Pheasants range from delicate to stringy

Southern Caucasian pheasant in Richard Willliamson's garden
Southern Caucasian pheasant in Richard Willliamson's garden

THE pheasant is a noble bird, in dress, flight and oven, and a worthy replacement for the obese turkey at Christmas dinner.

It requires serious background reading to acquaint the palate with the history of its sublime flavour.

That is best captured by the Victorian chef and epicurean, Alexander Innes Shand, who wrote appetizingly in the Fur, Feather and Fish series of game books published by Longmans in 1895 and now collectors’ items.

I am surrounded by pheasants in this wood, principally ring necks, but also Southern Caucasians and the occasional Old English.

Some are Bohemian, with pale feathers, and many have ancestry obvious from the main five true species imported from Japan, China and Afghanistan over centuries. The birds here belong to the keeper who runs the business and I buy mine from the supermarket and watch those on my lawn.

It is wonderful to read how Shand describes the extraordinary efforts of chefs in the court of Louis XV to outcook each other, in order to satisfy the nouveau riche class of wealthy bankers and conglomerate landowners.

These ‘plats de luxe’ Shand protested against as symptoms of a ‘vicious refinement of a sated civilisation which will have novelty at any price’.

The so-called nobility had their pheasants overcooked with truffles and ice cream, ‘shredded and souffled with spices and sauces into a pungency that was injurious to the delicate flavour of a pheasant, quite masking its simple gravy, delicate as golden sherry’.

Shand was much in favour of the female leg of ample proportion, especially if it had a gartering of the yellow fat.

“We envy no-one,” he continued, “who tries manfully to tackle the thigh of a middle-aged or elderly male.”

So, with birds ranging widely from the delicate to the stringy, and being, like us, the product of what they had eaten in life, recipes were vital. “Select those that have flavoured themselves,” was the golden rule.

There are at least fifty recipes for pheasant, all of which ring changes on shallots, dripping, tomatoes, parsley, mushrooms, butter, eggs and flour.

Shand thought this ‘emperor of the woods’ and his gay clothes, can be as with magi transformed to the golden flow of his florified demise, when he melts in a gush of tender sympathy to the slightest incision, and the sweet savour of his virtues and well-spent life goes up into the nostrils of the mourners who think forever fondly of him even when he is finally disposed of.”

He thought vegetables would merely compete with this superb presence on the late, so only browned breadcrumbs and potato chips were allowed.

Whether you entertain an old male or a luscious female at your table this Christmas, treat them with reverence and they may well surprise you with their tales of Tartary and distant East.

May your Christmas be merry and happy until we meet again in the New Year.

Richard Williamson