I am looking forward to Christmas dinner this year. It will be exactly the same as Christmas dinner last year – and, unless there is some sort of divine intervention, the same as Christmas dinner next year, I hope.
While the rest of the extended members of my family are gorging themselves on turkey, I will be eating my favourite meat – roast pheasant.
I am not a good carnivore and have been a vegetarian, but I believe that, as evolution has given me ‘canine’ teeth – the teeth of the carnivore/omnivore – then I should use them properly.
Pheasants, wild or released, provide delicious, white, healthy, free-range meat. A shot pheasant has a more dignified end than the millions of cockerels, turkeys and geese that meet theirs in an industrial-scale poultry abattoir. I write this as someone who does not shoot, hunt or fish – but I like to see pheasants off the dinner plate as well as on.
In sunlight, their plumage is iridescent and spectacular. They may be aliens, but I like them. They first became known to Europeans around the Black Sea area but they stretch on throughout Asia, including the foothills of the Himalayas. It is thought that they were first brought to Britain by the Romans.
When I was a boy on the small Cambridgeshire farm where I still live, we often had pheasant chicks being reared by bantams. If the hay was cut and a nest was exposed, we would try to rescue the eggs and put them under a broody foster mother before the crows and magpies arrived on the scene.
Eventually, those that survived would be released – but they were immediately in danger. Jim, the old First World War veteran who worked on the farm, was in a state of constant warfare with pheasants – ‘bloody ol’ long-tails’. The shooting season for pheasants officially lasts from 1st October until 1st February, but Jim’s season lasted the whole year through with his single-barrelled shotgun.
Sporting men believed that only decent pheasants in flight should be shot – but Jim believed any pheasant was ‘game’ – walking, running or perching. Thank you, Jim, for helping me get an appreciation for roast pheasant early on.
And now for the beautiful cock pheasant that has been in the freezer since late October. Although neither Lulu (Mrs Page) nor I shoot, we do ‘beat’ once or twice a year. That is, we join a group of locals and, in a long, straight line, we try to drive the pheasants towards the guns.
My Christmas pheasant came from near the Saham Hills in Norfolk. Now, a ‘Norfolk mile’ is so named because it is usually longer than a normal, English mile thanks to all the bends in the road. So what is a ‘Norfolk hill’? The Saham Hills are lined up on the edge of the Breckland – an attractive piece of countryside. But hills? I never saw one all day. Noël Coward was right about Norfolk: very flat, very flat indeed.
There were some real old Norfolk accents in our ‘beater wagon’ – all with local ‘hooms’. With hundreds of tightly packed new houses around the villages, the ‘genuine ol’ Norfolk boy and gal’ are rapidly becoming an endangered species, and so is the accent – what a tragedy.
There was a wide variety of beaters. Sid informed me, ‘That ol’ boy ’as been away workin’ with crocodiles and snakes. Milking the snakes for vermin [venom].’ Well, somebody’s got to do it.
What a good day – stops for smoked salmon sandwiches and sausage rolls, with sloe gin, and the beaters and ‘guns’ all mixed in together. By mid-afternoon, eighty pheasants had been shot – my Christmas dinner had been given to me and we sat down to eat beef Wellington, followed by the best bit of Stilton I have tasted for years.
Now the important part. The best Christmas pheasant has to be hung for a week to ten days, and then plucked before it starts to turn green in warm weather. Those who don’t know any better make ‘pheasant casserole’ – better known as ‘stew’. Usually a sign that the pheasant has been left hanging too long and is cooked before the maggots appear.
Those who know how to hang, pluck and cook pheasant, roast it. Lulu rubs butter into the breast, together with a few rashers of streaky bacon to keep the meat beautifully moist. One family friend would try to achieve the same thing by stuffing the carcass with grapes – a waste of grapes in my view.
What goes with the pheasant is as important as the pheasant itself. Thick gravy made from the giblets – my old mother could make wonderful gravy, and Lulu can match her; our romance was based on love and taste buds. Then come Brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and bread sauce – and I also like swede. Bread sauce is indispensable, as are chipolatas and stuffing – not one of the numerous contrived swanky stuffings, but good old parsley and thyme or chestnut. But now the big question: where do you get parsley and thyme stuffing from these days? I will have to rely on an enlightened Father Christmas, who understands the joys of the greatest of all game birds.
Robin Page is chairman of the Countryside Restoration Trust and a former presenter of ‘One Man and His Dog’