All morning the smell of pheasant roasting had me hovering in the kitchen. Now I was ready. On my plate was a perfect slice of white breastmeat (with a couple of dark spots of lead shot), a drumstick, a crisp rasher of bacon curved where it had been placed over the pheasant to baste it, and a browned, crunchy pork chipolata sausage. Alongside were potatoes, one golden from the roasting fat, the other a fluffy white; a slice of stuffing, brown outside from the pheasant juices, pale green inside from the herbs; ruby red currant jelly; dark brown pheasant gravy; golden, buttery, mashed swede (rutabaga); and steamed dark green kale tips.
My father, though, was still carving, something he did with great skill. The rest of the family, seated round the seersucker tablecloth in the breakfast room where we ate all our meals, were still passing the vegetables around.
Finally, everyone was served and we could start eating. I’d been waiting since the year before for pheasant, my favorite meat dish by far.
Preparations for our Christmas dinner began the preceding spring. One of my uncles bought a couple of dozen pheasant chicks, feeding them until they were big enough to fend for themselves. Sometimes he put their wire cages in the trees and shrubs lining the track that led from the farmyard gate to the fields to the north of the farmhouse. Other times he opted for the copse alongside the dairy buildings a couple of hundred yards down the road.
Come early December, we had a shoot (another one came in February), something we could do because we owned the farm on which I grew up. Most of the rest of the land we farmed belonged to a big estate. The owners, like all big landowners, “kept the shooting,” meaning that only they and their guests could shoot on the land. They employed a gamekeeper, and, I imagined, invited guests to the kind of house parties that I read about in detective stories.
Our kind of shoot was much more homespun. It was an excuse for usually isolated farmers, countrymen with weathered faces and hands roughened by farm work, to have a day off, enjoy the gossip, and get their Christmas dinner. Half a dozen were invited, including various uncles and the small farmer across the valley who helped bale hay in the summer.
My father did not shoot for pleasure (although he would when necessary, sitting on the front of the Land Rover at night as one of us drove it slowly along, firing at vermin, rabbits with myxomatosis). On this occasion, though, he joined the two farm laborers as a beater, moving the pheasants and the hares out of their cover. We children were kept inside.
The shoot went on all day, broken only for a light lunch of pork pies and bottled beer served outdoors in the long open barn of Chilmark stone. At the end of the day, the game was divided up: a brace of pheasant to every participant, a brace to neighboring farmers since their crops had helped feed the birds, a brace to us, and the hares to my paternal grandmother who made the best jugged hare ever (except for me).
For the next couple of weeks, the Christmas pheasants hung in the cheese room, a cold north facing room where the temperature would not have been much above freezing with iron-legged tables round the walls. The room was used for tools since milk pricing policies and lack of labor made cheesemaking unprofitable. We’d peek in from time to time. The opening of the door set the birds twisting on their rope looped over a hook in the ceiling. A few more drops of blood fell on the flagstones. Hanging is absolutely necessary, as Hank Shaw of Hunter, Angler, Gardener, Cook explains. It is not the same as going bad.
A couple of days before Christmas, one of the farm workers plucked the pheasants in what we called the coal shed but was in fact an extension of the kitchen that held the old bread oven, by then no longer in use. Seated on the milking stool, he quickly disposed of the brilliant feathers into an old sack, leaving two much-diminished, red-grey carcasses not much bigger than Cornish game hens.
On Christmas Eve, we prepared Christmas dinner around the formica topped kitchen table over the covered well. “It was important” my mother always intoned, “that you have the vegetables that the pheasant eat,” though quite why was unclear. Anyway that meant the field crops, swede (rutabaga) and kale, usually fed to the dairy cattle, not humans. On this rare occasion, she peeled and cut up the big, round rutabagas and trimmed the leaves from the kale. The Christmas puddings, made in quantity on alternate years since they were such a fiddle to make, were taken from the pantry. The cream was skimmed from the top of the milk pail to accompany them. The redcurrant jelly, made earlier in the summer from fruit gathered from the bushes along the wall between the back yard and the farm yard, was spooned into a bowl.
We were dispatched to the garden, gathering the last parsley and thyme of the year, wet and cold or even frosted, and coming in and chopping it finely, the fresh smells wafting through the kitchen. Then we were set to making fresh breadcrumbs, moving the bread over a fine wire sieve set over a plate or mixing bowl, a time consuming task that produced the finest of crumbs. If I could, I loved preparing the beef suet, the fine white fat from around the kidney, grating it into small pieces, taking out the membrane, and rubbing in a little flour to keep the granules distinct. The finely chopped parsley and thyme, suet, fresh breadcrumbs, an egg and salt and pepper were mixed up. This stuffing was much herbier and much firmer than an American stuffing.
Drawing the pheasants was my father’s job, or rather his chance to satisfy his curiosity, and the most exciting bit for us. Discarding the innards, including the coily windpipe, he kept the crop (the first part of the bird’s digestive system). He would carefully cut this open and take out the contents. Then we would try to figure out where the bird had been. Was it eating our kale? Was it eating the maize that Major K. on the next door farm put down for his birds? Or had it flown yet further afield?
So now, finally, it was time to eat. The pheasant was tender and oh so tasty. The meat pulled off the leg sinews. The tiny flecks of yellow fat. The brown skin. Nothing like it.There wasn’t much of it of course, with eight or ten people round the table and two tiny birds.
Only once in the United States have I had a chance to eat something similar when a partridge broke its neck flying into a neighbor’s plate-glass window and I had a chance to hang it properly in my garage. The pheasants from a mail order place specialising in game were like small tough chicken with about as much taste. What a disappointment.
Even in England, they are not always properly hung. As shooting has grown n popularity as landowners seek to make money by it, pheasants are now widely available. I bought some from a butcher who had wrapped them in plastic and they were going rotten. Quite horrid.
**Red currants make the most wonderful tart jelly to go with lamb, mutton, or game. Rowan berries are good too.