“Phasianus versicolour” by William Home Lizars, circa 1840
The world is divided between those who know how to pluck pheasants, and those who don’t. That said, I rarely pluck pheasants or game now. Last year we were given a brace of snipe: I spent a long Saturday afternoon plucking and dressing and then hoovering up the subsequent mess and despite considerable effort the finished result was, frankly, disappointing. Why go to all the fuss when you can buy a properly hung, trussed and plucked bird from a decent butcher for a few pounds?
And then what to do with it? The classic English pheasant casserole can be good, more often than not it isn’t. For once, the fusspots have a point. It’s Gothic.
I like to remove all the redundant boney bits and pieces fifteen minutes or so before serving. The liquid can then be strained into a separate saucepan, thickened up with a dollop of redcurrant jelly (or a tablespoon of butter and flour roux), reduced at a high heat, flavoured with crushed juniper berries and then re-united with the pheasant and garnished (‘orrible word!) with finely chopped parsley, parsnip chips or crutons.
I remember a rather stylish lunch party in Oxfordshire where our hosts served pheasant casserole in large blue and white antique Staffordshire tureens, washed down with silver tankards of frothy Black Velvet- a fabulous combination.
Another solution is to joint the pheasant into three pieces, and braise it in wine and water at a low heat; in effect creating its own stock. I found this recipe in Pierre Koffman’s Memories of Gascony, currently one of my favourite cookery books. This is a wonderful book. Simple French country cooking at its best, limited ingredients needed; high on technique. His Gratin d’Haricots Verts is to die for: French green beans seved with a garlic and onion infused creamy sauce and Bayonne ham.
The pheasant is cut into three pieces (by separating the wings from the rest of the body), rolled in seasoned flour and fried in duck fat until golden brown. Pour off the surplus fat from the pan, and deglaze with 300ml pint of white wine. Reduce by half and add 100ml boiling water and a bouquet garni. The heat is then turned down to low, and the casserole simmered on a low heat for about 45 minutes, or until the pheasant is tender.
Once done, the pheasant is removed, the stock reduced to 100ml and 200ml of double cream added to the sauce. Add 100g freshly shelled walnuts, remove the bouquet garni and check the seasoning. Pour the thickened sauce over the bird.
In practice, I found it easiest to slice off the breasts and serve them on the plate, with the spooned creamy sauce. You could also make this with chestnuts, and I think that would work really well. An idea for Christmas, perhaps?