The Pheasants are Revolting
Is it just me or do all chef’s hearts sink on August 31st and you realize its “Pheasant Season” again. Usually we are reminded by our friendly, helpful meat supplier (or ‘Purveyor of High Class Meat and Poultry, licensed to sell Game’) who on the first day of the season rings to offer you the first birds.
The more astute chefs will question the purveyor about hanging times when it will transpire that these offerings are the scrag end of last year’s shoot, mercifully put to death at the end of the season and frozen for their debut a year later.
Having politely refused these sad creatures (pheasant is dry enough without being frozen for months) we make a deal to have an order from the first shoot when they have hung for a bit and then start planning menus around them knowing it is a very popular dish with the dining out public.
Now I have a problem with game because I am not particularly fond of it myself and find it hard to assess the quality of a dish that I am not partial to. What really gets me is whether it is necessary to shoot pheasants all.
Only an idiot would believe the things are actually wild. They’re bred in captivity, let out into a friendly forest, fed on corn and generally nurtured; free range perhaps- wild never. They get so fat their ability to fly just about gets them into a tree to avoid foxes killing them and to provide a target for so called sportsmen.
It is a bizarre situation and therefore so terribly British that most game is shot by someone who pays for the privilege, is not interested in the product and thereby subsidizes the price to the consumer. A lot are shot by amateurs, averagely successful business men, accountants and bank managers whose concept of the countryside comes from watching a couple of episodes of Emmerdale Farm. They get an idea in their heads that putting on a Barbour and green wellingtons and striding through the bracken with a shotgun and a dog will make them a country squire for the weekend. It goes without saying that they are a lousy shot, shooting anything as soon as it moves resulting in birds that look as though they have been machine gunned.
These mangled specimens are, of course, useless for the pot but even the less peppered ones are a difficult raw material to present attractively. With luck they will have been plucked and eviscerated by your supplier (if not remember you’ll be doing overtime). But there is a further catalogue of problems. Firstly bones will be broken by the impact of lead shot, so when trussed it will look like the bird equivalent of the Hunchback of Notre Dame apart from the fact that pheasant bone splinters are hard and sharp.
Sometimes the shot ruptures parts of the intestine and internal organs giving the rear end of the bird a delightful green tinge. You may discover on jointing or carving the birds the occasional blood clot. Does this scenario sound familiar:- You’re up to your arm pits in a busy service. A favoured customer orders pheasant and sends you out a drink just so you know its him. You know and I know there is no favouritism, you cook the same for everyone, no bigger portion no special deals. But hey! You’ll probably meet this guy afterwards and you want his praise, he’s a real person not just a number on an order chit, so you find yourself picking out the choicest, the plumpest, the most seamless pheasant, you cook it with care, tending it so it will be point cooked, juicy and tender. You taste the sauce seasoning it and balancing the flavour. You joint that perfect leg laying it on the sauce just so. You plan to carve the breast and fan it out next to the leg. You cut into the meat of the breast and there it is buried in the deepest part of the flesh, a big, undercooked, dark, bloody blood clot.
And then there are the fur balls, Pheasants have a sort of down under their feathers and because pieces of lead shot are spinning as they are propelled from the gun they get wrapped in this fur prior to being plunged into the flesh:- a rather unpleasant sort of larding process. I think you may be beginning to see why they are not my favourite dish. I won’t even begin to go into my prejudices on extensive hanging of game save to say that anyone who enjoys all that and prefers it rotting into the bargain might benefit from care in the community.
Now a solution – perhaps. Has anyone thought of farming pheasants? Seeing as they are half farmed any way wouldn’t it be kinder when they reach their peak of edibility to despatch them as humanely as possible so they can reach the table looking less like a casualty of war and more like a piece of meat. I for one would happily pay more and those bank managers and accountants can go and do a bit of target practise.