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Baroque Beano
July/August 2017

One of the prettiest houses in England: Aynhoe Park, Oxfordshire

Today’s exquisitely antique was the 18th-century’s McMansion. In 1615, the Cartwright family built a house at Aynhoe, near Banbury, which was knocked about in the aftermath of the Battle of Naseby. After the Restoration the Cartwrights commissioned improvements: first from Charles II’s master of masonry, Edward Marshall, and in 1707 from the architect Thomas Archer, whose style was influenced by the late Italian baroque. The result — a pedimented central block flanked by two exquisite low pavilions — might now be considered one of the prettiest houses in England, but one can imagine the county sneering at Aynhoe’s new façade from the discomfort of their dark, smoky Jacobean drawing rooms. So light, so airy, so terribly common. Perhaps, then, the future ought to decide on the present décor of the house, whose beautiful spare lines are somewhat compromised by the addition of vast plaster reproductions of classical statues and some rather alarming taxidermy. A polar bear in a jaunty cap greeted me in the hall, and there was a unicorn (well, a stuffed horse with a narwhal’s horn stuck on) reclining in the dining-room. As the sun set over the Cherwell valley, a lady dressed as Pierrette was doing some seriously advanced pole dancing on a ten-metre high hoop next to the firebowls, and a herd of white deer — real ones — strolled up the lawn.

I was down for a very grand evening hosted by Rolls-Royce to introduce a collaboration between Aynhoe and Brett Graham, the two-Michelin-starred chef at The Ledbury in Notting Hill. Brett is raising deer in the park, though you don’t get to eat the white ones. He took me outside with the binoculars so we could watch some tiny new fauns gangling by the ha-ha, then for a pre-service tasting of their ancestors in the kitchen.

The maxim that we eat with our eyes usually holds good, but venison, like baroque architecture, can be tricksy. “The thing is with deer, you need that rush of warm blood in your mouth,” Brett explained.

As venison is so lean, achieving this is far more complicated that with, say, rib-eye steak. Fat retains heat longer than protein, so a deer fillet cooked rare may become unpleasantly chilly and gelatinous at the centre after the meat has been rested. Brett’s assistant presented three morsels, sliced and sprinkled with salt, and the one which I would have chosen on sight as the correct cuisson, still dark red in the middle, proved to be just that, too smooth and ungiving. High temperature, longer rest than you think, and don’t be put off if you think it looks medium, I learned. We also tasted the freshly-churned goats’ butter and I managed to scarf down a Blyton-sized slice of lemon drizzle cake at the highly genteel tea-party in the library, so I was perfectly set up for the eight courses Brett’s team were serenely preparing for the Roller beano.

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