the 1800s and benefits from floor-to-ceiling views into the garden and fields beyond. Concrete floors, brick walls and farm signage, combined with an open kitchen, tapered candles and simple flower arrangements have an industrial look that for once doesn’t feel try-hard.
The founder and leader of our course, Nick Weston, is a huge part of the appeal. His affable and punchy energy meant the whole group hung on his every word, from anecdotes of previous guests (Kate Winslet doesn’t shut the door to go to the loo) to insider tips (like how to tell what a pigeon had for breakfast the day before). He describes himself as a 21st-century hunter-gatherer.
Courses change with the seasons, so in autumn you might be presented with a partridge or a duck, and in spring a fallow deer. We began with the aforementioned rabbit, which had been shot two days previously, before being immediately paunched. After a demonstration from Nick, it was time for the 15 pairs of us around the table to begin chopping the tail off our own animal. Most of the group was male, with a circle of middle-aged dads here as a gift from their partners.
Next we set to work delimbing and skinning; the latter offering up an orchestra of squelching, tearing noises. Some pairs found the easiest way to do this was for one to hold the fur and the other the bones, in a sort of butchery tug-of-war. “There are many ways to skin a cat,” Nick dead-panned.
I thought I would find the whole thing gruesome, but I found it fascinating. Suddenly the food I was going to eat that day had a story behind it and I knew exactly where it came from. Hannah initially found it trickier; but later when a pigeon arrived she was straight to the chopping board. I asked her what the difference was: “I had a pet rabbit; I hate pigeons.”
The day was not just about butchery though, we also learnt about different ingredients in the raised beds outside, foraged for hogweed in the surrounding fields, supped on botanical cocktails that we mixed ourselves from gin infused with freshly picked pineapple weed, and learnt the ancient art of starting a fire.
The cooking was left to Nick’s excellent team, and analogue only – meaning no ovens, only live fires. Demonstrations kept us in the loop, but when you see the technical skills used and taste what arrives on the plate you’ll be glad this part is left to the professionals. This was a tasting menu that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-end restaurant, with rich, earthy flavours. Best of the bunch was a final snack at the end of the day: smoky confit rabbit quesadillas with burnt salsa and coriander.
Food is forever at the centre of why I travel and where I choose to go. I can’t think of a better way to get to grips with this corner of the British countryside than spending it immersed in the flora and fauna before feasting on its riches.
How to do it
Hunter Gather Cook (07921 863768; huntergathercook.com) offers Seasonal Day Courses from 10am to 6pm for £180pp. The next courses are on Nov 6, March 19, April 2 and April 23.