The sixth of September, 2011: you can’t wash your hands in a bishop

To County Durham! It’s a lovely part of the world, but that’s not why I was there. I was there because I was writing an article about the Birds of Durham Heritage Project, which led me to Bishop Middleham (they’re very big on bishops in Durham: my favourite Bishop of Durham, since you ask, is Ranulf Flambard (1060-1128), who once, while travelling, tried to seduce his host’s daughter, and ended up getting locked in her bedroom – but then I’m a sucker for any story that ends with the words ‘the lustful bishop within’).

Bishop Middleham is best known not for its bishops (I didn’t see any bishops there; possibly they were crouching in the undergrowth) but for the bee-eaters that came to stay there one summer. This sparked what they call a ‘mass twitch’. It sounds like an occupational disease afflicting bishops, but in fact it’s an impromptu convention of bearded men with telescopes, provoked by the appearance of an avian rarity.

Of course, there were no bee-eaters there when I went. There weren’t even any bees. But, to my considerable surprise, there were some bison.

(This is starting to sound like an episode of Bric-a-Brac with Brian Cant. Would that it were.)

The North American bison of Farnless Farm share their meadows with deer, goats, unsettlingly small ponies and one of the north-east’s largest populations of corn buntings. They live a happy life, cudding organically there beside the A177.

Then they get turned into burgers. They also get turned into steaks, mince and a variety of other tasty cuts (I seem to remember reading that the Native Americans used to use the tongue of the buffalo as a hairbrush, but Farnless Farm apparently draws the line there; there weren’t any in the farm shop, anyway). I only tried the burgers.

History suggests that I chose unwisely: I should have opted for Buffalo Hump Soup (“superior to any soup served in the “best” hotels of New York and Philadelphia” – Susan Maguffin, 1846-7) and/or Buffalo Marrow (“superior to the best butter or most delicate oil” – ibid).

Anyway, the nice lady in the shop talked up bison as a sort of beef lite, which wasn’t inaccurate, but the bison I tried was far more gamey and livery than beef (in a good way, unless you don’t like game or liver, in which case in a bad way). What it tasted of more than anything was woodpigeon.

Well, more than anything else I’ve tasted, anyway. It might taste more like buffalo, I wouldn’t know. Or bee-eater. Or bee. Or bishop.



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