CHRISTMAS dinner? Why not a fine pheasant or three. Some say they are but free-range chickens with pretty feathers/ These ‘Chinese takeaways’ are at home in the distant east where 56 different species enjoy the marshes and mountains of China and the Himalayas, Japan and Formosa.
The birds we have in Britain now are hybrids of six. In my garden at this very moment is one that could be called a Southern Caucasian. He is rich copper and dark green with no ring round his neck. Another, with white collar is a Mongolian.
There is folklore that pheasants should be hung and hung again. Some claim the ensuing scent induces ecstasy. Well it takes all sorts.
Alexander Innes Shand, famous a century ago despite the lack of TV, said in 1896: “Though there are some who confess to a sentimental passion for the thighs and trail of snipe, woodcock and plover, yet the most illustrious gastronomists have, with unanimous consent, pronounced the pheasant the very best of game, It is the link between wild game birds and the farmyard capon.”
He warned diners, however, against the thigh of an elderly male.
“But nothing can in any way compare with the softly subdued, yet penetrating savour of a feminine leg of ample proportion, especially when there is a gartering of yellow fat.”
He continued: “ Cock birds are usually given as presents, but they must be young, Otherwise the chef must have a touch of genius in his regulation of the fire. Then the rich, gay colouring of his emperor’s clothes can be, as with magic, transfigured to the golden glow of his glorified 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 mourner who will think forever fondly of him, even when he is finally disposed of.”
There are apparently 50 ways to cook a pheasant. I have looked through them all, but merely ring the changes on onions or shallots, cream, butter, eggs, dripping, honey and bacon, mushrooms, parsley and flour, chestnuts, celery and gamechips.
Much depends on what sort of life the old lad has led. He probably became too fat on sweetcorn. I have, however, found them stuffed with 300 maggots of St Mark’s flies.
Some say the crop should be left intact, which makes a famous gravy, and there are those who leave the insides quite intact. One would need port wine by the pint to suffer such a feast.
Whatever your choice of celebration this Christmas, whether alone in your garret or in the bosom of your family and friends, you could do worse than keep company with the emperor.
Treat him with care if he be an old male. Better a luscious female with legs of ample proportion.
Richard Williamson - nature notes