We head to the borders of Exmoor National Park for a Bear Grylls-meets-Downton Abbey experience
Words: Millie Milliken Photos: Luna Photography
I’ve got blood on my hands. Literally. Poor Deirdra didn’t know what was coming (me, with a hacksaw). I’m on a farm in Devon and the challenge for my fellow team members and I is to chop and trim a fallow deer (aided by an expert butcher) in five hours for a very special banquet. If we don’t, no one eats – the steaks are high.
I’m test-running The F.E.A.S.T Project. Based on the concept of ‘finding excellence around a shared table’, it encourages groups to rediscover the benefits of earning a meal by either fly-fishing, foraging, butchering or (clay) shooting for their food. Today’s drizzly weather makes it all feel a little daunting, but the fire that greets my colleague Ella and me in the foyer of Huntsham Court (our home for the next 24 hours) lifts our spirits nicely.
Over tea and biscuits, founders Lynn Blades and Mari Carras split us into teams and introduce us to our ‘coaches’. I wave Ella goodbye (she’s off fly-fishing) and head to nearby Pipers Farm. Owner Peter gets straight down to business, talking us through how to butcher our venison without wasting a scrap. Once I get over the initial squeamishness of cutting through skin, the business of making each cut proves surprisingly relaxing. We’re not just learning skills either: did you know a ‘paddywhack’ is a ligament that relieves cattle of the weight of their heads?
With our exuberant coach Alastair keeping his eye on the clock, we steadily build up our cuts. Shoulder blades are separated from neck fillets, seams are parted, and just before our allotted five hours are up, we’re rushing 35 steaks, a French-trimmed rack, a rolled loin, two kidneys, sweetbreads and an abundance of mince to chef Peter Mundy’s prep kitchen.
Back at Huntsham, the teams reunite to regale each other with stories over hot toddies. The evening is less strenuous: after cocktails and canapés in the book-lined Great Hall, we take our seats for the feast. With each course representing a team, the respective coaches take turns to introduce their dish, peppered with stories of their experiences. The foragers’ chestnut and nettle risotto precedes a trio of the fisherman’s trout. A confit leg and smoked breast of duck duo comes with a funny anecdote about one trigger-happy clay-pigeon shooter before our nose-to-tail venison platter arrives – Deirdra does us proud.
After the day’s excitement (and a few nightcaps), our bedrooms call. I can’t wait to tell the office about my newly learned skill. I’m not sure the veggies will be impressed, but I’ll never take a well-trimmed rack for granted again.
The F.E.A.S.T Project can be booked for one (£1,175pp) or two (£1,500pp) nights for up to 30 guests. Prices include all the activities, return travel from London Paddington, cocktails and canapés, full-board accommodation and a gift hamper for all participants.
Huntsham Court, Tiverton, Devon, EX16 7NA | tel: 020 3858 0828
This article was first published in Squaremeal Venues + Events, Summer/Spring 2017